Viral trends and cultural moments can be a social media marketer’s best friend.

Whereas you may have brainstormed your “regular” content weeks (or months) in advance, a well-timed response to a viral post or topic can be a shortcut to tons of impressions and engagement.

But tapping into buzzworthy conversions isn’t a silver bullet for social media success. Wait too long or get your messaging wrong, and you risk looking inauthentic and out of touch.

With that in mind, we gathered a panel of leading social media marketers to discuss everything you need to know about jumping on trends, including real-world examples of brands that got it right (and wrong).

Read on for expert insights from:

What Is a Trend, Anyway?

Trends mean different things to different brands.

For GoFundMe, they’re usually tied to a significant news moment or a cultural conversation — like noticing a surge in violence against Asian Americans and figuring out what they can do to help. Whereas for TGR Creative, trends typically start as viral moments on TikTok.

But whatever a trend looks like for your specific brand and audience, one thing’s clear: you should only get involved authentically.

Consumers crave authenticity. Indeed, research from Forrester shows that 71% of Americans feel they can relate to authentic brands — and therefore want to back them. Moreover, 70% report that authentic brands give them a “stronger feeling of confidence.”

Our panelists were quick to note the importance of remaining authentic.

Eric Aaberg explains that TGR starts by asking whether a trend is genuinely relevant. “Does this make sense in the gaming and eSports ecosystem? And how can we relate and translate our brand into that TikTok trend?”

Dylan Doyle echoes these comments, saying EY thinks of trends in squares, circles, and triangles.

“If EY is the square, is this trend also a square, or is it a circle that we’re trying to insert ourselves into? If it doesn’t feel like a natural fit to our brand, we typically don’t enter into it.”

Understanding When a Trend Fits Your Brand

Okay, so authenticity is essential when it comes to joining the conversation.

But how can you tell whether or not a trend is a natural fit for your brand?

Again, our panelists unanimously urged marketers to consider what’s truly important to your brand before jumping on any old viral moment.

Brittany Cabriales at GoFundMe suggests getting ahead of viral trends by clearly establishing your content buckets, pillars, and topics you talk about.

Specifically, she recommends picking out three to five relevant subject areas. For instance, a women’s yoga and wellness brand might identify the following content buckets:

  • Physical health and wellness
  • Mental health education
  • Women’s equity and empowerment in sports

Doing this develops guardrails for what you can (and can’t) speak about online.

Continuing the yoga brand example, Brittany explains: “If Megan Rapinoe and the US women’s national team are heading up conversations about visibility in sports and pay equity, that might be something that fits with your brand. But when Julia Fox’s Uncut Gems is making its way across TikTok, maybe that’s not a trend that really makes sense for you.”

Similarly, Dylan at EY says a brand’s mantra, vision, and mission statement usually indicate whether or not they should join the conversation.

“At EY, we’re focused on building a better working world,” he explains. “So anytime we look at a trend, we ask: ‘Is it somehow focused on our commitment to economic growth that’s sustainable or inclusive?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then it’s probably not something we’re going to engage in.”

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Eric at TGR has a similar process. “One of our pillars is that gaming is about inclusivity. So if a trend that we see on TikTok is really about being inclusive, that’s something we’re more likely to jump on. But if it’s something that doesn’t make sense, there’s no reason to risk your brand safety or value just to get extra likes.”

Navigating Signoff Processes & Legal Permissions to React Quickly

As the adage goes, great ideas go to legal and die.

Sure, approvals and legal permissions can be frustrating. But they’re not going away because they play a vital role in protecting your brand and organization.

So what can you do to react quickly to (relevant) viral trends and cultural moments, despite the attention of your legal and executive teams?

Again, Brittany says the solution lies in the preparation.

First, speak to legal to figure out the ground rules. When can (and can’t) you use a trending sound? How much wiggle room do you have when it comes to repurposing memes? “Understanding those rules before you have to ask might give you a better chance at getting approved, and it might speed things up.”

Second, try to get internal buy-in from senior leadership on your strategy and ideas. Put the work into crafting your pitch for the best chances of success.

