617-227-8800  |  LOG ON

for writers.
And all our

Explore some of our past podcasts hosted by WriterAccess founder Byron White.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

When is obvious the enemy? Byron talks to Rohit Bhargava, best selling author, speaker, and founder of the Influential Marketing Group, about his latest book, Non-Obvious. In Non-Obvious, Rohit writes about how to discover emerging trends through observation. Learn what Rohit thinks will happen if companies ignore digital trends, and what the meaning behind the "spoon code" is. To catch more of Rohit, visit http://www.rohitbhargava.com/.

Byron:      Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Rohit. Rohit, welcome.

Rohit:       Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Byron:      We’re going to challenge ourselves by learning to think differently today. Lovely title of your book: “Non-Obvious.” There are so many things that are not obvious to us all. Tell us why the obvious is perhaps the enemy when it comes to innovation.

Rohit:       Well, I think that anybody who reads trend predictions at the end of every year, is surrounding by the obvious. I think that we find a lot of people saying the same things and essentially saying nothing. So to me, part of the reason that I wanted them to go with the title of ‘non-obvious’ was that I wanted to try and make a promise with the book and with the series, which is that I’m going to try and share ideas that people haven’t heard before, which is as you know, is not that easy to do.

Byron:      Very difficult to do indeed. Tell us is our quest for something new predictable? Are we just always going to find a better and a different way to get something done, therefore, and how does that tie in with predicting what we’re going to do next?

Rohit:       I think we tend to hear a lot of people talk about the fear of change. But the way you phrased that is a nice way of thinking about it. Which is, we do something new because we want to know what’s around the corner. I mean it’s natural human curiosity to want to see what’s coming next. And I think the way that we tend to frame that in the business sense is through trends. And we talk about well a trend is something that may be is going to happen in the far future which is what a lot of people call them futurist say. And my view was that that stuff is kind of nice in the same way that science fiction reading is nice. But isn’t immediately applicable. And so, my trend report focuses on the following the year and it’s got a horizon of a year. And I do a “New Trend Report” every January. And so I introduce 15 different new trends every year. And so my point of view was it’s much more useful to focus on what’s going to happen in the next year rather than trying to guess if we’re going to have flying cars in 20 years.

Byron:      What do you gauge your trends on? Tells us the science behind what you look for. For example, does Venture Capital dollars put into a new industry have an influence on your trend? Is it financial backing? Or what are some of the other variables that you look for when you’re trying to predict?

Rohit:       Yeah. Well, finances is one sign that something is starting to gain attention. But for me, what I really look for is acceleration. And if you think about the idea of acceleration, it’s something that’s already there in some sense and it’s just increasing in adoption, more people are talking about it, people are spending more money in it in terms of investment. And so to me, the acceleration means that really what you’re trying to do is preserve the present and then predict what’s going to accelerate about the present. And as soon as you put that lens on it, you start to realize that yeah, trend curation is what I call it rather than trend-spotting. Which I don’t think is a good way of describing it. Because trend spotting to me is sort of sounds like somebody’s sitting there watching something go by and saying, “There it was, did you see it?” Whereas for me, trend curation is all about intersections between industries. Things that are happening in one space and then in another and connecting the dots and saying, “Look, this is a trend because it’s starting to effect all of these different industries in these different ways.

Byron:      When is it too risky for a company to explore something different, something new? Could you describe that tension we all have with being the first one out of the gates that often might mean failure?

Rohit:       Yeah. I think there is a lot of attention around them. I think that mostly it comes from what we’re often told around this idea of a pivot. And a pivot is, yeah, you stop what you’re doing and you go in an opposite direction and then you call it a “pivot” whether it’s a total reinvention or whether it actually is something more minimal than that. And to me, the risk is abandoning something in favor of something else. But when you think about trends and when you think about the way to understand trends, I don’t think that a lot of times the trends are saying, “You need to completely abandon this and focus on something else.” Instead, I think the trends are pointing to an opportunity to say, “Well, look. We could start focusing on this or we could start promoting what we have in terms of our products or services in a particular way because we know that this is something that people are thinking about.”

Byron:      What happens when we ignore trends and/or things that are not obvious? What’s the downside of that? Is it a slow painful death for a company, for example, if they don’t change?

