The Life of a Trendspotter

Posted on December 17, 2015 by Marian Salzman

Courtney Rhodes

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

We’ve reached the time of year when many communications professionals dive deep into writing, sharing, reading and trying to make sense of forecasts for the near-term future.

But scouting and analyzing trends is a full-time-plus job if you’re a trendspotter (for me, it happens on top of my other full-time-plus job, currently as CEO of a public relations agency). November and December just offer the chance to look closely at all the findings I’ve come across in the past 12 months, organize them and choose the most salient, which I’ve done this year in my report “11 Trends for 2016.”

The life of a trendspotter is an unusual one: uncertain, exuberant, disappointed, confused, satisfied at having made a major, zeitgeist-defining sighting before anyone else did. (And yes, this field is seriously competitive.) For all the victories, and all the missteps, there are even more almosts.

Can any of us remember how we filled time before we started collecting experiences that almost resemble real ones? (I almost talked to someone, almost read a book, almost clicked on that.) Social media, the nearly 20-year-old reality-meets-virtuality trend, began when “I spoke to” equaled “I instant messaged with.” Thanks to all our new digital connections, many of us now live a life of great real-time almosts. And those leave everyone, trendspotters especially, wondering “what if.” What if I had talked to that person? What if I had read that book? What if I had dug deeper and unearthed that missing piece that would have allowed me to connect the dots?

The almosts aren’t exactly FOMO, but, rather, fear of having missed out. Social media gives us so much perpetual potential that it’s impossible to open every door—but also impossible not to have lingering doubts about what we never discovered behind all those doors we never opened.

There’s a flip side to our 2015 struggle with the almosts: We have even more I dids. For me, as a professional trendspotter, one of my I dids was homing in on the 11 trends on my agency’s 2016 trends report, including life on Uneasy Street (with all its worries about our banking system, what technology is doing to our children’s brains, climate change and more), a backlash about 24/7 tech for ourselves and the end of cooking. I found them all through experiencing things: making sure I followed the right publications and journalists, having conversations with real people and simply feeling what it’s like to be a human being on the cusp of 2016.

You can find anything you want online, but when it comes to real connections, there’s nothing like the real thing—and the more satiating the better. People today want to go out into the physical world and experience things in real time. Maybe that’s partly so that they can have something to share on their Instagram feeds. But more than that, I think it’s because our virtual world has made us all thirsty for what’s real.

A growing trend now is to formally educate aspiring trendspotters. Maybe that’s useful. But don’t assume you have to study futurology to end up exceling in the field. Rather, and most important, you should possess the ability to really “see” things—to have the experiences when others are only almost having them.

It’s also worth noting that trendspotting isn’t coolhunting. I’m not after that new whatever on fleek that will have the earliest adopters’ attention for five minutes right now. (And I especially feel an inherent angst in the superficiality of talking consumerism at a time when the world seems to have gone mad and there’s worry about terrorists and haters everywhere—Cali, London, Paris, Colorado—so I try to veer from that.) As a trendspotter, I’m looking for shifts in mood and mindset that will have lasting effects on consumer behavior and society in general. The trends in Havas PR’s report are less about cool (here’s to a word that has stayed trendy for 30-plus years) than what’s next, even if it isn’t all that appealing.

Once upon a time, there was even a trend on trend compilation itself, but that’s for another post.

Coolhunters themselves are usually trendy, but most trendspotters are not trendsetters. We’re participants—striving for accessibility and constantly honing our craft by going to farmers markets, shopping malls, supermarkets and soccer fields (and, yes, online). There, we find out what’s driving behavior from Dubai to Tallahassee, from Zurich to South Central Los Angeles. It’s partly what you “see” but also what you glean.

Foresight is everything for a trendspotter. Just as a matchmaker might possess a second sense about which people will fall madly in love, trendspotters develop methods to foresee how a culture will react to a new idea, product or experience. Constant movement and curiosity are huge parts of doing this job well. It’s all about the fore—the anticipating, the warning.

There’s much more to it than just being there. It’s about thoroughly exploring the art of “almost,” wherever it might take you, and anticipating the “before” before it becomes the (duh) obvious.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Courtney Rhodes]

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