The business of trying to divine customers’ desires has been around almost as long as there have been customers, but market research as an industry began with the advent of modern magazine ads and radio commercials in the early 20th century. George Gallup was the first director of market research, appointed by Young & Rubicam in 1932. Though he’s better known for his innovations in political polling, which showed that a relatively small sample of respondents could reflect public opinion just as well as the million-person surveys conducted at the time, he also developed methods to reliably measure the size and makeup of radio audiences. By mid-century, firms like Yankelovich, Skelly & White had begun sending out annual questionnaires to a representative set of Americans in order to track shifting opinions and fashions. Comparing one year’s responses to the next was a statistically sound approach in a world where western consumer markets were the only ones that mattered and one-third of Americans tuned into Bonanza on a Saturday night.

But by the 1990s, the fringes of popular culture began to assert themselves, and with them came a new method of tracking consumer behaviour. The idea of trend hunting started out as an insurgency on the edge of the staid, respectable market research industry. Immortalized in a 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, “cool hunters” searched the streets of large urban centres for young people on the borders of the mainstream whose choices would inspire their peers—like the Reebok exec Gladwell writes about who used a group of teenagers in the Bronx as a flash focus group to review the footwear brand’s latest creations.

Read: 5 Ways to Make Focus Groups Useful

The persisting uniformity of popular culture at the time Gladwell was writing helped cool hunters find their subjects. “It was a lot easier to tell who the influencers were, because they were so distinctly different than the rest of the population,” explains Kristin Jones, senior account executive at Los Angeles–based Trendera, an agency that, like Trend Hunter, employs data in its market research. “Now it’s a lot harder, because the general cultural narrative is more expressive and inclusive.” Being unique, in other words, has become mainstream.

A fad like the flash-in-the-greasy-pan cronut craze of 2013 might have lasted years in another era

Ironically, this cacophony of niches, countercultures and innovations has been magnified by the very same force that Trend Hunter is using to make sense of the chaos: the Internet. Social media in particular has democratized influence, allowing any one idea to quickly gain momentum online. Thousands of fashion, food and technology trends pop up seemingly overnight and disappear just as quickly. A fad like the flash-in-the-greasy-pan cronut craze of 2013 might have lasted years in another era.

Researchers can’t simply compare annual survey data as they might have in the 1960s and ’70s, because no trend or market stays the same for anywhere near that long. Being fast and nimble is paramount in the new cool hunt. “It’s important to recognize which trends are fleeting things that are cool right now but might not be worth talking about next month,” says Jones, “and which things have the potential to be a movement of how consumers are thinking and acting.”

In a way, the fragmentation of the mainstream represents not so much a qualitative shift in pop culture as a quantitative one. We may not all buy the same Michael Jackson albums or sit down at the same time to watch Cheers, but ultimately there are more consumers listening to music and watching TV shows than ever before. Big data represents an evolution in the scale, not the scope, of market research.

“The term just refers to the quantity of information and the number of users,” notes David Soberman, the Canadian national chair of strategic marketing and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “There are all sorts of places that are sources of big data.” Large retailers are likely to collect their own information, and many are digitizing existing rewards systems (such as the revamped Canadian Tire “Money”) to more easily do just that. Internet titans like Google and Facebook already sell search and interactivity data to other corporations.

But having the spreadsheets and the statistics has never been enough. “Big data can be very helpful in testing ideas that you have or getting basic information, but it’s not predictive,” notes Jones, adding that “so much of trends is about creativity.” In other words, data might tell us what’s worked before and what’s working now, but it has a hard time inventing something new.

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