Things come into style and things go out of style. It's true for fashion, baby names, and even content creation.
Before Casey Neistat, daily vlogging on YouTube wasn't popular. As Casey made daily vlogging interesting, more and more people began making their own vlogs!
But, after a while, viewers (and creators) got bored and moved on to new video formats.
MrBeast pioneered the large-scale, game show spectacle on YouTube. As he grew, tons of channels began mimicking that format – they even mimicked his open-mouthed thumbnail style! But, fast forward a few years, and people are now asking, "What is the new trend on YouTube?"
We see new popular formats pop up – people like Sam Sulek who are posting long-form, lightly-edited videos and seeing a ton of success. We don't know if that will become a dominant trend or not – but people are certainly beginning to emulate it.
Everything that becomes popular was pioneered by someone before it was popular. And everything that becomes popular eventually becomes stale and unpopular, too.
Trends are like a pendulum. The pendulum itself represents the culture's collective attention and it swings from one extreme to another. As it swings closer to one end of the spectrum, it picks up speed and momentum – but it has a limit.
At some point, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. What was cool becomes uncool, and what was uncool becomes cool (and back and forth and back and forth).
Leading the pendulum
The pendulum is a powerful force. You want to be just ahead of the pendulum. You want to be ahead of the culture in identifying a different approach so that you feel momentum at your back as the culture catches up.
When you're ahead of the pendulum, you feel it. More and more people want to consume this type of content, so you start getting more attention than before for the same effort.
You can only get ahead of the pendulum by innovating. You have to experiment with new styles and approaches – which may fall flat.
I often think of Dan Koe's early animation work on Instagram (December 2022).
He may not have been the first to combine animation and Reels, but he was one of the first to popularize it – and it blew up his Instagram account. It was a perfect pairing – a new feature (Reels) and a new format (animation). Not only did he get the tailwinds of finding an engaging format people enjoyed, but he did it within a product feature that was also picking up steam.
Sahil Bloom has a similar story. He's publicly said many times that he was the beneficiary of being one of the first power users of threads on Twitter.
Another lesser-known example is Tim Urban, the author behind Wait But Why. He told me on the podcast that in 2013, he got a little bit lucky. In 2013, Facebook was proving to advertisers that they could drive a ton of traffic to webpages – and he caught the wave early.
"This is when BuzzFeed was really blowing up. This is when Upworthy came out of nowhere blew up, Viral Nova...there were all these sites that blew up and Wait But Why happened to be starting at the same time. So we would pay something like $500. And it would go to like half a million newsfeeds." - Tim Urban
The pendulum is a kingmaker.
Chasing the pendulum
On a subconscious level, you probably already know that you need to be ahead of the trend to reap the benefits. But most of us are risk-averse. Even if you're generally less risk-averse than most others, human nature is to err on the side of safety (even psychological safety). So instead of innovating, we try and identify what others are doing that is "working" and emulate them.
If your eyes are open and you identify a trend early, this can work. Some people saw Dan's animation work and realized, "I should do this too" and caught the wave early. But catching a trend may be more difficult than starting one – because catching a trend requires precise timing. Precise timing doesn't just mean implementing a new format, it requires implementing a new format WELL.
Most creators are stuck behind the pendulum. They're constantly following trends and by the time they're able to execute well, the pendulum has already swung back.
When you're chasing the pendulum, your work feels derivative. Instead of getting more attention for the same effort, you start getting less.
Run away from the pendulum
Being aware of the pendulum makes it tempting to try and play the timing game. It feels like you have a secret that can help you get a leg up!
When you're early to a trend, more people will see your work than would otherwise...but that doesn't matter if they're indifferent to it. You need good timing AND engaging content for being ahead of the pendulum to matter – and that's really why innovating is a better strategy than trend-chasing.
Innovation happens far away from the pendulum. When you're truly innovating, you don't know if it will work out. All you know is that the thing you're currently doing is NOT the current "hot" thing.
But when you're innovating long before the pendulum swings in your direction, you have the opportunity to get GOOD at the format (better than everyone else).
Magic happens when:
- You're doing your best work
- In an innovative format
- Just ahead of the pendulum
Ingredients 1 and 2 have an unpredictable lead time. So you have to run away from the pendulum to buy yourself as much time as possible in case things start swinging your way.
Some will call it luck – but it will be luck you manufactured.