From the December 2008 issue of Entrepreneur

When Jeremy Gutsche sees his disparate group of 20,000 trend hunters posting similar observations on his trend-spotting website, he gets excited.

That usually means something's emerging from the chatter. He calls them "clusters of innovation," and they're the basis for the trend predictions on Trendhunter.com, which logs about 8 million views per month.

Gutsche's approach is very different from that of Ann Mack, advertising giant JWT's director of trend spotting, who leaves no research stone unturned when hunting trends. Mack and her team have a network of influencers in publishing, music, fashion, technology and other sectors that they tap for insight about what's hot. They also audit existing research and conduct their own surveys, focus groups and observations of consumer behavior through diaries and consumer immersion. "We identify a pattern, formulate that into a hypothesis and try to validate or invalidate it," she says. "We also have a team of trend scouts all over the world who keep us honest." The trend scouts, many of whom are JWT employees, tell Mack and company whether the trend translates across borders.

Other trend spotters, like Richard Laermer, go by their own sense of the world and their gut instinct. A voracious reader, Laermer, author of 2011: Trendspotting, likes to "look at industries that have nothing to do with my business," he says. "If I look at sports marketers, paper companies and farmers and they're all looking for the same thing, I know there's something there."

Whether trend spotting through social networks, research or your own gut is most effective is anyone's guess, but each of these futurists has hit the mark. Laermer says he called the BlackBerry trend when he predicted that technophiles wouldn't want to be tethered to their computers and would, instead, love to receive notification of e-mail on their pagers. Gutsche says he predicted the expansion of luxury brands back in 2005, before the trend went mainstream. And Mack says one of the trends her team called first was the rise in radical transparency--the idea of showing and telling all on social networks and blogs, no matter how personal--and how it would give rise to radical transparency remorse, as inappropriate sharing on social networks would begin negatively affecting college admissions and job offers.

So how can you adopt these trend-spotting styles to become your company's own futurist? It's possible, say the experts, who share these tips:

  • Listen.You've heard it so many times that it may seem trite, but listening is essential to predicting trends, says Mack, and it's something many business owners don't do. Ask your customers questions about your products and services. Ask what they're looking for next. Find out what media they're watching and what they think of current events. "If you have a number of constituents and they gravitate to and consume [enough] media to reflect their media patterns, create a watch list," she says. "Take all that in and look at the media they're taking in."
  • Pay attention.Read trade publications related to your industry to identify key issues. And watch industries that are always on the cutting edge, such as technology, music and fashion, to find emerging trends that may benefit your business. Mack and her team often tap experts in other fields who look at particular challenges and offer fresh insights. She says entrepreneurs can do the same. Bring in a trusted colleague from a different industry and get his or her take on what you're doing and what might be next for your industry. A smart outsider can be a real asset, she says.
  • Follow trends online.Trend-hunting websites like Gutsche's, as well as trendhunter.com and JWT's jwtintelligence.com, offer up the trends du jour, so add them to your regular web surfing itinerary. One thing to avoid, says Laermer, is only perusing the media that relate to you. "You have to be interesting," he says. "The only way to do that is to know what's going on in the world. That helps you keep your business interesting and relevant to your customers."
  • Go old school. Ask your customers what they think, says Mack. Laermer suggests organizing online or in-person focus groups to find out what people are thinking. You can also launch social media groups or chat rooms to gather feedback from your audience.

    Each of these experts agrees that spotting your own trends requires a combination of knowing your business and your customer and keeping an eye on what's happening around you. With that big-picture/small-picture view, you'll be better able to identify the emerging trends that will affect your business.

Hits Misses 2009 Prediction
Prediction: Self-involvement will evolve into an art form. Note the booming popularity of Plurk, Twitter and Facebook Live.

Prediction: Last year he said, "Celebrity and politics will merge to the point where Paris Hilton and Barack Obama will be perceived as the same person."
Prediction: Antibacterial soaps will go the way of the dinosaur.

Prediction: When Kurt Vonnegut recommended (just before his death) that the government should create a cabinet position for a secretary of the future, Laermer believed it would be fast-tracked.
"There will be an absolute shift in the way people use the internet--what I call 'searching vs. finding.' It's a move to find what is directly relevant to us as individuals as opposed to what it's been till now: browsing for the hell of it--or to do well on Trivial Pursuit in 15 years."
Richard Laermer, author of 2011: Trendspotting
 
Prediction: Water availability will be one of the next big environmental issues.

Prediction: There will be a shift to localization in shopping and entertainment, spurred by increased traffic hassles, concerns about climate change and fuel costs.
Prediction: An economic bubble pop will most heavily impact the tech sector and China in particular. "Everything is getting smaller, from homes to cars to technology to packaged products to supply chains. With businesses driven to achieve efficiencies (in terms of energy, expenses, both or otherwise) from the top and the bottom, the 'small' movement will increasingly see the environment as a beneficiary, if not a driver. Smaller will come to signify better--better for business, better for the consumer and potentially better for the environment."
Ann Mack, director of trend spotting for advertising giant JWT
 
Prediction: Shockvertising, or using jarring images or words, will grow. This was evidenced by the bloody arms that appeared in butcher shops to promote the European launch of Dexter and blood-colored soap in public washroom soap dispensers for the game Clue.

Prediction: Politics will influence fashion. We've seen a spike in interest in Sarah Palin's glasses and Hillary Clinton's pantsuits.

Prediction: Artists will continue to recycle garbage into art, as evidenced by dozens of innovations in fashion and furniture.
Prediction: Advertisers will embrace blogs in the same way that they do print and broadcast media. (This hasn't quite caught on yet.) "Traditional beauty has become ubiquitous, driving cutting-edge designers to use more extreme and 'real' characters as icons of beauty. For example, Vivienne Westwood used real Gypsies on the runway, Yohji Yamamoto used senior citizens and one designer even used real prostitutes. The use of real beauty seems to generate more buzz. We're likely to see more examples of this, signaling further marketing and fashion opportunities."
Jeremy Gutsche of Trendhunter.com