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Trend Spotting

Trends are all the rage these days. These big, long-lasting patterns are "movements" in a specific direction. Some of the most famous trends of the past 50 years still offer opportunities over half a century after they started. Consider The Baby Boom.

The Baby Boom gave us Barbie, The Beatles, crowded classrooms, a breakdown in traditional lines of authority and a generation who will experiment with their lives until the very end. It still offers huge opportunities in health care, anti-aging, volunteerism and eldercare.

In the past, fads often popped up on the surface of trends, briefly providing a common cultural touchstone before evaporating. The game Trivial Pursuit tapped into the "over" educated Baby Boom who needed somewhere to display their "useless" knowledge. Rubrics Cubes dotted the landscape in the 80s, a tricky puzzle that could be solved more easily than the puzzle about what was re-shaping the nation's economy.

Lately, old fashioned fads which lasted at least 9 months (like the Hula Hoop) seem to have disappeared, replaced by hyper-fads while race around the Internet for a few days and are gone. In December 2005, one hyper-fad was an ordinary suburban house with a light show that was synced to music. Not coincidentally, it capped off an extraordinary period of focus on homes (lower interest rates and a housing "bubble").

At Joint Communications, we spend a lot of time focusing on trends. And, we keep a weather-eye on fads. One of our favorite trend touchstones is demography -- because it is so predictable and because it offers so many opportunities.

Taking Advantage of Demographic Trends

Examining large-scale shifts in population involves demography. It makes some trends very obvious. Census data shows the population is aging and a majority of Americans soon will be middle-aged or older. The Census also shows that America is becoming much more multi-cultural and ethnic. This is a trend.

As people get older, they become slightly more resistant to new ideas and new music, which should mean this growing older audience will show a general tendency toward oldies, nostalgia and conservatism. It's already happening.

At the same time, another trend continues -- increases in Hispanic, Black and Asian populations. The Hispanic population is growing so quickly that it will affect media and marketing for years to come.

The trend toward a graying population will collide with some of the trends emerging from the ethnic changes in America. This will create a flurry of experimentation, tension, and new ideas. Politicians already argue about relaxing or tightening immigration laws. Hispanic radio is on a roll. Everyone is worried about the cost of health care.

In this environment, fads will pop where these two forces meet. The most obvious will revolve around food, personal "fashion", and health.

Technology As Trendsetter

Technology really shapes trends. The convergence of the Internet, cellular phones and electronic scheduling allows an unprecedented opportunity to personalize communications. It sets up the biggest trend of all -- the battle between the consumer and the consolidator for power over the entertainment future.

Consumers want to control their entertainment, to re-package it and to share it. The consolidation model is designed to take this control away from them by dominating content and distribution in such a way that the consumer has very little control.

Technology is also part of a huge "virtual" trend. Whether it's digital "extras" in King Kong or Pixar's cartoons with famous voices, the trend is the same -- "real" people are disappearing from many parts of the entertainment business -- replaced by technology that makes them seem alive.

Business can thrive in this environment by following a couple of basic rules. First, if a fad fits your business model, jump on it very fast, work it very hard, and get off it as quickly as you can. Don't touch a fad that doesn't fit your marketing and positioning strategy. If a fad doesn't fit your image, stay away.

Some trends to use -- technology that makes you smarter and more entertaining, websites to provide more detail about your product, "connect" listeners and give them control. Some fads to watch out for -- too many "Survivor"-like contests and mean-spirited talk shows.

The two biggest trends in the technological space are "search" and "community". Everyone needs a Table of Contents (search) to help them navigate. Google is the leader for now. It's human nature to want community which is why sites such as My Space have been thriving.

The other two trend opportunities focus on providing "convenience" (make it easy like Amazon's One-Click shopping) and "context" (make sense of things like The Drudge Report).