What’s hot for Halloween costumes? Bacon. You don’t need social media analytics to know that bacon is all over the zeitgeist and will be all over Halloween revelers’ bodies on October 31. children in halloween costumesBut it’s easy to identify holiday trends a couple of weeks before the big day – just read some tweets. Unfortunately, online retailers need to have figured this out months before, and traditional shopkeepers need even longer lead times.

There is gold to be mined from the aimless chatter on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest – and the best way to find it is to listen to social media all year. That’s the advice of Danny Maloney, CEO and co-founder of Tailwind, a start-up that’s building tools to track and analyze Pinterest activity, with subscriptions starting at $29 per month. “Halloween stuff still will be pinned in February. If you listen all year, you’ll be able to see the increase in activity before anyone else. That will give you a leg up when people do start to think of Halloween.”

Even though we have our bacon costumes all ready to go for this year, let’s look at ways to use social media to identify what the hot Halloween costume will be. You can use the same tactics for any other holiday or season.

Pinterest is one of the best sources for information on shopping trends, according to Maloney, because it’s all about window-shopping, with an increasing focus on actual shopping. The most obvious – and most laborious – way is to search for “Halloween costume” on Pinterest and see what comes up. “You would need to invest hours of your time,” Maloney notes.

Facebook’s new Graph Search is another way to figure out what costumes are trending, according to Ric Dragon, CEO of digital marketing firm DragonSearch and author of Social Marketology. It lets you find information exploring the things that people “like.” For example, if you search on Facebook for “pages liked by people who like Halloween,” you’ll see, in no particular rank, George Takei of Star Trek, NPR and Burning Man. Okay, this tells us little. It’s still necessary to engage in what Dragon calls “online ethnography.”

Says Dragon, “What we do in our job a lot is pattern recognition. We’re looking for anomalies and patterns.” To find patterns that might indicate a trending Halloween costume, he often combines insights from different social media. For example, first search on Twitter for “Halloween costume,” and then run the resulting tweets through a keyword cloud tool such as TagCrowd or WordItOut.

“If we look at the list of the 100 most-frequently used words associated with the phrase ‘Halloween costume,’ would we see any patterns?” Dragon asks. Next, he might use the top words from that Twitter word cloud to search on Facebook’s Graph Search for other associated interests. Says Dragon, after looking at the Facebook Halloween community, “A lot of them like bacon. A lot of them like tattoos. You might want to get a bacon costume. If I’m designing costumes or I’m a retailer, definitely.”

Dragon also notes that it’s important to test ideas like this by moving from one social network to another and by using different tools. For example, if you think bacon may be a hot Halloween trend, plug it into SocialMention, another free tool. A search for “bacon Halloween costume” shows where people are talking about bacon for Halloween, the top hashtags being used, and scores for strength and sentiment. Strength is the likelihood that a term is being discussed in social media, and sentiment is the ratio of generally positive mentions to those that are generally negative.

Dragon’s online ethnography extends to looking at communities and finding threads of conversation. For example, the people most likely to be buying Halloween costumes are parents and young adults. What are they talking about? That could give you good costume ideas. He also looks at the top media properties, such as movies or TV shows, and how active their fans are. A more active fan community, such as the one for The Walking Dead, could translate into more interest in a themed costume.

There’s a mind-boggling array of tools for monitoring and analyzing social media. Pam Dyer, marketing manager at SolutionsIQ, an agile programming services provider, has laid out 50 of them in a blog post at Social Media Today. A few noteworthy examples:

  • Brandwatch: On the high end, at $800 per month, Brandwatch lets you create custom queries and sort data according to criteria including authors, followers, posts, views and comments.
  • Google Keyword Planner: This free, online tool lets you type in a keyword and discover related keywords or groups. You can also see the number of people who search for keywords in any month. While this tool is better for validating your choices, the related keyword suggestions can help you identify trends.
  • Radian6: Part of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and one of the most widely used professional offerings, the basic package lets you monitor as many as five social presences and listen to up to 20,000 mentions. You must register to find pricing information.

Okay, so now you’re convinced you should start monitoring social media for trends – and you missed Halloween. Are you too late for Christmas?

According to Maloney, it depends on your type of business – but the shopping season for Christmas really starts after Thanksgiving. Says Maloney, “I would be listening now for Christmas, thinking about my merchandising decisions and what product I am going to promote.”