It's easy -- and useful -- to follow the crowd at times. Folks follow trends in fashion (what's in for spring?) and electronic gadgets (another iPod, anyone?). But following the crowd as an investing strategy -- that's an entirely different story. And for those of us who had huge losses in the post-2000 Nasdaq crash, it's one we'd like never to repeat again.

Sure, if you get in early enough, you can make some big short-term gains following what's commonly called momentum investing. There's even a pretty savvy measure you can use to push these dollars up the hill -- it's called "relative strength." But for most of us, that's a recipe for buy-high-sell-low disaster.

Take advantage of the herd
A little thing called value investing -- preached by luminaries you may have heard of (Graham, Buffett) -- can help you buck such a herd mentality. Value investing involves using financial metrics to find great companies that have potential for long-lasting returns. But the important thing is to wait for the rainy day when the market panics -- and buy the stock at a discount to its intrinsic value.

Consider a few examples.

Case in point No. 1: The aforementioned tech bubble.
In 1999 and 2000, Rambus (NASDAQ:RMBS) was the next big thing -- just like Corning (NYSE:GLW), PowerwaveTechnologies (NASDAQ:PWAV), Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE), and As investors who played the momentum game back then now know, following the train (wreck) can lose you some hefty stacks of cash.

Year-end prices

























Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's.

But if you'd recognized the worth of these companies and their business models while the market was reacting to the crash, you could have found some real value -- the average gain for these four companies from the end of 2002 is more than 221% (or 37% annualized). That's a lot of incentive to be contrarian when the masses are screaming "Buy!" or "Sell!"

Case in point No. 2: Overanalyzed and overhyped IPOs.
For a more recent example, take a look at It IPO'd late in 2005 at $27 a share, shot up to $122.54 a share purely on momentum, and then plummeted to $44 a share. If you'd followed the momentum crowd, you would have lost a significant amount of money when you sold on the weakness. But if you bought Baidu contrary to the crowd, you could have gotten in at the low price and held for a 177% gain.

Case in point No. 3: Great business, short-term worry.
According to Jeremy Siegel's The Future for Investors, the best-performing stock in the entire S&P 500 since its inception has been Altria (NYSE:MO), with an annualized return of 19.8%. But even this mammoth performer had its ups and downs when the momentum crowd was changing its mind -- the company's stock price was halved from a split- and dividend-adjusted high of $37 per share in 1998 within two years. And with worries of never-ending lawsuits abounding in the market, it traded in this range until 2003. This is a prime example of a value play -- if you had the knowledge and courage to invest in a great company when the rest of the market was overreacting to a negative outlook, you would be very happy with your returns today.

Up, down, and back around
Value investing can help you beat the momentum crowd. It's where you find a great company and simply wait for it to go on sale.

Even the greatest of great companies fall out of favor at times. It happened to long-haul market beaters Altria and Coca-Cola, and there are several opportunities in today's market.

Legg Mason (NYSE:LM), a formal recommendation in our Inside Value service, is one such opportunity. Inside Value advisor/analyst Philip Durell believes that uncertainty surrounding fund outflows and cost savings has dropped the company into value territory.

Philip's record for bargain shopping is impressive -- Inside Value picks are nearly eight percentage points ahead of the market on average, and plenty of his recommendations are still trading at what he considers to be bargain prices. You can find out what they are by clicking here to be Philip's guest at the service free for 30 days.

This article was first published April 17, 2006. It has been updated.

Motley Fool sector head Shruti Basavaraj does not own shares of any company mentioned above. Coke is an Inside Value recommendation. Baidu is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers choice. The Fool's disclosure policyis sealed for freshness.