Spotting the Next Big Trend

Laura Foti

In the age of social media, it can be overwhelming to think about what’s next in the field of public relations. To learn about spotting trends in the communications industry, I spoke with Sean Branagan, a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Branagan teaches a semester-long course on trendspotting in the digital media, which challenges students to imagine how rising technologies might change the way we communicate. Here is a condensed version of our conversation.

Laura: What is trendspotting?

Branagan: The idea of looking for little clues and tremors and identifying what could happen if certain elements align. It’s based on a principal of how to do futuring properly. You have to include uncertainty and look for habits in different audiences that could expand to other audiences. You need to be able to tell the story of what the future will look like–that’s trendspotting. You add a bunch of what-ifs and you could end up with more computer power in your pocket than what’s up in space.

Laura: With new forums, social networks, communities—where is the best place for a PR person to look daily to see trends?

Branagan: It’s like being an anthropologist when you walk through life. Go watch what kids are doing. They act like little adults but they have means and ability and their own drivers. You have to say, ‘that’s a 13-year olds version’, but it’s better than reading a futurist’s blog.

Laura: Snapchat is a good example of a new communications channel that has been quickly adopted by teenagers.

Branagan: Exactly, it’s adding value by doing what used to take away value–it doesn’t live forever. Someone would take a Polaroid and it would get lost and now Snapchat is making a disappearing photo a value proposition. To me, it’s a conjured value. The bigger view is what else can you conjure up in this value driven field. Pretend like it’s opposite day. How do you make the opposite cool and what value does it add? Snapchat doesn’t necessarily add value; it creates a false urgency.

Laura: What if I want to find trends in conversations?

Branagan: Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools can help us measure sentiment. The idea of analytical insight and the idea that you can capture conversations didn’t exist before. The real conversations between people are in texts, Snapchat, Facebook, and they’re momentary and quantifiable.

If 100 emails a minute are coming into the customer service department, I can look at sentiment and see who’s tense and angry and get those to the right person. The ones that are simple I can go ahead and answer them–I don’t need a person to project in.

Laura: What part of PR is becoming obsolete because of digital media?

Branagan: I think the idea that it’s not in your hands is gone. Placement as a result is forever obsolete. The idea that the bigger the audience, the better the job is no longer true, the opposite is. The niche communities are where you want to be. There might be 100,00 people who read a certain publication, but even if they do, I’d rather talk to the 5,000 passionate evangelists who will care because they already care.

Let’s not talk to the most popular blogger because they know they’re popular. Instead, let’s talk to who’s passionate about the product and transfer that passion onto your product and make them influential. You take the passionate and make them influential­–it’s an easier path.

About Sean Branagan

Sean Branagan is a serial entrepreneur, interactive marketer and evangelist for innovation and startups. A graduate of the Newhouse School in 1980 with a degree in Magazine, Sean has started lifestyle businesses, small businesses and high-tech companies. He has been instrumental with Syracuse University’s award-winning Student Startup Accelerator, where he developed programs and courses, as well as coached and mentored student startups. He is also creator of “Student Startup Madness” at South by Southwest, a collegiate digital media startup tournament launched in March 2012.

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