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Entrepreneurial Trendwatching


Image: sophistix

It’s the latest thing… apparently. Traditional tattoos are noughties, embroidered tattoos are nice. YouTube wedding dances are out, sword fight wedding dances are in. Imelda Marcos shoe closets are embarrassing, stiletto rolodexes are perfect for showing off. According to Trendhunter.com, a 30,000-strong community that tries to spot rising coolness before it cools off, those are just some of the trends that are currently on the way up. It’s the kind of information that’s supposed to be worth a fortune to companies keen to cash in on the next big thing. But can trendwatching really deliver returns for businesses?

Twitter certainly hopes so. The site includes a list of trending topics on its Web interface, letting users see the most popular discussion subjects at any time. Usually, those tend to be fairly banal. Standard subjects are often the music that people are listening to as they’re tweeting what they’re eating for lunch. Three words to say after sex frequently bubbles back into the list as do “omgfacts” and things that #WillGetYouSlapped. Where they come from, nobody knows but it’s hard to see how knowing that “”Queue” is the only word in the English language that is pronounced the same after removing the last 4 letters” is going to make someone some money.

And yet when Brizzly came out, a service that unites Twitter and Facebook into one social media platform and which also offers a short paragraph explaining what each trend is about, both Biz Stone and Evan Williams were quick to tweet about it and give it their thumbs up. The business option that Biz Stone has frequently hinted will soon be launched is said to include easy trend following among more obviously useful features that include multiple account users and mention alerts – information that can be accessed now through Trendistic. So far though, it seems that the only people who have managed to make money out of Twitter’s trends are the evil spammers who insert popular hashtags into their sales messages.

Trendwatching Unlocks Cool

But that doesn’t mean that trend following itself has  no value at all. Trendhunter.com defines trendwatching as “the science of identifying emerging shifts in our social behaviour and aspirations,” and claims that the information it gathers is used by industry professionals to develop products, generate ideas and keep marketing, media, design and strategic planners informed.

“Breakthrough ideas and strategic advantage hinge on the ability to anticipate trends and identify the next big thing,” the service claims. “By tracking the evolution of cool, Trend Hunters generate ideas, stimulate creativity, and ultimately unlock cool.”

Or to put it another way, its list of thousands of rising memes function as a kind of giant morgue file for creative types looking for inspiration. Art directors might not see it as a fleet of bandwagons ready for jumping on, so much as a place to copy and build on the smart ideas of others.

But trendwatching can do more than reveal original thoughts. It can also display which of those concepts is more likely to come out a winner. Helene Blowers, a self-confessed trend watcher who blogs about libraries and new technologies, has been tracking the rise of digital readers to discover whether the Kindle, the Nook, Sony’s Reader or the much-awaited Apple Tablet will be the format of choice for the future of e-books, and presumably replacing her bookshelves. The jury still seems to be out on which device will take the prize but it is clear that tracking the discussions might just reveal which of the platforms is currently the most popular. Compare the terms “Kindle,” “Nook” and “Sony Reader” on Trendistic, for example, and it becomes clear that Amazon’s device has consistently been a bigger talking point than its rivals:

Search for the tweets themselves that mention those terms and a publisher wondering which format to publish a book on first will be able to see whether Kindle is more discussed because it’s better or because Amazon has just removed a bunch of purchases from its customers’ devices again. Of course, the sales figures of each of those devices might be just as revealing, but they’re only available if the manufacturer agrees to reveal them. Discussion numbers are available to anyone.

There’s Money in Trends

Where trendwatching can be most valuable though is in finance. Ron Insana, author of Trendwatching: Don’t be Fooled by the Next Investment Fad, Mania or Bubble argues that when it comes to investment, those who have paid attention to the patterns of previous trends are able to spot bubbles as they rise, placing their money in when the bubble begins to grow, taking it out before it pops – and cleaning up after the pieces have finished flying around. The best investment professionals, he writes, are able to recognize the patterns in rising trends and spot the moment when behavior becomes irrational.

“At that point, these ‘trend watchers’ depart the scene, content to let others catch the last leg up.”

So trendwatching can function as a source of inspiration. It can reveal solid figures about the relative popularity of competing products and ideas. And it can even enable savvy professionals to spot investment opportunities, letting them place their money on rising assets — and remove them as the patterns in those trends start to change.

But the trends themselves are only the raw materials. While following them might make for some easy and interesting reading, Ron Insana notes as early as his introduction that understanding them and being able to act on them is a lot harder than just watching them. Inspiration is one thing but mimicry will only land a creative designer second place to the first and original. Seeing that one device is more discussed than another might be a measure of the effectiveness of current marketing rather than the long-term staying power of a new product. And lots of people saw that house prices were trending upwards in the last few years. Only a handful were smart enough to see that there was nothing behind those prices other than hot air and fat mortgages.

Trendwatching can make a business money then, but the data has to be matched with some smart thinking too.

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