Exploding Topics co-founder Brian Dean explains how to spot a trend

By Aimee Pearcy , written on October 26, 2020

From The Interviews Desk

Brian is the founder of Backlinko, a newsletter that provides SEO training and link building strategies. He is the also co-founder of Exploding Topics, a newsletter designed to help users discover rapidly growing topics before they take off.

I figured: what better way to get up to speed on the biggest trends in tech than to talk to someone who looks at them every single day?

I love trying to spot new trends on the internet before they happen. And I’m not often very good at it. But over the past few months I’ve been checking out Exploding Topics a couple of times a week to see what’s happening on the internet, and I’m always surprised.

Right now, some of the top trends on the homepage are ‘sleep gummies’, ‘side hustle’, and ‘ceramic coating’. 

Anyway, here's the interview:



It's also transcribed below:

So I started the whole online thing in 2008. I had quit grad school and moved into my parents' basement and was and I was like, I'm going to start an online business.

And I had no idea what I was doing. So I just started, I just created a website. And one of the first things I realized is that creating a website is relatively easy. Even back then, you know, so much easier today with Wix and Squarespace and whatnot. But back then, it was still pretty easy with Dreamweaver, which is what I use.

And then I realized I have no idea how to get people to the website, no idea how to convert these people. I have no idea what they want, how to figure out what they want. So it was kind of a learning process and I eventually stumbled into SEO and that was the most appealing channel for me, because again, pay-per-click was out, PR was out. I was in my parents' basement. I wasn't going to do PR from my parents' basement.

How many years ago was this?

It was in 2008.

So what was the webiste that you created that you were trying to get people to go to?

It was an ebook about nutrition. That was my first foray into this whole thing. And eventually I kind of stumbled into SEO and realized, oh, that's something I could do.

And as I learned about it, I got kind of good at it. Eventually I sort of put the pieces together and started an agency that helped other clients do SEO. And when I was doing this, I was looking for more content to read about it. And I was like, there's really nothing really good out there.

I want good tactical advice, a resource. And there was nothing that existed at the time. So I created Backlinko to sort of fill that niche. I figured there are other people like me out there, so I basically created the blog that I wanted to read and that's how Backlinko got started.

So you started it off as a blog. And then you branched out from there into YouTube. And are you on any other platforms?

I mean, I'm on all the platforms, but I barely touch them. I'm not a big social media guy, so it's mostly the blog and the YouTube channel. I like anti-social media where you just broadcast. That's my style.

I was going to say you've got like a 100,000 followers on Twitter, so that's pretty good for someone who's anti-social media.

That's actually due to one strategy that's helped a lot. Every time someone subscribe to my email list, I use double opt in. So when someone subscribes, they have to confirm their email. I used to send them to a 'thank you' page. That was just thanks for signing up. I added a little call to action on there to follow me on Twitter. And I probably got like 40,000 of the a hundred thousand just from that, because I don't really tweet that much. I probably tweeted -- that's not just sharing a post -- 50 times or something in eight years.

So some of it I'm sure comes organically, but a lot of it is from that one thing. It's amazing how well that works.

That's crazy. Have you done anything with your 100k Twitter subscribers?

I just tweet stuff that I publish and then it drives some traffic to it. So it's it's actually a good channel for exploding topics.

We did tons of stuff with Twitter, but for me, I don't really have a social media manager and I don't want to be on Twitter. 'Cause as you know, Twitter is kind of a double edged sword. It seems great. And then you start posting and then people are calling you names. And you're like, this isn't fun. I kind of don't want to be here.

Yeah. Every time I post, I think about it like five times beforehand. I'm like, should I really post this?

Exactly. So I'm the same way. And I just think, you know what, I can't be bothered. Not today. And that's why I don't really post that much.

So how did you, how did you get into Exploding Topics specifically? And what was your role there?

So earlier in 2019 I could kind of see this trend of products that told people about trends. There seem to be more products coming out that are revealing trends because it's kind of difficult to find trends. This is one of the things I realized because the tools that are exist to find them aren't good discovery tools. I'll explain what I mean. Take Google trends. It's an awesome tool for finding trends. If you know what to look for. So if you want to look for cardigans and see if cardigans are going up, you can go on Google trends and it'll show you exactly where it's going up: which States, which countries, everything you need to know about the trend of cardigans. But it's not good at bubbling up things that you don't already know.

So those things that like the unknown unknowns. And I noticed there are a few products coming out to do that. And I was like, oh, I want to get in that space. It's really cool. It'd be really fun. I hired someone, our freelance developer, to create something that scrapes Reddit and basically looks for mentions of certain terms that were going up.

