How Does the Internet Smell to You? — The Perils of Predicting Trends


When we first started doing significant work among youth, we noticed that many established competitors in the field were “trend hunters.” The idea was that trends seem to start among youth, and organizations that have a head start on identifying emerging trends would be in a position to capitalize on them.  Trend hunting firms started putting out newsletters and selling syndicated reports.  The ones that were (and continue to be) the most successful were the ones that made the most outlandish predictions.

We thought hard about getting into this trend forecasting business ourselves.  Our clients have a clear need to spot emerging trends.  We put together a business plan and were about to move forward when I attended a youth marketing industry event. One of the keynote speakers was well-known as a trend forecaster and led a successful company.  I listened intently, hoping to gain a few pointers on how to get into the business.

She ran through her top 20 trends for the upcoming year.  One of them was that “smell will become an important feature of the Internet.” Yes, she was predicting that technology would permit smell devices being placed on computers, and web site owners could control them (presumably through some type of Smell-O-Vision wizardry) to extend our interactive experiences to another sense.

I was about to raise my hand to say “you’ve got to be kidding, right?” when I noticed most of the other attendees nodding and intently taking notes so they could take this insight back to their companies.  I genuinely thought she was joking as a presentation technique.  She was not.

This experience was 10 years ago.  When I look back at her top 20, 19 of her predictions haven’t even come close to coming true.  (One has – she did make an excellent prediction relating to touch-screen technology.)

I realized at that conference that trend forecasting of this nature isn’t really research and it isn’t really accurate.  However, if you make an outlandish prediction and it comes through, you become famous for seeing something nobody else did.  Nobody remembers that 95% of your predictions were way off the mark.  But, if it happens, you can become known for being the person that predicts smell will rule the Internet 10 years before it happens.

I’ve long thought that our clients are better off understanding more fundamental things about their customers.  So, we focused our studies more on generational theory and understanding how the generations intersect with age and history to help understand the future. We try to predict longer term patterns in behaviors and attitudes, and work with clients to make hypotheses as to how this might affect their business going forward.  By taking this approach we may miss fast emerging (but ephemeral) trends, but we do seem to provide a good understanding of longer term forces.

For the record, we don’t think Internet scent is going anywhere soon.  But, I saw the person who made this prediction on the Today show last year, so maybe we are in the wrong business after all!

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