Capturing the Zeitgeist

Derived from German philosophy, "Zeitgeist" mixes the words zeit, meaning "time," and geist, meaning “spirit,” literally, "the spirit of the time." It thus expresses the way in which ideas and concepts are absorbed and transcribed into culture as a reflection of a moment, an era. In this sense, the Zeitgeist nourishes the work of trend forecasting. While it can be easily defined a posteriori, until recently, it was difficult to capture it at a given moment without calling on experienced thinkers and trend spotters. But things are changing and the Zeitgeist is being turned into a product. Let’s dive in.

Modern-day Zeitgeists

The phenomenon is certainly not new, but the current crisis is amplifying it considerably. Trend-hunters are proliferating in order to identify what tomorrow will bring. In addition to consulting firms specialized in forecasting trends, which are as reputable as they are expensive, a new generation of start-ups is currently emerging, led by iconic CEOs such as Sam Parr of The Hustle.

Admittedly, the task is easier thanks to the acceleration of new technologies and the progress of AI. Still in its infancy, predictive analysis will soon make it possible to pinpoint weak signals much earlier than today, thus saving precious time.

For the time being, digital platforms, mainly social networks and creators are the Zeitgeists of modern times. With good reason, all the GAFAMs are developing powerful research institutes: Google Trends, Facebook IQ, Pinterest Trends ... virtually all the tech giants have launched their insights division, publishing biannual and annual trend reports, as well as analyses of specific contexts (the Covid crisis, Black Friday for Amazon, etc.). The stack and dedicated content available for the trend analyst has become huge, and I've already mentioned it several times.

Usual Suspects

I won't elaborate on Google Trends, as it is so obvious. Indeed, there are a plethora of other tools and platforms available, depending on the use case, to detect trend opportunities and confirm an intuition with data to back it up.

  • You want to listen to and follow social media discussions, forums, and more? Embrace social listening tools like Talkwalker or BrandWatch. They will allow you to estimate volumes, map, drill down to the source to understand your audiences. The source, always the source, that's the basis!

  • Interested in learning which apps are booming? Head to App Annie, Sensor Tower or Apptopia.

  • New start-ups emerging? Check out Product Hunt, Betalist or Launching Next, business angels and investment funds focused on early-stage start-ups. Sometimes just mapping out or looking at the recent likes or following list of a VC on their LinkedIn / Twitter can give you some interesting information.

  • You are more "niche," interested in marketplaces, on the lookout for new products or markets to penetrate? Just curious about what products are popular on Amazon? Check out Jungle Scout!

  • A big believer of the unbundling of Reddit? Use Subreddit Stats to discover the growing subreddits. There is also a similar tool for Facebook groups.

  • Less interested in crunching data, and would rather curate? Subscribe to Think with Google, Facebook & Co. newsrooms, and trend firms like SpringWise,TrendHunter, and Mintel. Observe the people who feed these newsrooms, follow them, map their audiences, study their interests, understand their mind, follow the flow of their thoughts, or at least the publicly exposed part. Remember: the devil is in the detail.

Chasing trends: a state of mind

Let's be honest: all the premium versions of these tools alone will not make you a good trend hunter or analyst. With the huge amount of data out there, you need to know where to start, what queries to type into these tools, and why.

It's a whole state of mind, a constant curiosity, a passion for detail, as well as the intellectual ability to differentiate noise from insight, and a weak signal from an emerging or exploding trend. In short, it's an art.

And those with such abilities are rare and valuable, endowed with certain skills, like those on this non-exhaustive list:

  • An interest in history & psychology. As Rob Sullivan explained in an interview on IBWS: "Trends, long term ones at least, often tie into history, where the world has been and where it’s going. You often find patterns repeating or ideas get recycled with modern twists Sometimes technological constraints means it doesn’t come to fruition the first time around, e.g. electric vehicles didn’t take off back in the early 1900s. Sometimes it is regulatory or the wrong focus, like LSD research in the 1960s (less focus on psilocybin). But often the most promising unrealized things of the past come back with some variation in the present."

  • Capacity to Identify (new) organs of cultural movements early on. Netflix is a perfect example. While there is currently a huge revival of interest in chess thanks to the success of the popular Queen's Gambit series, the phenomenon is not new. In 2019, the documentary Game Changer gave voice to top athletes who have gone vegan, which in turn has sparked a surge of interest in veganism. In 2020, The Social Dilemma series deals with the addiction mechanisms of social platforms like Facebook ... and feeds into the "dopamine detoxing" phenomenon, which is the root of a subreddit with 31K users. It is therefore possible, by following the releases of new series / documentaries, to anticipate those that could generate movements. On the same principle, we find Reddit or TikTok, but there are others that we think of less. Personally, through pressreader, I love scrolling to see the world's print front pages. Sometimes there is evidence, confirmations, and sometimes I glimpse something between the lines — subliminal influence. 