And it was really buggy, even for an alpha version. There were so many false positives in there. There were so many things that it was finding that weren't really trends. It just made no sense. And the project was kind of languishing. And then one day, our CTO sent me a link to this thing called

He was like: this is kind of cool. Well, it's kind of like what we're building and it was what years ahead of what I had even imagined. So I reached out to the founder, Josh, who was actually an English guy. It was called 'trend' at the time. And I said, "hey, I think trend is really cool. would you be interested in selling it?"

And he said, "yeah, maybe". So we got on the phone and right in that first phone call, we had a deal and I acquired it that week and we since rebranded it to Exploding Topics. So he's my other co-founder since then we've taken on a third cofounder Kyle Byers who runs our marketing, and that's kinda how it started.

And from there, we ran it to Exploding Topics, which changed everything. That alone made a huge difference in how people perceived the tool used it, and shared it. Then we launched it on Product Hunt, and that was kind of how we got the ball rolling.

Is Exploding Topics the only product of its kind out there?

Yeah, kind of. I would say it was. There's a few others that have come out that have sort of done something similar, but not at the scale. Like we have 4,000 trends that we have live on the site and we track millions. So there are other tools out there that are attempting to replicate that, but they're more focused on like e-commerce, they don't have the breadth of thing.

So, how do you, how do you find the trends? Or do you have a completely different process now or is it still scraping Reddit?

I mean we scraped Reddit for sure. But then the difference is that the old tool scraped Reddit and it included everything that was trending.

I bet Donald Trump comes up a lot.

Oh man. All the time. But then you have to start excluding things, because it's not really a trend, you know, these things are kind of fads. Like if something was huge in the news, let's say, you know, a footballer got injured then on Reddit everyone's going to be talking about it and his name will be trending.

Not really a trend, right? It's just a story that'll be gone tomorrow. So the issue was: first we're getting lots of false positives, and second, how do you curate all these things? So basically we scrape a ton of sites, including specific subreddits. So instead of Reddit in general, very specific subreddits, some shopping sites like Amazon and other eCommerce stores, social media sites as well. So we have a wider breadth of topics that we scrape. And then the real secret sauce is that the technology filters out this stuff that's just a fad and it's able to identify longer term trends. And then we have human curation that curates everything that goes on tour in the newsletter. That way there aren't a lot of weird results and that we're giving people trends that they can actually build something from, or do something with that.

For a lot of the other sites and the one I was trying to start, it wasn't really possible. 'Cause you had probably dozens of people curating and now we just have one because the tool is very good at filtering out the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

So, is there a way you to tell whether a trend is just beginning? I guess you'd want to catch it before it becomes a trend. You don't want to catch it at the end when it's already gone.

So it's tricky because you can't, you can't predict the future. Right? So you would have the six month line, and then you'd have the next six months and you look at it and compare. But usually the algorithms that we have are good at identifying trends that are just starting to rise. And we use basically an exponent for that. So if something's rising exponentially, even if it's going from, let's say, one to 10 and then 10 to a hundred searches per month, that's still not much, but it's growing at this exponential rate. So there's likelihood is going to keep going like that.

We're actually working on some machine learning technology right now that will try to do that predictive part by looking at older trends in the patterns and say, okay, based on this pattern, this is how this trend tends to go. This is how trends tend to go. So. That's sort of what we're looking at, but for now the best way to do it is to look at the current growth of the trend.

And especially those trends, like you said, that are very early. So the, the raw numbers aren't that muc. There's not that many people talking about it, not that many people searching for it, but the growth is huge. That's what we tend to focus on. We also have something that can identify peak trends to trends that have already peaked. And we have that on the tool to make sure people can know that that's probably peaked. Sometimes it can come back, but most people aren't really as interested obviously in topics that have peaked.

I really want to know: what are some of the weirdest trends that you've come across?

Man, yeah, I think there's so many, I've just included one in the newsletter: earwax kits. Because apparently Q-tips are really bad for your ears. So then you get into the issue of: what do you do? So someone has figured that out and basically these are drops that you put on your ears that loosen up all the ear wax. So it's not stuck to your inside of your ear. And then you can use like a tissue and just gently remove it. And they have one that's like a turkey baster that just sucks out the wax.

I heard 'ear candles' were a thing that people were doing a while ago.

I remember that, is that for ear wax though? 

Yeah. People were like, "oh, Q-tips are really dangerous. So let's just put a candle in our ear instead". Apparently that was really dangerous, but it was a big trend for a while.

I remember that. Yeah. I remember that. Yeah. That was huge for a while. That was a massive, I remember seeing that everywhere.

