One of the most powerful concepts to understand in PR and marketing metrics is the concept of an inflection point. Mathematically, the concept of an inflection point is based in calculus.
I’ll wait for the panicked screams to subside.
For the few brave marketers and PR folks who have not immediately closed your browser windows or put down your mobile phones, let’s dig in. First, let’s look at the archetypical lifecycle chart for a major cultural trend or newsworthy story, whether it’s the number of views of Gangnam Style or shares of a Re/Code article.
So far, so good. Now, as a marketer or PR pro, you don’t want to be doing your best work at the beginning, point A, when there’s no buzz and no one talking about the topic. That’s boiling the ocean at best.
Likewise, you don’t want to do your best work at the end, at point D or later. Everyone’s talking about it; it’s not news, and it’s become practically a cultural institution. No one gets buzz out of promoting Gangnam Style in 2014. No one gets buzz out of setting up a Facebook Page for their brand in 2014.
Where you want to do your best work is between points B and C, when the trend is taking off, but hasn’t gone big yet. That’s the point at which PR works best – paddling out to meet the wave just as it’s coming on shore and riding it to incredible heights. That’s the inflection point. In calculus, the inflection point is the point at which the curve of the line changes steepness, going from less steep to more steep or vice versa. Something that’s trending has an increasing amount of steepness in its metrics. If you’ve ever used a treadmill or stair climber at the gym, you know exactly when you hit an inflection point in the workout program, because the workout gets a whole lot harder.
The trick with this concept is figuring out what’s going to trend, what’s going to break out and take off, and what’s not. Lots and lots of companies, brands, products, and concepts are at point A and stay there for the duration of their existences. The trick is measuring when something makes the transition from A to B.
The mathematical way to figure this out is by calculating the second order derivative of the curve; however, assuming that you’re not thrilled about dusting off your calculus books, there are easier ways to find these trends. Let’s start with Google Trends, which is a free and simple tool to use for measuring trends. Take any topic, any brand, any competitor, any product or service, and plug it into Google Trends. Where are the inflection points? Where are things starting to take off? Here’s a quick look at the new Tonight Show host, Jimmy Fallon, and two sequential inflection points indicating his growing popularity:
Jimmy’s definitely trending upwards, and if you’re pitching his show, it’s likely gotten much harder to do so.
Compare this with a look at 3D printing and the Internet of Things:
The Internet of Things is beginning to trend upwards, but hasn’t yet taken off the way 3D printing has. That said, the red line representing the Internet of Things is getting more and more steep. If you had to place your bets on a story topic, that’s a good angle to take.
It’s equally important to recognize when something has trended, when its run has largely concluded, and you won’t get any significant lift out of your efforts. This is an inflection point in the opposite direction, when the steepness of the curve diminishes. Think of it as the cool down period on your stair climb or treadmill workout. The intensity has let up – and that means the opportunities for earning ink have let up, too. Here’s a look at the search trend for Gangnam Style.
We see the same points of ascension, A-C. At point D, the second major inflection point occurs, where the trend loses steam. Point E represents the slow decline as interest in the song wanes. If you’re looking for story angles and you see a topic trend chart that has points D and E, don’t pitch that angle if you can avoid it. You won’t get enough juice for the effort of the squeeze.
Understanding inflection points doesn’t necessarily require working knowledge of calculus, but it’s definitely something you must learn to recognize in trend charts to know what you should and shouldn’t be working on from a public relations perspective.
Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology