When is a Trend not a Trend?
At Signoi, we spend a lot of time on trends projects, often drawing from and analyzing vast amounts of social media, public sources, and search data. We use the AI to crunch the numbers and produce trajectories that either ratify that a trend exists, seek to forecast where it might go, or (sometimes, sadly) proving that actually it’s not a trend at all.
In the world of fashion, finance, technology, and virtually every other industry, trends are a constant focus. Trends drive behavior, push innovation, influence economies, and even shape societies. Yet, we often find ourselves puzzled when something we thought was a trend fizzles out or fails to have the impact we anticipated. Or perhaps it’s something we alighted on in one of the infinite proliferation of trends reports and thought pieces, and turned out to be just speculation.
This prompts us to ask a crucial question: When is a trend not a trend? The answer always lies in the data. And the simple answer is that a trend isn’t truly a trend when it lacks the essential elements of durability, broad impact, and a consequential shift in behavior or thinking. A flash in the pan, a momentary fad, a passing fancy – these may seem like trends, but they lack the longevity, reach, and transformative power that define true trends. Let’s delve into each of these elements in more detail.
A true trend has staying power. It’s not a fleeting phenomenon that disappears as quickly as it arrived. Instead, it continues to grow and evolve, influencing behavior over a sustained period of time. The rise of smartphones, for instance, was a trend that has dramatically altered how we live, work, and communicate. It wasn’t just a momentary surge in mobile phone sales, but a transformative shift that has endured for more than a decade.
In contrast, consider the Pokémon Go craze of 2016. While the game achieved phenomenal popularity, its active user base dropped significantly after a few months. This shows that despite a strong initial impact, it lacked the durability to be considered a true trend. Gartner’s Hype Cycle shows a distinct pattern with many innovations. They start big, fast, crash for a while, before finally finding their benefit and becoming ‘durable’. But not durable at the initially inflated peak. Here it is:
Sticking with technology, we can see the rise (and fall) of consumer interest in and social media commentary on some recent innovations. It almost precisely replicates the famous Gartner curve of initial hype, followed by deep disappointment, followed by a slow recovery into reality (Web 3.0 looks to be on its way to this steady state). This is the data talking to us. At certain points in the graph it would seem to be “trending”; at other points, declining.
This is not to say that all of the above are not important, but perhaps they are not as important as their originators and proselytisers may believe.
And just look at the precipitous rise of our new ChatBOT overlords. Where, we wonder will that curve end up!
Broad (Potential) Impact
A genuine trend doesn’t just affect a small group of people or a single industry. Its influence is widespread, touching various sectors and demographics. The trend towards remote work, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is an apt example. It has impacted everyone from tech professionals to teachers, and industries from software to real estate.
On the contrary, a trend that impacts only a narrow demographic or sector may not be a trend at all. For instance, the spike in interest in a particular fashion item, say bucket hats, may impact a segment of the fashion industry and a specific demographic, but it might not have wider implications for society or other industries. Let’s think about the concept of mental health. It’s been slowly trending up both in terms of social and expert commentary and consumer interest over a period of years. It accelerated during COVID and has subsequently reached a steady state both in terms of durability and broad impact – after all, it affects everybody.
Therefore, a real trend brings about a significant change in behavior or thinking. It alters the status quo and often disrupts existing practices. The rise of e-commerce is a prime example, revolutionizing the retail industry and changing consumers’ buying habits.
However, not every change signifies a trend. Sometimes, a change is merely a reaction to a temporary situation or a cyclical variation. For example, a surge in travel bookings after a period of lockdowns may seem like a trend at first glance, but it could be simply a temporary bounce-back and not indicative of a longer-term shift in travel behavior.
Also, we need to be alert to the stage a trend is at. Truly emergent trends may be hard to spot or forecast, because they are at such an early stage.
For all these reasons, when we source and analyse data for trends projects, we often triangulate across many different sources.
- The expert or specialist view. Let’s say you’re interested in exploring trends around organic ADHD treatments. A source of data could be a database such as PubMed, which details early stage experimental reports (many hundreds of thousands of them). We could also use the Twitter feeds of experts to track what is going on and where there are shifts in the conversation.
- The commercial view. Bluntly, what are people selling? Companies’ social media feeds or innovation databases can help flesh this element out.
- The customer view. What are people interested in within the ADHD topic? What are they responding to on social? Is there a spontaneous rising demand for organic treatments or not?
This triangulation is akin to looking at trends through the lens of paid, owned, and earned conversations.
An interesting sub plot sometimes emerges – the expert view is a often a precursor to commercialization, and the reality is sometimes that spontaneous consumer curve of interest rises in tandem, but then declines even though the companies selling their product keep banging on about it. Arguably all this then allows us to distinguish things which are trends versus things that are mainstream versus those that are just the proverbial flash in the pan.
All based on the data.
To conclude, not everything that initially appears as a trend withstands the test of time, impact, and transformation. It’s crucial to understand these differentiating factors to distinguish between true trends and transient phenomena. So, the next time you find yourself faced with a new exciting shiny object, take a moment to ask: Is this a genuine trend or merely a passing craze? And how do I get the data to makes sense of this?
In this fast-paced world where change is the only constant, the ability to discern true trends from distractions can give you a significant advantage, whether you’re a business leader, a policy maker, or an everyday consumer.
It is clear, by the way, that the new wave of AI innovation like ChatGPT will deliver durability, broad impact, and consequential shift.
We know this because it wrote half of this blog article in around 2.5 seconds.
We’ll be writing more on this and other AI related subjects shortly, meanwhile please do get in touch if you found this interesting…
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