FirstSignals: Take advantage of future trends before others do

Media observer Oliver Heyden from pressrelations presents his research method

Today, companies have to prove above all that they are innovative, capable of change and well equiped for the future. This also includes recognizing the opportunities and risks of new topics at an early stage. With its FirstSignals research method, pressrelations GmbH has developed a concept for the strategic early detection of new trends. FirstSignals detects the first weak signals of a trend that is just emerging. For that they are combining algorithm-based analysis methods with the performance of experienced editors and analysts. Chief Strategy Officer Oliver Heyden tells crossrelations in an interview how this works in practice and what successes have already been achieved with FirstSignals.

Media monitoring has been part of companies’ repertoire of strategic early warning systems for years. How did FirstSignals come about?

Together with Frank Dopheide, the long-standing Spokesman of the Management Board of Handelsblatt Media Group, we developed the precursor of FirstSignals. It was called GlobeScan, back at the beginning of 2014, at that time still as part of his consulting company Deutsche Markenarbeit. It was intended to support the provider of business congresses, Euroforum, in developing new event formats with new content. The basic idea behind the methodology was that journalists somehow have to name emerging topics – like a baby coming into the world. And so the idea of identifying potential trend topics with the help of buzzwords was born.

One example of many is Industry 4.0. A term that the former head of SAP once mentioned at the Hanover Fair a few years ago. Afterwards, this buzzword even became the generic term for the digitization of industry in the Anglo-Saxon world. But not all new buzzwords work that way. Many are too idiosyncratic and disappear again after a few weeks. This is exactly where we come in. By observing such developments and classifying them for the customer, we are separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

How exactly do you go about this?

To measure the relevance of new topics, we feed the buzzwords into our system using so-called web crawlers. These are computer programs that search documents on the web using an automated process. But that’s not all. Our media analysts have to select from the mass of articles in which a buzzword appears. There they have to select how relevant the mentions are for the customer. This is where technology reaches its limits, as machines do not have the same level of experience or implicit knowledge.

However, this is also where we benefit from our huge data pool of articles that we have used for media analysis over the past few years. This gives us access to past trends. With this knowledge and the help of Big Data, we can identify typical topic triggers or tipping points that function independently of the topic itself. In other words, we can identify systemic factors that give a buzzword or a topic a certain media attention spin – from a linear trend development to a progressive development. Of course, we hope that technology will eventually be able to help us evaluate this as well, but it will take time.

So in terms of man vs. machine, you don’t feel like you’re sawing at the branch you’re sitting on?

With our hybrid approach, the battle between man and machine becomes an effective cooperation. I am convinced that humans will never become obsolete. Because in view of the rapid pace of digital development and the vast amounts of information circulating on the web, companies need one thing above all else: classification. And in this case, only experienced media analysts can provide that.

So what does that look like when working with customers?

Every company has a kind of thematic capital through its history, products, corporate culture, strategic guidelines and experience. This means that if it cleverly combines its original topics with certain current topics on the media market and places them in good time, it can generate a great deal of added value for its topic capital, which pays dividends in terms of its media perception and reputation. At this point, we then also act as consultants. Based on the FirstSignals results, we outline topic potentials on which the client should place its topic capital, but also topics that it can rather ignore and topics that could become a reputation risk.

Analysts are always happy when a development they predicted comes to pass. Can you give us an example of a specific “theme career” you’ve seen coming with FirstSignals?

One example of a topic where we were able to forecast the development of relevance very well was plant-based meat. When the topic emerged in the middle of the decade, it was mentioned mainly in the tabloids. A little later, it disappeared from the scene again. But that changed at the end of 2016, when we took up the topic via FirstSignals.