So the ear wax kits are a big thing right now. Another one is any sort of dog and cat human version. So cat toothpaste is really big right now. So anything that humanizes the diet or the health of an animal or pet is huge right now. So you can almost even guess these before they get big: dog food, organic dog food, cat toothpaste. I'm sure ear wax kits are going to be huge for animals. Any sort of pet thing that. People look at the dog and they're like, "hmm, I wonder if like there's a dog thing for that".

CBD oil for dogs is huge right now because people are taking CBD oil and then look at the dog and think, "I wonder if he wants some CBD oil". I guess that's how it starts. And some entrepreneur is like, "let's create some". Actually it's a legit product. It's diluted out, so then it's safe for dogs.

Now, I have no idea whether it's okay to give to a dog, but that is a trend that's really big. I'd say most of the trends are weird, but a good amount of weird. And that's kind of the idea. You didn't know about this thing and you realize wow, that's big.

Going back to the ethics, have you ever had something come up that you don't necessarily think is ethical? And that's made you think, "do I really want to promote this to people?" or is it just, "this is a trend we're just going to promote this and tell people it's a trend"?

I lean more towards the first kind of approach that you mentioned. So most of these controversial topics are usually fads. You know, things that are controversial, they come and go, people get really angry about them, search for them, get interested, and then it kind of fades away. So they don't tend to be great trends anyway. But I just think that's a good policy. I don't think it serves people to have controversial stuff on there. Especially our target market or investors, VCs entrepreneurs, people that want to learn about the next business, a start or the next business to invest in. Usually controversial topics don't really help them. So we're really focused on finding like early stage companies, product categories, like the cat toothpastes that are brand new.

Another weird one I thought of is gaming glasses, which are basically blue light blocking glasses for video gamers. So professional games' eyes get bad when they're young and they get tired. So this helps block some of the blue light. That's another, that's a category that an investor would want. It's not controversial. So our human product curation process is, basically anything remotely controversial, don't put it in. It's a practical thing. I don't want the headache and I don't think itreally helps the people we're trying to serve with the product that much.

No, totally. I agree. So moving on from that, do you think with COVID -- it's impossible to do an interview without talking about COVID right now -- has changed things? I guess it's almost certainly has changed things, but how do you think it has changed the trending topics now? This kind of links in with what you said about people wanting stuff for their animals. Maybe people are spending tons of time with the cats right now. And they're thinking, you know, you could do with some cat toothpaste. 

It's funny you say that because I had a realization the other day when I was looking at a trend. We were looking at automatic checkouts which is where you buy stuff at the store, but then you can just leave with the stuff and there's different ways to track what you grabbed. So it has some AI technology that can sense barcodes in your cart or take it off the shelf. Amazon already has some pilot stores that do this already. So imagine like getting stuff at a store and just walking out and paying. It's amazing. So it's one of these trends that you think, okay, that's growing because just really practical people hate checking out and you leave, but then when you dig deeper, you realize another big part of it. The reason it's growing is because of COVID because people don't want to interact with the cashiers. They just want to limit that human to human transmission. So that's another reason it's growing. And I realized it's, it's actually hard to find a topic that's trending that's not related to COVID.

It's at the point now where almost everything is trending or not trending based on COVID, even something like plant delivery. That's a trend we identified almost a year ago, but it's still growing, especially in the UK, there's a lot of plants delivery services and that's something you're like, "why is that getting big?"

It's because people are at home, like you said, and they're looking around, like, I need some more plants in here, but I don't want to go to the shop. So what do I do? So then they go then Google it planned delivery. And that's a huge category. That's just kind of didn't even exist before COVID.

And now it's grown. At first, it doesn't seem related to coronavirus at all. But when you dig deeper, it's almost inevitably a trend nowadays is tied somehow to COVID.

Do you think this will continue for a long time, even after COVID is over. So the trends that are happening now, do you think they'll stick?

I think it's hit or miss. Some will, like some have already just dropped off, like, designer, face masks and things like that, that people were kind of like, "hey, let's have some fun with it". And now people are like, you know what, I'll just wear a boring mask.

I think most trends will have these trends will continue because people just get used to the behavior. And a lot of these things are we're already trends anyway, COVID accelerated them, like working at home -- a lot of people were already working at home and the number of people that work from home was increasing. COVID just accelerated what was already happening.

So a lot of these trends were already going and COVID accelerated it. So there's no reason they'll all of a sudden stop, but there are some very COVID specific trends. Like there were some keyless opener things and touchless keys. You could like grab things on your key chain without touching them.

