Forecasting traps can trip up trend-spotters

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As the economy slows, many marketers are using focus groups and other qualitative research tools to get a fix on how the public's mood translates into trends.

Yet, as trend-trackers, we need to recognize that many perils can get in the way of spotting trends, especially in turbulent times. That's the whole point of good qualitative research: It pulls us back to reality by going behind and beyond the buzzwords to see how people are really living-and buying.

* The exaggeration trap: Forecasters and marketers often like simplicity, confidently stating this is the big trend and where everything's headed. For example, everyone's "cocooning"-withdrawing to their homes rather than going out. Or everyone's on the Internet and the so-called offline world is disappearing.

We need to look at growth areas, but it's usually misleading to simply pronounce that the world is moving in just one direction. Basic human needs remain. Most people are social creatures who seek connections, whether online or in person. Most people want to get out of the house some of the time. The forms of our behavior change, but many needs remain.

* The logic trap: Many forecasts turn out to be wrong because they assume people act rationally. Habit/inertia and emotions, however, often are far more powerful than logic. In TV programming, for example, there's still the idea of "lead-in"-that programs can benefit from a strong preceding program. Logic would seem to dictate that the advent of the remote control, which enables viewers to switch channels with the flick of a finger, would have killed the "lead-in" factor. But it hasn't. Online shopping was supposed to be the death knell of bricks-and-mortar stores: Why leave home when you could order everything, including groceries, on the Web? Logical, yes. The reality is an amalgam of co-existence, what we call "complementarity."

* The static trap: Forecasts often fail to take into account that situations are dynamic. As the Internet grows, physical stores and shopping centers will work harder to attract customers. As childbirth outside of marriage increases, conservatives will work harder to discourage these pregnancies. It's a mistake to assume established cultures and institutions are incapable of changing and responding to the next new thing. Net-savvy Gen Y may love sharing music over the Net for free. In response, the traditional music industry and intellectual-property holders are working to create subscription- or fee-based services that will transform the industry yet again.

* The trendy-trend trap: Long-term trends often start out looking like short-term fads, but many short-term fads never become long-term trends. Most of my research focuses on mainstream people rather than on trendsetters. It's among the mainstream that you'll confirm a long-term trend. Many prefer to wait until they feel something has been tested and is widespread enough to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

Early on, the cell phone was embraced mainly by people who needed ubiquitous communication for their work and by the trendies who loved to look important. A sign that this has become mainstream is that mainstream women in our research now talk about the safety benefit: Having a phone takes some of the fear out of driving alone at night. Back in the early '80s, when mainstreamers began saying VCRs were a good idea because teens would stay home and the entire family would watch a movie together, it was obvious that the technology had established itself.

* The fads-are-fickle trap: Fads are hard, if not impossible, to forecast. Marketers who think they can smell a fad are sticking out their necks, not just their noses. Speculating on which new patterns may become trends actually is a lot less risky. Those that are more likely to stick around satisfy people's deeper needs. They have multiple reasons for being and tie into broader demographic and economic trends.

The health and fitness trend, for instance, connects with fear of death, aging, the desire to look good and to have a positive self-image. Eating chicken and fish makes people feel they are watching their health and their weight and saving money-a great combination of motives. The counter-trend to drink, smoke and eat fatty foods also runs deep. It ties into what I call the need to be naughty. The long-term trend of stressed-out lives also contributes to the urge to indulge. And, of course, young people remain convinced of their invulnerability. Fads are most likely to become trends when they are anchored to deep needs.

As we try to predict the future, we need to guard unrelentingly against seeing a trend in every fad or rationalizing a trend because the logic, to all appearances, is so persuasive. Qualitative research helps us by providing insight into the motivations that underlie the fads, trends and, equally important, the counter-trends. Trendsetters help us spot "what's new." But it is the mainstreamers who, with their watchful waiting, signal that a full-blown trend has arrived and is likely to be around for a good long while.

Ms. Langer is senior VP-director, Roper/Langer Qualitative Division, Roper Starch Worldwide, New York. This article is adapted from Ms. Langer's new book, "The Mirrored Window: Focus Groups from a Moderator's Point of View," published in February by Paramount Market Publishing.

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