Rohit:       Well, I mean I think a great example of that is from the Super Bowl recently. And we saw Super Bowl advertising coming out and there was a financial services brand that was talking about the “Great American Dream” and owning your own house and this whole kind of message was, “Mortgages are what make America great.” And it was just so off in terms of its message because this is at the same time people are looking at the financial crisis in large part has been caused by irresponsible mortgages and watching movies like “The Big Short.” And when you take a message that’s so perfectly oblivious to what people are thinking about right now, it just demonstrates how out of touch you are. And I think that the danger in that from a communication’s point of view is people are like, “Well, yeah, if you don’t understand what’s going on, then why should I do business with you?”

Byron:      What are your trends for 2016 and why did you select them? Let’s see, I know you have quite a few. But maybe pick few out.

Rohit:       I do. Yeah. I do 15 every year. And each one is sort of selected for a different reason. So let me give you a couple of examples. So one that I have been talking quite a bit right now is a trend that I call “strategic downgrading.” And strategic downgrading is sort of what I believe is starting to happen because we as consumers are seeing more and more product that used to be “dumb” and are now being smartified. And we’re not particularly happy about the smarts that are coming. I personally, for example, hate the fact that when I get into my car, I don’t put a key in the ignition anymore because I got the key in the car all the time. And so I prefer a car that actually has a key where you put the key in the ignition and start the car. If you look at vinyl sales for music, those are going through the roof. If you look at print sales of print books, they’re actually making a resurgence now. And 8-bit video games that look like the video games I played when I was a kid. There’s this idea that I think is starting to hit a tipping point that in some cases, we actually prefer the earlier version because it’s not so complicated. And there’s a well-known litigation case right now where farmers are suing John Deere because their new tractors have all this Smart technology in them but they need software that needs to be updated and they’re not allowed to open up the tractor and update the software and fix it themselves, which they’re used to doing. So now a bunch of these farmers are saying, “Well look, you have all this technology in there, I can’t use this tractor unless the software upgrades and if it does an upgrade, you have to send somebody out and I lose valuable time. So I’d rather have the previous version of the tractor. I’d rather downgrade to the less technological advanced tractor because at least I know that works and I know I can fix it.”

Byron:      One of your trends, another one of your trends for 2016 is “data overflow.” I want to thank you for making that a trend and hope it comes together. Could you explain to me what you mean by “data overflow”? Explain to the audience what you mean.

Rohit:       Yes. It’s pretty self-explanatory I think. But I think what’s interesting about it and what’s maybe new is that I really focus on the three sources of data. And there’s a lot of focus on one which is big data. And big data to me is the data that companies have and they collect. The second form of data is “open data” which is data that’s released generally by governments or non-profits about weather patterns and things like that. And the third type of data is “me data.” It’s personal data, it’s small data, it’s the data that I collect because my Fitbit is tracking how far I walk. It’s data that I collect because my tea kettle is connected to the internet. There’s more and more of this type of small data generated by us as individuals. One of the interesting things that’s going to happen is we’re going to have the choice to voluntarily share that data or not. There’s already a button, most people don’t use it, but there’s already a button on Facebook where you can export all the data that you’ve put into Facebook because you can take your data with you. And that’s based on legislation that says they have to have that available. Google has the same thing. So as soon as you start saying, “Well, I’ve been spending the last five years giving Facebook my data, if I can export that, take that with me, go into a new consumer interaction and choose whether I’m going to share that data based on what I get in return for it. Now all of a sudden, you’ve put the power back into the consumers’ hands to say, “Look. It’s not just Facebook making money off of your data, you could actually generate better offers and services based on your data as well.”

Byron:      Your book obviously helps thought leaders and CEOs and people perhaps moving large amounts of people and/or money to do unusual and innovative things. But how can your book help a small entrepreneur that’s trying to fine-tune their business and make it better? Tell us how you can use the non-obvious to make your business better, particularly a small business?

Rohit:       Yeah. So I am a small business owner myself and so I think a lot about that. And to me the fundamental principles behind being able to see the future comes down to a couple of different habits. And in the book I talk about five habits specifically. And the first one is the power of observation. And I think that to me the story that I often tell about them being at a dinner watching how the food gets delivered and seeing that there was a waiter who was taking all of our dessert orders and took down everybody’s order, went away, six minutes later, a staff of six people comes and delivers everybody’s dessert perfectly. And I remember sitting there watching this theater happening and thinking in my head, “How did all of those six people know what everybody ordered?” Because there was only one guy who took our orders and it didn’t seem like he was telling people what to do. And as I looked around I noticed that the way they knew was that there were two dessert options and if you ordered Option A, then the spoon was on the right-hand side of your plate. Cause the waiter put it there. And if you ordered Option B, the spoon was at the top of your plate. And I started calling out the spoon codes for how dessert was served just jokingly. But the idea behind it was that our world is controlled by spoon codes like that. And they happen all the time. It’s just we don’t tend to pay attention to them because we’re on our phone and we’re walking along and we just, we kind of close our eyes to it. And I think the trick is to open our eyes, open our awareness to all these processes that are happening in our world, but then you see all these patterns that you would have never seen otherwise. And so, yeah, the number one skill, the number one habit, the first habit of being a trend curator is “Be more observant.” And I think any of us can do that. I mean this is not something you need an MBA in order to do or be in charge of a large company in order to do it.