Maybe next year people will stop freaking out about that stuff. But a lot of them, the bigger trends -- Zoom is another one. That's still growing. These will probably continue as people get used to them.

Another one is ecommerce. The number of Shopify stores has increased by like 60% in 2020 alone. So more people are buying stuff online. More people are creating, online stores. That's a trend that was already happening and that's probably going to continue even after COVID is over. Hopefully that's sooner or later, I'm sure we can all agree.

I would have thought that the number of online stores would have dropped off as Amazon slowly continues to eat everything.

Me too. I mean, I actually would have predicted that like two years ago, or three years ago. I'm always surprised at how many independent stores have come out recently because you just think, especially if you live in the States or the UK or Germany somewhere, "there's an Amazon. I don't really want to buy anything any other way". It's so convenient that it is surprising, but what a lot of stores are doing is they're selling things, and they're refusing to sell on Amazon and they're actually still getting people to buy from them.

A good example is the Roost laptop stand. It's this ver lightweight laptop stand. It was big a couple of years ago, I have a couple of they're great. They were on Kickstarter and they only sell from their website and continue to do so. And there's also a lot of fashion brands. I have a friend who's in the fashion space and he tells me that he watches clothes for that cool factor.

They're never going to go on Amazon. So those will always sort of exist as independent ecommerce sites. But I agree with you. I'm surprised at how many have grown despite Amazon, but it's actually a good sign that these independent sites can be created and sustained against Amazon. 

So what do you think are the biggest mistakes that people make when they're trying to follow a new trend or get a new platform off the ground?

I think the number one thing is overestimating like how long the trend will last. And most importantly, thinking five to 10 years with the trend.

So unless you want to just jump on a trend and be like, okay, I'm going to ride this for however long, and I'm willing to crash and burn -- because from looking at our data, we found that most trends last about two to three years. It depends on your perspective for me, that's longer than I thought, but for some people that's not as long. So if you want to be in a game for two to three years and know that it'll probably die off by the time you hit that three year mark, then I would say, go for a trend.

Otherwise, I would recommend incorporating a trend into your overall strategy. A good example of this is Zoom. Zoom existed before coronavirus and they're riding the trend of like online collaboration. But after coronavirus, they will exist and be huge. So they're incorporating into the strategy as opposed to being reliant on this one thing versus a guy that was making designer masks in his garage.

He's in trouble already because he was creating them, probably sold well for like a month. And now it's almost a zero and now everyone is kinda over that fad. So it would be the biggest mistake is like, I would create a business that doesn't necessarily just ride a trend. So I wouldn't create a Shopify specific thing because Shopify it's huge right now, but who knows in two to three years, like you said, Amazon could just eat all those sites. But if you get big on online shopping or logistics or shipping, or teach people how to create their own ecommerce site, maybe on another platform, on any platform, not just Shopify, you're going to be in a better position.

Have you, have you spoken to anyone who has used your platform to create a business?

Oh yeah. Plenty. Yeah, we had, we had someone who created an influencer marketing tool and sold it because he saw that influencer marketing, especially these nano influencers with less than 5,000 followers are getting huge right now, because most brands that spend an influencer marketing are the bigger brands.

Now that they got into it, it's very expensive. So if you want to get someone with a million followers on Instagram to promote your product, it's really expensive. Five years ago, it was really cheap because no one was asking them. Now they get requests all day. So their prices go up.

But someone with 4,000 followers, they're just not getting any. And then when you hit them up, they're usually willing to do it. And he noticed this trend was happening from Exploding Topics. And he built an influencer finder tool for TikToks specifically, and he was able to sell it. We've also had a lot of people on Amazon who sell on Amazon, have been able to find new product categories that are growing and launching products in those categories and creating e-commerce shops around them.

I guess the nanoinfluencers have more loyal audiences. So you're probably closer to your audience if you've got, say 5,000 subscribers, as opposed to a million subscribers who you just never interact with. So yeah, that makes sense. But if you, if you were starting a new company today and you wanted to, you found a trend and you wanted to start a platform from scratch. So how, how would you go about that? How would you market it? What platform would you use? What would you do? 

It depends a little bit on what the trend is because when you find a trend, the next step is, who is searching for this? Who is interested in this and where do they hang out online? And what platform do they prefer to talk about this topic and learn about this topic? 

For example, anything with sports, Twitter is really popular. That's where a lot of sports news discussions happen. But for health and fitness, Twitter is not really big. There's not a lot of stuff there. That's more Instagram and YouTube and for home stuff. So a lot of mommy bloggers are Pinterest where they share recipes, advice for raising kids, things of that nature that are big on Pinterest. So the trend would lead me to the different channel and I'd be like, "okay, where, where are they already hanging?"