  • A multicultural reading grid of the world. The cultural gap between countries is a niche trend. I myself am the daughter of a French diplomat, I have traveled all my childhood and I speak four languages; this gives me a different perspective and a major competitive advantage in my daily life. Indeed, the cultural specificities of each country can be transposed to another. In terms of digital uses, for example, China is developing innovative uses by skipping the desktop generation. The Scandinavian countries are leaders in mobility in Europe, as is Estonia in education-related topics. Look at profiles like Connie Chan or Frank Chen from a16z, they are multicultural, they speak Chinese and that's without a doubt one of the elements that make their analyses so qualitative and sharp.

  • Spotting talent to nourish one's reflection. Simply put: "Great minds think alike." The difference between a good trend spotter and an ace in the field? Their social skills, their ability to create a cognitive network to feed their own and others' thinking. When you discover someone who is particularly smart, curious and passionate, you should create bonds, encourage niche conversations via a Slack or Whatsapp or simply by email. It's a source of constant stimulation, emulation and a way to maximize serendipity. Turner Novak often talks about his "Fantasy VC portfolio"; I do the same - early-stage human potential - I love to discover yet-to-emerge nano-influencers with less than 500 followers for example, and I classify them for a "human IPO" that feeds my imagination. It's no surprise that when you analyze start-up decks, you look in detail at the teams' complementarity and their ability to deliver. I am one of those people with a strong team spirit and I believe very much in the strength of collective intelligence.

  • Deep reading vs. diagonal reading. In order to be able to collect and process information, in my opinion, it is necessary to combine deep reading, attention to the smallest detail, and disciplined diagonal reading. Let me give you an example: I subscribe to about thirty newsletters that I read calmly and in-depth from my email inbox. In addition, I have Feedly — an RSS feed reader — with around 200 qualified media sources (Europe, US, China, India) designed for diagonal reading. About twice a week, I spend two hours browsing headlines/subheadings on about 2000 articles each time. I have set up "boards" to sort according to different levels: to read (for deep reading), new tools / SU, weak signals, trends, interesting (it appeals to me but I'm not sure why, so I save) and I add tags according to sectors. At the end of the session, I write down between five and ten ideas and I end up digging into two or three topics. I also monitor around 400 DTC newsletters in the same way. This allows me to sniff out what is going on. I've discovered many trends this way, much more than through the newsletters I read, and which are nevertheless of excellent quality. In short, I reinvest in traditional media (while many others are still heavily focused on newsletters) because it's also good to know how to navigate the counter-current, to see what most people don't see.

Snapchat: Zeitgeist-as-a-service

If there's one network to watch out for, it's Snapchat. It has innovation in its DNA, is immutable, and shows an extraordinary ability to capture the Zeitgeist and turn it into a product, with extraordinary agility, a kind of Zeitgeist-as-a-service. (An approach that Facebook is trying to copy with the "Zuck Team 6", its mini-incubator.) I could have written about China and the micro-apps model wisely transcribed by Evan Spiegel's firm, but the subject has been covered at length, so I will instead give you two recent examples that caught my attention. Please note that I don't work nor invest at Snapchat, so these are personal analyses and suppositions.

  • First example: neo-lotteries. March 2020: I noticed on Instagram that many influencers are setting up neo-lotteries with a social media spin, distributing money to their followers under the guise of charity. April 2020: I read this article from the NYT which shed light on the phenomenon and explained that it is, in fact, a pervasive growth marketing technique to win followers. In any case, it scores. I save the info and remember thinking, "Lotteries 3.0, that's curious. After all, why not?" November 2020: Eight months later, Snapchat launches Spotlight, allowing users of the application to submit their best video content in an attempt to win money. Snapchat says it will distribute more than $1 million USD every day, at least until the end of 2020, to the best creators. The goal is to replace public follower counts, likes and comments with something that feels more like a lottery. Well, well, does that sound familiar?

  • Second example: astrology. March 2020: Sensor Tower publishes a study according to which the revenues of American astrology applications have increased by 64.7 percent to reach nearly $40 million in 2019; in 2020, the figures seem to be heading for record highs. Here we find the historical component I was talking about before. Since the dawn of time, men in antiquity have been trying to predict the future in the entrails of animals and the flight of birds. This fascination has endured. Many politicians have consulted astrologers, notably a certain Mitterrand. The specialized search engine Lyst also noted a rise in requests for clothing and accessories related to zodiac signs, up 56 percent this year. With the health crisis in full swing, it translates into a craze for horoscope apps. To the aforementioned 2019 study, we can add Astrobuddy, which says it has seen a 40 to 50 percent increase in app downloads in recent months. Astroyogi for its part has 400 astrologers to meet the demand while the Co-star app was downloaded 700K for the month of November, according to Sensor Tower. And guess what? In November 2020, Snapchat announced that it had partnered with Cosmopolitan's American astrologer, Aurora Tower, to create astrological predictions for Snapchaters.

A surprising coincidence? Not if Snapchat is a powerful detector and a master at tapping into the Zeitgeist. One thing's for sure, it hasn't lost its reputation as a great innovator, nor its great agility. As such, and for many other reasons, Snapchat is certainly one of the leading social platforms to watch in the months and years to come. One might wonder if Pantone was particularly clear-sighted in recently unveiling its colors for 2021, the gray and blazing yellow ... like that of Snapchat?

Stay curious, always.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to Eytan for reading a draft version and whose feedback was precious. (I would definitely invest is his IPO ;-)

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