Byron:      What criterion do you use to actually select the best ideas to execute after you curate all your trends?

Rohit:       Yeah. So the process I go through sort of it’s a reverse of the cliché of “finding a needle in a haystack.” I actually call it, “My haystack method.” But the point of it is not to look for a needle in a haystack, it’s to spend an entire year gathering the hay and then putting the needle in the middle of it. And saying, “That’s the trend.” And so to me, a big part of it is gathering the ideas. So I spend a lot of time ripping articles out of magazines, I speak at 35 events a year and listen to other speakers. I do interview, I read research, I read books, and I capture ideas throughout the year and come October time, I have sort of a huge folder full of all of these things and then I start to aggregate them into clusters of ideas and start to elevate those ideas into bigger things then I work on naming the concepts. So I name them as trends. And then the last step which is really to your point is, once I’ve done all of that, once I’ve aggregated things and elevated the ideas and even come up with names for them, I mean usually at the very end of every year, you’re left with about 60 possible trends. Then I go back out and do more research. Are there enough examples in multiple industries for this? Are people really starting to pay attention to it? Has anybody talked about it before, is it really not obvious? Or is it something that other people have already spotted and talked about? And based on that, I kind of throw out things or I combine them and eventually end up with 15. And then in January of every year, I launch “The Trend Report. The Non-Obvious Trend Report.” Which has those 15 and I’ve done that for the last six years. So, actually, there’s six years of history behind this. And each year I go back and I actually look at the previous trends and I’m pretty transparent about what worked and what didn’t work.

Byron:      Can you explain the relationships of innovation and trends? Can I explain? I can articulate that a little bit more if you want. But, so, I get trends in sort of understanding, in learning, and listening, and observing what’s happening and what’s going on and then try to back data up to understand what’s really happening from a data and a metric perspective. But innovation is a little bit different and that we often need to overlook a lot of data and make decisions on what our new product is going to look like and feel like or whether we should launch translation service or as a complement to our writing service or whether we should grow or expand. And I understand the trends and data can help you perhaps make those decisions. But where does trend analysis and curation intersect with innovation?

Rohit:       Yes. So I think that really what you’re talking about is, how do trends become useful?

Byron:      Yeah.

Rohit:       Because trend that you can look at or do research around to describe that it’s happening doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to do something with it. But I think that when you think about the trend and when it comes to life, so I’ll give you an example. So, a couple years ago, I had a trend that was focused on the fact there were more and more female leaders in business and female sort of strong, female role models in media and entertainment. And this was maybe four years ago. And so I have this trend called, “Powered by Women,” and I talked about all these examples. And if you see that as a trend, now all of a sudden you realize that maybe there are new things that you can launch that maybe you wouldn’t have launched before. So here’s an example. A show that came out about a year ago on the Disney, I think it’s on the Disney or Nickelodeon, I can’t remember. But it’s “Bella and the Bull Dogs.” And the show is set in high school and the girl, Bella, is the quarterback of the football team. And if you think about that as a model, like five years ago, would you had a show where a girl was a quarterback of a football team? But here we are in hunger-games world where the girl saves the guy and there are no princesses in towers waiting for princes anymore. This is a media landscape. And so I think as soon as you know that, now you’re starting to see companies capitalize on that. You’re seeing Toys R Us removed, gender specific toy aisles and just make everything more neutral. Target has neutral furniture for kids. Barbie featured a boy in their ad for the first time. And so all of these things, you’re starting to see now is a result of this sort of culture shift. Harley Davidson has a huge marketing arm for women now. And people get their advertising from 50 years ago, women were in bikini’s or back of the bike and that was it. They weren’t riding the bike.

Byron:      How has social media listening played into your trend predictions yearly?

