Anatomy of an Organic Trend, or “What I Learned from #ZebraGirl”

I spend most of my day signed into Twitter (I hate leaving it behind when I leave my desk) and have my Trending Topics set to Dallas-Fort Worth. Cody our Internet marketing specialist pointed out to me that #ZebraGirl was trending, and neither of us knew what that was, let alone how it ended up the third-most popular topic on Twitter for DFW.

It took awhile looking through the search results for #zebragirl to figure out why people were talking about it, but Cody and I quickly discovered people were talking about a girl on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton who was wearing a two piece black and white outfit in a psychedelic print, and they had nicknamed her Zebra Girl. People sent in “sightings” of Zebra Girl, and there seemed to be an unwritten rule that someone SHOULD tell her, but no one was going to.

In an hour or so since it began, it has become the second highest trending topic, second only to Promoted Trend #subwayfan. It’s trending higher than “Marvin’s Room”, the name of a new single by hip-hop artist Drake which was organically trending nationally. Someone was tweeting about this girl every ten seconds, and that’s not even at the peak of the trend.

The trick to this becoming an organic trend was that it was left alone, just like any other piece of bad PR. But in this case there was also a mystery- who was this girl? Where was she going? People were out on campus trying to spot her. If this were guerrilla marketing, she’d have some sort of reward for those who found her in the form of a promotion or free product. But the authenticity here is what’s keeping the trend going and why people have been talking about a pair of leggings all afternoon. This wouldn’t continue if people were trying to find the BRAND NAME Zebra Girl Spokesperson. It wouldn’t be fun OR funny to find her around campus. The allure is in the idea that her outfit looks insane and she ostensibly doesn’t know.

Authentic intrigue is the key to establishing a social media trend. Upset the ordinary and people will talk about you. Both Alamo Drafthouse and NYC restaurant Jo’s have figured this out recently by creating the best anti-texting PSA ever and writing a scathing rebuttal to a Yelp Review respectively. They threw out “business as usual” (some people might argue it flies in the face of “the customer is always right” to tell people their business isn’t welcome if they act up) and it got them serious attention. You’d think this would be an obvious proposition, but the common approach seems to be “sneak in the marketing and see if they notice” a la Virgin Mobile’s new “Sparah” campaign. You can’t tell me Ashton Kutcher was really excited about that.

No, the hardest thing to do in social media is simply to be interesting, and too many people afraid to be different. But go against the norm, and organic trends are yours.