Of all the challenges that marketing and comms teams face regularly, predicting customer behavior might be the hardest to come by—and the most tantalizing. After all, seeing what consumers might do in the next month, season, or year would certainly solve a lot of problems. Understanding where your industry is headed—well before your competitors—wouldn’t hurt either.

The requisite crystal ball may not exist, but your marketing and communications teams can make use of the next best thing: a skilled and experienced trend forecaster.

What Is Trend Forecasting?

Legitimate trend forecasts need deep expertise, a sense of informed discernment and a sponge-like absorption of user behavior. 

Brian Solis is author of the new book Lifescale and Principal Analyst and Futurist at Altimeter Group. He says it’s part art and part science, and not at all precise, but when it’s done well, it transcends pure communications.

“Communications as an industry is just largely mechanical,” he says. “And the better professionals in the industry really care about their relationships, they’re really knowledgeable about their subjects. But to go and look at the future and become a value-added resource to your network, that’s an entirely different league.”

Trend forecasting requires the ability to sort quickly through massive amounts of input. This includes current customer tendencies, data-supported behavior and choices, outside influences, and the likely outcomes of those influences. It means charting the likely future course of emerging trends. None of this is typically supported by certificate or degree programs alone. It requires a deeply rooted familiarity with a specific field and a carefully cultivated network of experts and influencers.

Predicting Trends Solves Problems

Trend forecasting solves otherwise intractable problems when it’s implemented properly into your corporate comms and marketing workflows. By understanding future scenarios today, you can act fast, before the competition gets a leg up. You can then shape your message and disseminate it before they do.

Vikki Willmott, Global Head of Content and Publishing at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says that the value a reputable trend forecaster can add to your team rests in a shift toward proactive planning, rather than the default reactivity so many corporate comms teams get stuck in.

“Because of the fast-moving pace of today’s media and comms landscape,” Willmott says, “it can be easy to become heavily focused on responsive comms. What are people asking for immediately? What’s our point of view? How quickly can we deliver it? By looking forward, planning, and being prepared for what’s ahead, communications becomes more meaningful—and far more effective.”

If that sounds like a useful shift in perspective, a trend forecaster can be a worthwhile investment. 

Finding the Right Trend Forecaster for Your Needs

Trend forecasting is new enough that there are no established best practices or solid hiring resources. Our experts suggest a few qualities to look for in a potential forecaster or futurist. 

Wilmott suggests the primary trait is curiosity as well as “the ability to turn behavior into insights,” but adds that more concrete skills are also crucial. “Genuine research skills are key. This can’t be about churning data into pretty graphs, but a real ability to spot patterns and communicate what they mean.” 

Solis also cautions that you need to know your own field well in order to hire a decent forecaster. That sort of deeply-plugged-in sense of your field means you’ll be more likely to hear those resonant messages from authoritative voices of genuine forecasters. 

“Having conversations with those individuals directly is where I would start,” Solis suggests. Use those conversations to feel out the influencer or expert as to both their personal interest level in new challenges and any contacts they have who might fit the bill. 

Make use of your own contacts in this process. Ask colleagues for recommendations, not just for trend forecasters per se but for skilled and knowledgeable influencers. 

Both our experts also agree that it’s important to drill down on your purpose and intention when hiring a trend forecaster. Know what type of audience you need to understand if you’re looking into consumer trends. Experience is crucial but so is passion. Look for a person who can clearly communicate clearly both their expertise and their fascination in the audience and market you’re working with. 

Avoiding Fraudulent Forecasters

While legitimate trend forecasting has been around for years, so have fraudulent “experts.” 

Remember “normcore?” Forecasting firm K-Hole predicted the trend in 2014. It consisted of brandless clothing designed to stand out only by its bland lack of distinguishing features. What many may not have realized at the time or since is that K-Hole was an art collective indulging its passion for creative (i.e., completely made-up) endeavors. Then a weird thing happened: The fake trend became real. While this might a case study in how to start a trend of your own, it won’t serve you well in finding a trustworthy partner.

How can you tell if you’re talking with a forecaster who lacks the expertise or maybe is even a fraud? Solis says it really comes down to a combination of your own intuition and experience. “It can be very difficult to know because unless you’re keeping a scorecard of what they say and what happens, it’s very difficult to spot them out. It’s really going to be based on what feels right, what sounds right, the process that these individuals go through to work with you.” 

Your own expertise can help you recognize forecasting problems before they become disasters for the company. You can also give them a trial run and then evaluate the value of the information they deliver to your team, Solis suggests, adding that, at least to some extent, “it’s unfortunately trial by error, or trial by success.” 

Working a Trend Forecaster into Your Current Flow

Wilmott points out there are different kinds of trends, each playing a distinct role in comms and marketing. 

First, she says, “there are trends about consumer behavior, which should be involved at the very top of your process when you arrive at a creative platform.” 

Next, be aware of more tactical trends, which should help you shape your content strategy. “Understanding the various forms means you can work out which resources are most useful, and how they can be integrated into your way of working.”

So, how can you best incorporate trend forecasters into your comms and marketing workflows? In some respect, Willmott says, you use trend information the same way you would any kind of data or insight. It’s only useful to the extent that you truly let it seep into your entire process and inform your messaging choices.

Next Steps: Position Your Brand as One to Watch

Read our ebook Secrets of a Trend Spotter, Revealed for a behind the scenes look at how trend forecasters get their finger on the pulse, and how to tap their full potential.