Wake Up Your Inner Trendwatcher

By Els Dragt, Trend Research & Trainer, How to Research Trends, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, els@howtoresearchtrends.com

Conventional research methods don’t always cut it when it comes to exploring future consumer behaviours. Trend research is a powerful method to detect change at an early stage as it provides an analysis of emerging shifts in people’s needs and wants. These trend insights are essential in innovation processes and serve as a foundation to create future-proof strategies and concepts. Let’s dive into the world of trends and wake up your inner trendwatcher!

The Crystal Ball Shattered

The profession of a trend researcher is still highly charged with stereotypes. Many think it is about spotting the latest fashion styles or the newest gadgets. Images of crystal balls and guru-like forecasters abound. I fully understand this preconception because it was mine too, some twenty years ago. But when I started to orientate myself on trend research, the scales fell from my eyes. I was amazed about the broader scope of this field and how it includes so much more than just hype or this season’s colour schemes.

Also, many feel that trend research is about predicting the future. Maybe a trend guru here or there will tell you that they can give a one hundred percent accurate forecast of the coming years, providing statements like, “In 2030, we will all have self-sustaining lifestyles, transport ourselves via self-driving cars and 3D print our food”. But most trend researchers take the point of view that it is impossible to accurately predict the future. There is just too much uncertainty in predicting the outcome of a process involving human beings combined with elements of nature.

We may not be able to predict the future, but we definitely can use trend research to explore various futures. You can make an educated guess about how trends might play out in different ways in the nearby future. And let’s face it, is it not better to at least try to explore the future than to ignore it altogether?

Before we go deeper into the process of trend research, let’s first take a step back and define what trends are.

Trend Research 101

As there is such a wide variety of interpretations of a trend, I feel it is essential to explain which definition of a trend I use: A trend is a direction of change in values and needs which is driven by forces and manifests itself already in various ways within certain groups in society.

In a nutshell, we study change to find patterns that show that people’s needs and wants are shifting in certain directions. These patterns of change are called trends. The trends are driven by bigger global forces (such as globalisation or digitalisation) and already manifest themselves in various ways, like a certain type of style, language, behaviour, or a new service or product. These manifestations can be spotted first amongst niche groups in society that are setting the trend or embracing it in an early stage.

When trying to make sense of change, you will go through three research phases: scan, analyse, and apply (see Figure 1).

  • The Scan phase focuses on finding signs of change.
  • The Analyse phase relates to understanding these signs of change.
  • The Apply phase is about implementing trend insights to create change.

The three phases are quite generic and applicable for any kind of research project, not just trend research. However, the way trend researchers execute these phases discerns it from other types of research, such as qualitative and quantitative market research or UX research. Let’s take a closer look at each phase and see how it links to qualitative research.

Scan: The Art of Looking Sideways

The future is happening right now. How do you find these manifestations of the future? You’ll need to practice the art of looking sideways by scanning the environment for seeds of change. Scanning the world means having your radar on always, anytime, anywhere.

The scanning process is not done at random. Trend researchers scan the environment using various sources which can mainly be divided into two categories:

  • Field research sources like hitting the streets in upcoming areas and attending debates, lectures, tradeshows, and festivals where visionaries share their stories about change.
  • Desk research sources ranging from books, newspapers, magazines, prognosis reports and documentaries, to vlogs, blogs, and podcasts. Again, look for the voices of innovators within these sources.

In essence, you use qualitative research skills such as curiosity, empathy, inquiry, and online and offline conversing, but the scope of your sources is broader and what you are looking for and who you are talking to is different.

Most qualitative research zooms in on the past and present, giving insights into manifest needs and showing short-term opportunities. Often this is represented by what mainstream consumers are doing at the moment of research. Trend research, on the other hand, focuses specifically on spotting signs of change instead of studying the status quo. The typical trend respondents are visionary frontrunners; think academics, entrepreneurs, designers, start-ups, activists, and artists. 

Analyse: Connecting the Dots

One manifestation of change is not yet a trend. You collect a lot of information while scanning, and making sense of your findings is the next phase of the trend research process. In this phase, you are moving from trend spots to understanding the underlying shifts in values and needs. Trend analysis is about clustering manifestations of change into meaningful trends and visualizing these in an inspiring way for others to understand too.

Again, in this phase, qualitative research skills are used, being able to deal with ambiguity, semiotics, subjectivity, and having a keen eye for finding patterns and analyzing these from a human perspective. The main difference is that qualitative researchers are often expected to keep the voice of the consumer very close and provide a cross section of everything mentioned by these consumers, while trend researchers are allowed to look sideways, to navigate on their expert intuition and play the leading role in the curation of the collected information and creation of the storyline. See the example from a client ideation session in Figure 2.

Apply: Innovate or Die

The analysis phase will result in an overview of several trends. The next step is to decide which trends to apply and to integrate into innovation processes with a specific scope. This all depends on the goals of the organisation or brand that wants to apply trend insights. During this phase a trend researcher will take the first steps (often together with the client) to translating trends in a tailor-made way, so these can be applied as a springboard for innovation and for developing future-proof ideas.

