Last year for WARC I claimed, “When it comes to trend analysis, studying the small is not always the right move.”
I was arguing for the importance of zooming out to view the more valuable big picture of culture. But this argument didn’t capture the entirety of what I now believe.
My call to “Zoom Out” came after conducting my fourth annual Meta Trend report for 2021, a lengthy process of synthesizing over 30 industry forecasts in order to arrive at the trending trends, or the most frequently reported trends. If we can use reliability and collective intelligence as a proxy for accuracy, then we’ve got a clear view of the future. That was the original intent.
But having predicted an economic downfall and a turbulent US election in the prologue of 2020’s report, I was shocked that not one report hinted at these possibilities despite all the signals at the time, and further, not one report then acknowledged the aftermath of the occurrences in their 2021 reports. Something was amiss.
In 2020 I warned, “Two catalytic events will transpire over the next year, which will re-model culture as we know it. Culture moves on even if we’re not ready.” And sure enough…
After experiencing an economic crash driven by COVID-19 and the US Capitol riot driven by radical polarization, I doubled down on the importance of looking away from Robot Pets and taking a more comprehensive bird’s eye view. But I naively thought “Zoom Out” was the best articulation or most sufficient practice to pick up on these nuanced cultural phenomena. This is what I want to correct.
We need to do more than just zoom out. We need to seek out the overlooked.
Continuing the tradition, I found the fifth annual Meta Trend Report for 2022 to be the least surprising. Because not only were each organizations’ reports’ trends similar, but now the Meta Trends (i.e., largest cultural territories) were beginning to repeat themselves. Eco-Everything and the prioritization of sustainability has been surfacing since 2019. Nostalgia since 2018. These aren’t trends, but pillars.
What good is repetition when we’re attempting to highlight change? This observation revealed a flaw to not only my Meta Report, but also its source material: every published trend report. How could this be?
These trend reports often lack a quantitative, let alone cohesive methodology. We should at least expect quant support, but even that’s rare. These reports are also regularly produced in isolation, without third-party collaboration nor consultation. Subjectivity abounds. This is not great news when we’re dealing with an alarmingly homogenous industry. These reports are also authored by organizations with bottom lines, selling services. So not only is there dangerous demographic bias, but there can also be an agenda. Lastly, putting trend reports behind paywalls is antithetical to their purpose. We must democratize the future, not sell it.
All these factors constrain us from achieving our original goal: attempting to understand the current moment and what lays ahead.
So, while Meta Trends continue to provide value via confidence with rich spaces and cultural staples, like a Vibe Economy, an emphasis upon furbabies, and an exploration of new forms of education, they don't speak to the more valuable and disruptive – the quiet forces at play. The overlooked.
The economic and political forecasts in 2020 and the subsequent disappointment in our lack of acknowledgement of their impact, would not have necessarily been solved by just “zooming out.” Instead, the reports would have caught them if we were purposefully aiming a spotlight on the overlooked. These are messy, uncomfortable, and complex concepts, which actually drive culture, and ones which usually aren’t alluded to out of discomfort. In this case, downturns, polarization, and radicalization.
There are numerous social ills – our anxiety crisis, retirement crisis, and financial FOMO, for example. There are digital ills, too. Consider “coercive” algorithms that superficially lessen our cognitive burden by recommending what content to consume next but are robbing us of autonomy and agency. Sure, dark, uncomfortable, and edgy concepts, but more prevalent and influential signals and drivers of change than anything else we’ve got.
Industry reports are tethered to consumerism and purchases. Things, not feelings. An NFT is a thing. Reports cover these...extensively. The weird, complex, squishy emotion of financial FOMO and the feeling of being left out from effortlessly making millions on an NFT is a feeling. These subtleties, beneath the surface, are endlessly more fascinating and illustrative of our cultural moment.
Trend reports are fine if their purpose is just covering the things, but it’s stepping back and looking beyond the what, and toward the stickier why that’s influencing outlooks and decisions that is more valuable. Deeper, stranger signals of change. Explanations. Upstream change.
It’s these overlooked territories that are more fruitful in unpacking to grasp the zeitgeist to then lean in.
So, it’s more than just zooming out to see the big picture.
To see what’s coming next, we must respect the bizarre and validate the weird. It’s the weak signals and under-discussed which continue to spur true threats and opportunities. The overlooked – not the mainstream reportage nor a Meta Report – must be our focus. Until then, we have an incomplete picture.
Meta Trends still hold value. Its use-case just evolved.
Rather than treating Meta Trends as an accurate forecast, we must now also use these trends as filters to seek out what’s not discussed. What’s beyond the metaverse and NFT hype?
Meta Trends are not the final product. They’re the start.
In the nicest way, those who perceive a Meta Trend as an emergent opportunity are late to the party. Meta Trends are table stakes. And further, just because something is a Meta Trend doesn’t mean that it’s a one-size-fit-all opportunity. Cultural permission is contextual by brand and vertical. Just because something is widely reported doesn’t make it a free for all. Strategy for activation is still required.
Another approach to looking beyond the Meta Trends is to interrogate each. Take Eco-Everything – what’s the outside, other side, and dark side perspectives of this phenomenon? Outside: how those on the equator are revealing climate migration. Other side: how consumers still opt for two-day shipping. Dark side: how therapists are struggling to counsel those with climate anxiety. Helping clients understand the nuanced edges are not just more interesting, but strategic. No one is playing there…yet.
All of this is to say: We can do better. Our current reports leave room for improvement. This is a call to action.
Don’t just zoom out – seek out the overlooked.
The fringe is also more fun anyway.