It’s a little after 9 a.m. on the Friday before Thanksgiving, and Jeremy Gutsche is holding court in his Toronto office, talking about cupcakes. Bacon-flavoured cupcakes, to be specific, and how restaurants can use them to generate interest in their brands. The meaty-sweet treats are among the thousands of wacky ideas, products and fads catalogued on Trend Hunter, the website Gutsche launched in 2006.

At 36, Gutsche is quoted regularly as an expert on such topics by the likes of CNN, the Guardian and the Globe and Mail. He’s the author of two books, including the forthcoming Better and Faster. His first, Exploiting Chaos, was named one of the Best Books for Business Owners by Inc. magazine. “I like to say it’s half pictures, so you know it’s good!” he quips, fanning the pages to demonstrate. On this day, Gutsche has just returned from a speaking tour that took him to Atlantic City, Dallas and New York—a mere fraction of the 60-odd keynotes he gives each year. One CEO described him as “an intellectual can of Red Bull.” And there’s not a hint of fatigue in his voice as he preaches his vision for changing the way companies find new ideas. Trend Hunter, he explains, is more than a website: It’s a market research firm for the digital age, with a data-driven model that contrasts with more traditional “cool gurus,” who identify trends and dispense insightful pronouncements based solely on observation and “gut instinct.”

The company’s Soho Street office is located a short distance from Toronto’s hip Queen West shopping strip and has the exposed brick and informal vibe of a startup. Candy apple–red walls and couches abound. At long wooden tables, eight millennials are clicking away at laptops, well on their way to crafting the 85 or so posts added to the website each day. Browsers open, earphones in, they sweep the corners of the Internet for concepts and products that might appeal to the roughly three million web surfers who land on Trend Hunter’s articles each month. Once a team member finds something worth sharing—Ron Burgundy–branded holiday tree baubles, perhaps, or a photo gallery of a light festival in Prague—the concept is quickly written up in a 120-word article to add to the 250,000-plus that already populate the website. It gets a formula-following title (“Famous Reporter Christmas Ornaments” or “Spectacular Luminous Events”) and 10 hand-selected links to push visitors further down the site’s rabbit hole of weird, buzzy content. A global network of contributors and tipsters ensures that few ideas, however outlandish, escape Trend Hunter’s notice.

A monitor in the centre of the room acts as a digital scoreboard, ranking staff in real time on the quantity of articles they’ve written, the amount of online traction their work is getting and how much it’s being shared on social media. At 9 a.m., only a couple of names appear on the display; by noon the number of contributor avatars and their associated progress bars has ballooned.

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Trend Hunter’s readers are a captivated bunch, looking at an average of 20 articles per visit—a staggeringly high number for any website. To those eyeballs, the site appears not unlike fellow click-mills Buzzfeed and Mashable. But every article view and click on Trend Hunter’s litany of listicles and galleries is fuel for its data machine. “When you’re running thousands of people through these articles and tracking what they’re choosing next, you start to get a sense of preference,” says Gutsche. The company uses the data it gleans to compile what it calls Pro Trends, sets of related concepts and ideas that Gutsche believes expose gaps in the consumer market. That Ron Burgundy Christmas ornament isn’t just a novelty purchase—it’s an example of “modernized tradition,” which, according to Trend Hunter’s analysis, is an indication that younger consumers don’t much care for the rigid formalities of the holiday season.

That Ron Burgundy Christmas ornament isn’t just a novelty purchase—it’s an example of ‘modernized tradition’

It’s these kinds of insights that Trend Hunter’s clients—a roster of major brands that includes Samsung, Kellogg’s, Crayola and Nestlé—are paying for. For a starting price of $24,000 a year, subscribers receive a customized monthly report from an analyst detailing Trend Hunter’s findings. Brands can use their reports to answer specific questions (“What’s new in holiday products this week?”) or find inspiration (“We’re launching a line of winter clothing, so show me examples of loud sweaters”).

Figuring out what customers want is a $21-billion industry in the U.S., according to IBISWorld, and many major brands solicit advice from polling firms such as Ipsos Reid or the legacy research arms of advertising agencies like JWTIntelligence to help them spot the next big thing before it arrives. More and more, brands are turning to big data to find market insights, in the hope that it will yield more scientific and more granular views into consumer behaviour. But just as it takes a master craftsperson to cut, polish and give a rough diamond its shape, raw data ultimately requires a human being to make it shine. Data might add scientific sparkle to the business of finding the next big thing, but there’s still an art to telling us what the numbers mean. And that too is what companies pay people like Gutsche to do.

Trend Hunter is privately held, and Gutsche won’t disclose revenues, but he claims he’s had “eight-figure” takeover offers. “A lot of people were interested in Trend Hunter for the eyeballs—as a media site,” he says. “But I believe the power of the research model is much more interesting long term.” He claims that replicating his massive experiment in consumer preferences would cost about $30 million. Gutsche is betting on a revolution in the way brands find out what the cool kids are doing.

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