As Brittany explains: “Don’t just say, ‘I really wanna do this TikTok of me on a boat with the instrumental of My Heart Will Go On in the background.’ Lead with, ‘Hey, I wanna jump on this trend because it aligns with X and Y business values and Z social media goals. And I already chatted with legal and PR, and this is in line with something they’ve already approved.”

How to Avoid “Posting Cringe”

Every social media marketer dreads being asked: “How can we be more like Duolingo?”

We all love the zany antics of our favorite avian language tutor.

@duolingo company update: #duolingo #languagelearning #sweetbutpsycho #dulapeep ♬ 原声 – ?天蝎男♏JoJo? – ?天蝎男♏????????

But trying to replicate another brand’s strategy and tone of voice can easily make you look like you’re trying too hard. Even worse, you might be accused of posting cringe.

As our panel’s “resident Gen Z,” Eric reveals he often gets asked whether content ideas have been tarred with the cringe brush.

His advice is to remember who you’re posting for. “Whatever messaging you’re doing, whatever trend, whatever content, you always want to come from an audience perspective. Do they even care about this? Does this make sense for them?”

Saad at Shopify agrees that an audience-first perspective is essential to leaping on trends in an authentic, un-cringeworthy way. “Don’t think about the platform, don’t think about the content. Build your strategy around your audience, identify where they are, and try to speak to them at their level.”

Leveraging “Trendy” Topics in More Conservative Environments

If you’re a trendy B2C brand with a young customer base, it’s comparatively easy to capitalize on viral topics and cultural moments because those are the subjects your audience is already discussing.

Things can be more challenging for marketers in conservative industries, like Dylan at EY Canada.

He explains: “Our service offerings are things that are pretty serious to the bottom line of our clients, like assurance, tax, and strategy. So it could be viewed as a bit of a reputational risk if they see me, as the social media manager, doing the Cuff It dance on TikTok.”

So should these marketers abandon all hopes of ever posting anything cool and current?

Not necessarily, says Dylan. Instead, it’s about shifting the definition of “trendy” into something that resonates with their audience.

He cites the example of employee experience and recruitment. Typically, EY Canada’s approach here was to discuss trending topics like greenwashing, carbon neutrality, and hybrid working.

But their Instagram account demonstrates how they’ve evolved to meet the trendier content expectations of Gen Z and Millennial audiences from a design and branding perspective. To see the results, just feast your eyes on their Instagram grid layout:

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Dylan urges marketers in similar B2B environments to take things slowly when it comes to crafting trendy content. “Have a testing and iterative mindset, and eventually, you will start to see the needle move in terms of trendiness.”

Participating in Diversity & Equity-Related Trends With Authenticity

The “A” word again.

Authenticity is crucial to joining conversations around diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. As Saad puts it: “Audiences, more than ever, are attuned to who is truly walking that walk. Who is not only posting once during a certain month but who’s actually carrying that work through the other 364 days of the year.”

For Brittany, getting involved authentically in these sorts of discussions is all about backing up your words with meaningful action — whether donating to a cause or making a positive change to your organization.

“The world is over ‘thoughts and prayers,’” she says. “If you’re not gonna do something, quite honestly, it’s better just to stay quiet.”

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Brands Joining Viral Moments

In the fast-paced world of viral social media content, joining the party late is guaranteed to fail.

Given the time pressure, it’s inevitable that some brands get it right while others get it very wrong.

Regarding viral success, Eric holds up Duolingo as a glittering example, describing himself as a “die-hard Duo fan.”

It’s easy to see why — after all, they’ve quickly built an audience of 6.5 million TikTok followers thanks to their funny, irreverent content.

@duolingo am I the new face of balenciaga? #duolingo #dulapeep #balenciaga #fashion ♬ this is viral lol – libra ??

But even they don’t always get it right.

Dylan flags when Duo joined in with an Amber Heard joke during the actor’s legal battle with Johnny Depp, drawing widespread online criticism. “That was a rare miss,” he notes.

Brittany highlights another high-profile social media fail: when Frontier Airlines tapped into the “Free Britney” movement by offering free flights to 100 customers called Britney.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign was roundly condemned by fans of the singer (and pretty much everyone else). “Brands just need to be a little bit more careful, especially during those really hypersensitive moments,” Brittany comments.

Featured image by Freepik.

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