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How to predict the future!

by Anne Yeiser

What is your method for analyzing the need for new products and services? When it's impossible to survey every potential customer, how do you make your public relations and marketing decisions?

Trend Watching by John E. Merriam and Joel Makower gives a technique for research and prognostication through simple counting and measuring of stories in the news media. Why would this method provide insight for market analysis?

The media create trends, say Merriam and Makower, which steer the economy and society. Basically, media messages (we're speaking here of news, not ads) exert influence on the public mind, leading to later action. In our time, "Nothing really happens unless the media cover it." And the amount of coverage is an indicator of trends.

This does not mean that journalists are the chief movers and shakers of society, since what they report is what is happening and what people want to know. Events, developments and concerns are the stuff of news flows, and by finding patterns in these flows, you are using information about information to keep pace in an age of rapid change.

Trend watching is how John Naisbitt formulated his predictions in Megatrends. It is being practiced by major corporations in order to see where society is heading and better meet market demand. "It is not a public affairs operation; it is an attempt to understand social change and to find useful answers for the operations team." If they do it and make millions, why not you?

What is trend watching?

To be a trend watcher, you need to read or watch news media, count issues and events, record them for later examination, and use that data to formulate predictions about what may happen over the next one to five years.

Trend watching is not market research, which gathers data on what groups of people are thinking, but it is a support for this function.

Trend watchers recognize that in this Information Age, the key to business profits is knowing how to find, acquire, use and sell information. The successful entrepreneur must be able to discern how bits of information are related, and sort through the "noise" of the glut of messages to retrieve meaningful data.

It is important for trend watchers to look at the news flow on national and local levels, and to review a variety of media, including newspapers, news magazines, TV news shows, specialty publications, and trend-setting media such as The New England Journal of Medicine or Science Magazine.

The exact mix of these depends upon your objective in trend watching, but it shouldn't be necessary to scan more than three newspapers (perhaps one national), several general or specialized magazines and two TV programs. Through setting up a simple system, scanning rather than reading, and, if possible, utilizing employees to help with the project, your trend watching will not take up an excessive amount of time.

The first step is to determine what you want to know. For example, if you are a builder, you need to track information in the areas of construction costs, finance, zoning and housing styles, among others. Don't let your list of categories be longer than 50 items, including both major titles and subheads.

Next, select the publications and programs that bring you stories on your topics of interest. Merriam and Makower describe a system for counting and calculating media exposures, and you may wish to purchase their book for the instructions. Basically, the count consists in adding the numbers by issue and by medium over a given period of time, which also entails measuring the amount of time or space each news item receives, converting them to percentages, deriving percentages for each medium, and crunching (making a single index of) the numbers.

You are then in a position to analyze and predict trends which may affect your business. Remember, a key to success is linking causes and effects among seemingly unrelated matters.

As the authors point out, we are all trend watchers on an unsophisticated level. By infusing our day-to-day watching with some rigor, we can sort through all the "noise" and glean messages to help steer the future. Large and small firms have used trend watching to find new products or new markets, gauge public relations, judge the competition, and detect dangerous market conditions. By trend watching, you keep score of what the public is learning, what it wants to know and what it chooses to ignore.

Merriam and Makower stress that we need to do this to cope with the massive changes and uncertainty that characterize our era. A lack of vision and an inability to plan may translate to a failure to compete.

[Note, although this book was published before the impact of the Internet, its insights are valid. Trend watchers of today must also add websites to their list of media to scan.]

Reprinted by permission of publisher from TREND WATCHING, by John E. Merriam and Joel Makower ©1986 AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, New York. All rights reserved.