In this phase, it helps to work in multidisciplinary teams of strategists, designers, and researchers. To keep the consumer close, you will need to check if your future insights are not too farfetched for the client’s current target group. Qualitative researchers can be the voice of the consumer during this stage. Also, having a panel of mainstream consumers react to the innovative ideas and concepts helps to fine-tune these insights.

Wake Up Your Inner Trendwatcher: Tips and Tools

As a qualitative researcher, you have the skills to execute trend research, too. Why not experiment with adding this research approach to your toolbox? Here are some tips and tools to get you on your way.

Create a scan plan: To get started with field and desk research, it helps to create a scan plan. This is an overview of field research and desk research activities you plan to execute. Be sure to specify what you are going to visit, click, watch, read, or listen. By making a scan plan you can create a focus in your scanning process and work in a more structured way. You can make an individual plan or a team plan; you can make a plan for one day to a month to even a whole year.

Find the front-runners: You might feel that you do not know these types of people, but you probably know more of them than you think. Ever heard of the idea of six degrees of separation? Start mapping your own network in general or focus on a certain topic you want to research.

Crowdsource your network and use online social platforms and your offline personal network to scout front-runners. Add anyone you have spoken to during field research and develop your own online or offline rolodex.

Document findings from the start: When you start out scanning you might feel you will be able to remember everything you saw, but when you are spotting for months on end, this will not be feasible anymore. Archiving your information is crucial in trend research, and you should find a way to file your findings somewhere external so you can take a trip down memory lane any time you like. To find out what works best for you, experiment with the different kinds of filing systems such as Evernote or Padlet.

Create a trend wall: When starting off with your trend analysis, going analogue is often best to see everything at a glance and find unexpected patterns. Create a designated space for your trend overview where it can stay for a longer period of time. This way you can review and reflect on your collection and add or delete signs throughout the clustering process.

Make trends actionable: Move beyond trend reporting and put your trend insights to use. You can prioritise trends with a client by matching them with their brand values. Creating roadmaps to a desirable future together with a client is also a great way to apply trends. And last but not least, trends can serve as a starting point for creative brainstorm and ideation sessions. See what happens if you put emerging values at the heart of ideation instead of current consumer values. See example in Figure 3.

Capturing the Spirit of Youth

While I was working at MARE Amsterdam, a qualitative and trend research agency, we were commissioned to immerse several clients 24/7 into the world of Millennials to provide them with a constant flow of unorthodox trend and qualitative research-based findings. We hung out with all types of youngsters all over the world, went shopping, gaming, and dancing with them. Additionally, we scouted the young vanguard to unravel their visions on the future.

We decided to share our accumulated knowledge on Millennials with a wider audience, and BIS Publishers agreed to publish on the terms that there would be no reporting, no conclusions, no facts and figures. We were briefed to “show, don’t tell.” This culminated in a visual snapshot of the Tumblr generation (Figure 3), where young talented artists provided all visuals and we created a Tumblr-style layout and texts. The title: Always Be Yourself. Unless You Can Be a Unicorn, Then Always Be a Unicorn.

Follow the Front-runners

The process of combining qualitative research with trend research and collaborating with the young, creative vanguard even changed the way we perceived the future of research and changed our own ways of working. We started researching in a more inline way (merging the online and offline world), embracing serendipity in projects and became more sensitive to visual communication. We presented our research and book creation process at an ESOMAR qualitative conference in Paris and were awarded best presentation. When you tune in to the vanguard, you can become a front-runner in research as well.

Human-centered Innovation: Trend Boot Camps

It’s often hard for tech-driven organisations or brands to understand the human side of technology. Dutch telecom brand KPN wants their teams to add this angle and to understand trends from a human perspective instead of just from a technological point of view. The Market Intelligence team asked me to collaborate and pilot a trend research training. This training gets teams to think on a long-term scale, to be more aware of changes outside of their industry, to understand better why these changes are happening and to translate their findings into new concepts, services, or products.

Learning by Doing

During one-day Trend Boot Camps for KPN, a team from marketing, tech, innovation, or strategy went through the trend research cycle in a hands-on way.
They hit the streets to spot signs of change, created a trend wall and analysed their findings from a human perspective. Their day finished with a trend-driven ideation session, where they came up with many future-proof concepts related to the telecom industry and their brand. Participants often shared it made them look at the change in a very different way.

What Is Your Preferred Future?

In the context of an ever-changing world, trend research can be used as a method to identify and to understand change in a structured way in order to be aware of possible directions of change. It can be applied to social, public, and commercial challenges. Trend insights can steer one toward a more consciously-chosen future and provide input to influence the future.

I would like to take trend research to the next level where organisations perceive trend analysis as an ongoing dialogue rather than just a yearly purchase of a trend report as a nice little add-on. I believe it is up to trend researchers to empower organisations to produce innovative policies, strategies, concepts, products, and services that in turn empower people.

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