But my strategy today would be a focus my own site and my own newsletter. And the reason for that is because when you build your whole presence on another platform, you don't really own it. And it can be taken away at a moment's notice or organic reach can suddenly drop by 90%.

And you're like, "oh man, that's a bummer. I wish I kind of built my own thing". So no matter what the trend was, I would basically find that platform and try to funnel as many people as I could back to my site and all my email lists. And I would create a newsletter that was kind of like the Exploding Topics newsletter.

The lesson I learned since I've been involved with this site is that my Backlinko newsletter, which is popular -- we have 175,000 email subscribers -- but it's sort of sporadic. I only send things when I publish a new post or I have some new strategy to share. It's not that weekly or daily email that you get into the habit of opening.

I'm sure you have a couple of those that you look almost look forward to it and it shows up in your inbox. You kind of know what you're going to get, but not exactly. That's how I would create a newsletter that for that trend, that covers that trend because people like that now newsletters are making a huge comeback. People are sick of searching through social media feeds. I just want a curated little digest. So that would be how I would approach growing a platform from scratch. But 'platform' would basically be the newsletter and my own site. It's kind of old school, but that's in my experience, the best way to reach people is a via email and build an audience.

So email and short, daily newsletter.

Yeah, daily or weekly, it depends on the format, but it would be that same format every time you send. So people kind of know what they're going to get, where there's always a little bit of mystery. Like I'm subscribed to Tim. Ferris is five bullet Friday, and that's every Friday he sends just like five things that he's sort of interested in. And it's every Friday at the same time and the format is more or less the same. So I got into the habit of opening it and now I just open it every week. Versus some newsletters that just send maybe once a month and then twice in a week. And then once a month, I don't really open those as much. So I've learned that as there's a pattern.

If you're able to do it like TV, where it's on at the same time and day, every week, people really get into the habit of opening your email. So yeah, my focus would be definitely a newsletter.

So do you think newsletters are the next big thing? Because I suppose a lot of people are creating newsletters now. And a lot of people I presume are getting "newsletter, fatigue". Everyone has their own newsletter. And I don't know about you, but my inbox is just constantly full of newsletters that I've signed up to and I couldn't possibly read them all. So how would you make your, your newsletter stand out aside from, from sending it at a certain time every, every week? How would you really bring people in with it?

Yeah, it's, it's definitely getting saturated. It's a trend that is, you're not in the early stages, you know, it's kind of the later stages now. I don't know if it's peaked yet, but you're right. It's, it's definitely not in the early stages. People are already starting to get this newsletter, fatigue, and that's why paid newsletters are getting big because. Rather than sub to the 10 mediocre, I'll just pay for one. So a couple of ways I would separate is: be a voice. A very human newsletter. Like it's my newsletter. It's my thoughts. It's my life. It's my experience.

People always want that. And it's, it's just the best way to stand out in general as a personal brand, because it's inherently unique. There's only one you. So as cheesy as that sounds, it's true. So just by being you and being yourself, you already have a brand that stands out.

It's not necessarily enough. But it's a great hack versus creating just a newsletter about X. But if it's your voice and you have something unique to say on the topic that people will be interested in, people will subscribe. the other thing I would do is basically do the opposite of whatever the newsletter in my niche was doing.

So I subscribe to every newsletter. Look at all the commonalities and just be like, "okay, what can we do That's the complete opposite of this?" So they're all long form, I would do short. They're all short, I would do long. If they're very visual, I would make it very text and story heavy. If they sent once a week, I would send every day.

Like that's kind of counterintuitive because most people just copy whatever is working and there's a case to be made for that. But if it's already saturated and you just create a me too newsletter, it'll never go anywhere, even if it's really good. So those are the two steps I would do for, and I'll try to do both if I could, but the most important of the two is to be from you. That'll always have value and that will never really be a fad that goes away. So people always want to hear someone's perspective, someone's voice, someone's experience. That's something that people always want to subscribe to.

Yeah, totally. Yeah. I'm noticing that actually. I'm kind of with Pando as well. We've got a very small team at Pando, and it's kind of, we're trying to figure out how to stand out from the rest of the news websites. and it's very different, I guess, looking at small news sites compared to big legacy new sites, like the New York times, mind just gone blank. I can't think of any other newspapers.


Yes, exactly, exactly! Right. It feels very formal and very structured and there isn't really a unique voice. That's definitely something I've noticed in my research. And I think that's changing.

I think, I think that's actually all the, all the questions I have for you, unless there's, unless there's anything else you want to say or anything else you want to add?

No. No, I don't think so. I think we covered it.


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