Rohit:       It gives me a chance to see momentum, I think that’s probably the most valuable thing about it. Well, that and that I can see what my network of friends and peers and people that I respect are looking at and reading. So one value is I get an instant snapshot of what the people I respect and pay attention to or tweeting out or talking about which has value because I don’t know when I get to see them in person. And then the second thing is I can see based on what’s trending or what’s really popular, where the momentum is; and if trends are all about acceleration, being able to use social media to see where the acceleration’s happening is a big deal.

Byron:      What tools are you using? Like those BuzzSumo or do you have tools that are your listening tools in this social sphere?

Rohit:       I have a bunch of RSS feeds that I have in Feedly and it’s kind of where I keep the feeds going. I use SlideShare quite a bit to visually look for what people are writing about. A lot of times you’ll see a few examples and stories and things like that. YouTube, of course, because everything is so visual with video and then, Twitter. And then I don’t have any third-party kind of platforms that I use to navigate those things. I tend to for YouTube and for Twitter, I go directly to YouTube or go directly to Twitter.

Byron:      We’re closing to the end. But I have to ask about one of your trends, which I love called, “Automated Adulthood.” Could you tell us about that?

Rohit:       Yeah. That one was based on a really interesting idea of social scientist now. It was only a couple of decades ago that social scientist uncovered that there was a phase of life called “adolescence.” Before that, we kind of thought people were children and then they were adults. And now the latest thinking is, well, actually there’s another phase that we didn’t realize which is “emerging adulthood.” And it described the category of people from 18 to about 26 years old who are independent, they’re living outside of the house, they’re not married, they don’t have kids, and they’re just trying to figure out how to be adults. And it’s all about the fact that those people have more and more services to automate every aspect of their life from robot vacuum cleaners to managing their finances in an automated way and robot-advisors to even managing their relationships. I mean tenders impact on dating and how relationships are being managed is also seeing that sort of automation. And so this is really a trend meant to bring together a lot of that.

Byron:      And where do you think journalism is going to go? I know you comment on that in the book, where’s writing going to go? Have you discovered themes or discussions related to writing?

Rohit:       Yeah. I think about that a lot. I mean one trend from my 2015 report was something I called, “Glanceable Content.” And it was kind of about something that I think a lot of people in media are lamenting. The idea that it has to be buzz feed applied before people start paying attention. Yeah, and the greater danger that we only read things that we agree with and no longer have a kind of wider view of the world. I think that there are signs of hope. I think that a couple of the signs of hope is that now we can consume things that are delivered to us in more automated ways based on more than just what we agree with. So, for example, there’s more mood tracking clockwork that will allow us to read different things into different situations based on where we are. There’s a chance for us to share the things that are more impactful and everything else kind of becomes the backdrop and backdrop meaning “the noise.” But people are always looking for a signal in between that. And sharing those signals and they have more ways to share that. So I am not super pessimistic about the future of media, I think that there is hope because I think people are looking for that deeper, stronger engagement and if you look at the impact of virtual reality and immersive journalism, I mean the potential for that is amazing.

Byron:      Couple final questions for you. Who would you like to get ahold of you and how can they get ahold of you?

Rohit:       I just want to have… I would love to have an impact in how people kind of go through their routine. Because I think that most of us tend to get stuck in a routine and I realize very lucky with doing this trend report because I have a specific reason to kind of pick my head up and pay attention and buy a random magazines and in airports which aren’t targeting to me which I do all the time. But I think most people need a reminder to do that. It’s not that they’re incapable of doing it or smart enough, it’s just people are busy. And so the type of person I would love to read this is a person who could just pick up a magazine all about knives at the airport just to get a new idea from that. I think we intentionally have to take ourselves out of ourselves in order to see what we couldn’t see otherwise.

Byron:      And how can people get ahold of you if they’re listening in and want to dive in?

Rohit:       Yeah. So probably the easiest way is off of my website which is just my full name: rohitbhargava.com. And, of course, I’m on all the social media platforms as well. I have a YouTube channel, I’m on Twitter, it’s also my name, Facebook, everywhere. And then if they want to pick up the book, of course, it’s on Amazon and also weekly curated articles off of my website. So I do a curated list every Thursday of what people should be reading and paying attention to. So if you might find something like that useful, every Thursday I send out the top stories of the week with a little bit of a recap of why it’s important.

Byron:      Very cool and exciting. I really want to thank you for your time today and for being with us.

Rohit:       Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Byron:      Right on. Thanks, Rohit. I hope everyone enjoyed that. Until next week, we’ll keep looking for the non-obvious, I guess, would be the way to close this session out. Thanks again, Rohit.

Rohit:       Thank you.

Byron:      Take care everyone.