Social Media Prediction: Lessons from Billboard’s Top 40 chart

What if you had a way to predict the future?

It turns out that by doing a relatively straightforward interpretation of social media conversations, you can make some educated guesses about what people are going to be discussing the next day.

If you are monitoring what people are saying about your brand on social media (and you should be), the ability to predict what people will be saying can help you address a crisis before it becomes a crisis.

If you are a political party or candidate that is following what your citizens are talking about on social media (and you should be), this can give you the ability to know what issues are going to be hot tomorrow.  When you know that, you can get out in front of issues just before they are about to hit big.

To understand how you might do this, I want you to stop thinking about social media for a  second and think about the Billboard Top 40 list of pop music.

In the Top 40 list, the number 1 song is vastly more popular than the number 40 song.  But once a song enters the top 40 list, you want to keep an eye on it – it might be the next mega-hit.  If you were to place bets on which song will make it to the Top 10 list next week, your odds would be better on song #38 than on song #88.

You see a similar pattern in the words that get used in social media conversations.

If you do any search on the Twitter stream on any given day, there will be a handful of words that are mentioned the most frequently.   Let’s call these the “Top Words”.  This is analogous to the Billboard Top 10 list.   The top words tell you what is dominating the conversation on that day.

But what if you want to know what will be dominating the conversation tomorrow,  not today?

For that, you can look at the “Secondary Words”.   Think of these as the songs that are numbers 11 through 40 on the Billboard list.

Secondary words are words that are:

  • On their way out of being Top Words
  • On their way towards being Top Words
  • Will sit in that category for a while and then move out, never making it to the top

Imagine that for every word that appears in your search, you create a bar with the height equal to how many times that word was mentioned.  You end up with a graph that looks like this.


No matter what the search is, and what the day is, the graph always ends up having this kind of shape.  Usually, there are only a few words that appear very frequently (Top Words), some more words that appear somewhat less frequently (Secondary Words), and then most of the words don’t occur especially frequently.

Just like songs that are number 11 through 40, the secondary words, can give you very strong clues as to what is going to be a big topic the next day.

Imagine that you are a brand that has just had some kind of PR slip up.  You can do this kind of analysis to determine how worried you should be about it.  Are the words related to the scandal in the long tail of words?  If so, you can probably rest easy.  If the scandal words are in the secondary category you can start bracing yourself with your PR machine.

That’s it.  That’s the trick to predicting the future.

This kind of analysis is so straightforward, I am surprised that it is not supported by more social media analytics tools.  I have evaluated a lot of them and Nexamaster by Nexalogy is the only tool that I know of that makes this kind of interpretation a cinch without having to export your data to Excel and do it manually.

Here is the key point. The conversations that people are having about you on social media tell you what they are thinking about.   Listen effectively, and you will know what they might be thinking about tomorrow.