Fashion World to Get Steampunk’d? So Says IBM

If it were up to IBM‘s Trevor Davis, we’d all be wearing steampunk-inspired goggles this year. (Ditto for me.) Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen. But by harnessing the power of social media and text analytics, Davis—a consumer products expert for IBM Global Business Services—has been able to say, with some certitude, that steampunk is about to become the next big mainstream fashion trend.

Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is a sub-genre of science fiction that’s grown into a kind of style mash-up of neo-Victorian fashion married to 19th century cyberpunk—basically what Victorian London would have been if people at the time had had access to steam-powered digital technology and William Gibson novels.

Using IBM’s Social Sentiment Index, Davis says users can analyze massive amounts of social data and filter out the mind-boggling noise to find the several thousand relevant posts in the haystack of daily billions. By combining statistical analysis and text “rules” or filters, the data can go from mountainous to meaningful; you just need to know what to look for. In the case of steampunk, IBM says it’s been able to track the spread of steampunk as a trend, from its origins in genre fiction to its slow growth into a soon-to-flourish fashion behemoth.

From 2009 through 2012, IBM found that the amount of steampunk-related chatter on social channels and through blogs increased eleven-fold. (Davis says he sees social media and blogs as a kind of “massive focus group.”) Add to that the fact that more than two dozen U.S. retailers and department stores, including Macy’s, sported steampunky window displays in 2010, and Davis says what you’ve got is a significant trend, rather than a less interesting ephemeral fad. According to Davis, steampunk is primed to hit the fashion mainstream—as in a mass production of goods rather than just small-scale bespoke awesomeness like these steampunk memory sticks on Etsy, one of which a coworker of mine just purchased. (Hi, Ryan.)

Some stats from IBM’s research for your delectation: 33% of online fashion chatter around steampunk can be found on gaming sites; 63% of fashion discussions about steampunk are initiated by individuals under the age of 30; 55% of social sentiment about steampunk fashion comes from blogs; and ladies seem to be the most into it—women post 70% of all steampunk tweets and 84% of all steampunk pins.

“From what we’ve seen, steampunk jumped from one cultural domain to another very quickly in the past three to four years, from fiction to music to film to fashion—and every time one of those jumps happens, you see the volume of chatter go up and become more broad-based,” says Davis.

What’s most interesting, he says, is when a trend transforms from something the mainstream doesn’t even notice and might never go near if they did into something that that same audience could—and would—go into a store to buy. Right now it’s couture designers like Prada that are launching high-fashion steampunk lines; mass fashion isn’t far behind.

Culture fuels the social chatter and social chatter fuels the growth of the trend—until it hits a peak or “boiling point” when the chatter starts to decrease in correlation with its overall penetration.

Now, imagine if a CMO could harness the power of social data, and, like a modern-day Nostradamus with an Internet connection, use a back-end dashboard to predict trends while they’re still percolating in the subculture phase years before hitting the mainstream. Marketers wouldn’t have to scramble to catch up when a trend seems to suddenly hit like a cultural tsunami; they could sit back and relax, strategizing at a comfortable pace to meet a slow-moving ship—what Davis jokingly refers to as the ‘boiling frog.” CMOs who don’t embrace this kind of analytics risk being left in the dust.

“If I was a CMO today and I wasn’t investing in this kind of social listening, I think it would be a very weak position to be in,” Davis says.

Of course, marketers still need to pay attention to more than just social. Traditional tools still have a role to play in trend wrangling. Social chatter is “the voice of the consumer in raw form,” but solid research still needs to be corroborated by things like focus group, consumer panels, and even instinct, Davis says.

“I’m always encouraging people to do due diligence and additional work in traditional ways to validate what they’ve found if you’re really going to get under the skin of the thing,” he says. “Any good piece of research needs to be triangulated.”

And now you’ll please excuse me. I have to catch up on old episodes of Doctor Who on Netflix.

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