As a trigger, we identified the fact that Bill Gates and Google Ventures invested in two startups. Impossible Foods and Mossa Meat. That catapulted plant-based meat into a progressive and, more importantly, positive context. For us, it was the defining event for recognizing a megatrend. The topic then bobbed along for a while. But when Wiesenhof announced in April 2017 that they were investing in lab-grown meat, the topic really exploded. A certain grace period, during which a term becomes established in the market, is quite typical for trend development and very important in customer work. Because during this time, the company can consider whether it wants to position itself on this topic and, if so, in what form. This preparation time gives the customer the necessary head start to initiate communication measures at short notice when the time comes.

Are there any other factors by which you can recognize an emerging trend?

Synonyms are good trigger points. When a term emerges, it can disappear again or it can have children. So, if there are suddenly several synonyms for a term, that’s a sign for us media analysts that it’s a big thing. It’s also not crucial which of the terms prevails, but simply by bundling them together, it becomes a powerful movement. This happened, for example, with the term “techlash”, the counter-movement to the technology giants Google, Microsoft & Co.

Is FirstSignals used more for risk management or does the opportunity perspective on potential trend themes predominate. What is your experience after one year on the market?

Although in our experience FirstSignals also functions as an early warning system, customer requests tend to focus on the opportunity aspect. The question is usually which topics could become important for the company in the future and how these can be combined with the company’s own existing topics. Possible topic risks usually play a subordinate role.

In addition, our customers often already have a certain portfolio of topics that they consider relevant. The big advantage of FirstSignals is that we can also help with prioritization here. So customers can distinguish between the topics they should focus on and those that are just nice to have for now.

When does a buzzword become a future topic for you?

Of course, that’s like giving away the recipe for the magic potion of Getafix. But I can say this much: The decisive factor for us is when a buzzword appears in a leading international or national medium for the first time or in a completely new thematic context. This is because new topics gain the decisive quantum of relevance via leading media with highly competent, investigative editorial teams, even in times of digital natives. The Big Data analysis of our archives shows this quite clearly. In this context, we speak of “weak signals,”. That is, the first signals that a topic has reached the media public of decision-makers and first movers among consumers.

One could already call you trend hunters. Do you think that you could even set trends in the future?

We wouldn’t want that at all, and it would interfere with our work. It’s now common practice for trend researchers to bring their own topics into play as future trends at trade conventions. But in my view, this self-referencing overstretches their own claim as trend researchers. We prefer to focus on our two strengths. They are our trained analysts with their many years of experience and our crawler technology. After all, we’re not fortune tellers, and our assessments should always be based on objective findings.

We have already worked with FirstSignals for a major client. The analysis also revealed future topics that we hadn’t thought of before. Does your system learn from the results? What does your quality management look like?

Terms that we feed into our crawler system stay in there and continue to be measured. This comprehensive database is our store of knowledge, so to speak. It currently tracks around 800 terms from all conceivable areas and is constantly growing. We can then use this knowledge in three ways. Firstly, for the realization of specific customer orders for tracking highly topical potential or risk issues. For this purpose, they receive the buzzwords relevant to them from our topic pool.

In the area of HR and organizational development, for example, we currently measure around 80 buzzwords. On this basis, we offer customer-specific research and can ultimately offer customers around 20 to 30 top terms that are measured for them on a monthly basis. The highlight: this list is permanently supplemented and updated by the basic tracking, which continues in parallel. And finally, the offer also includes tracking to what extent the most important competitors are already ranked in these topics.

Second, the tracking serves as a retrospective way for us to refine our trigger indicators and thus continuously improve the predictive power of our method.

And third, because we have an overview of the topic landscape. We can advise customers on which topics they should focus on more. These are topics that are in the process of creating an impact in the customer’s industry environment by combining with industry topics or even beginning to transform them.

After all, you yourselves are constantly being surprised with new “buzzwords”. Your personal favorite this year?

I don’t even know where to start. There are lignin batteries, for example, which could solve the problem of the strong fluctuations in power generation from renewable energies. After all, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Lignin is a waste product from wood production. Hundreds of thousands of tons of it are produced every year, and until now no one knew what to do with it.

But researchers discovered earlier this year that lignin can be used in redox flow batteries instead of a sinfully expensive and very rare material, thereby simplifying and cheapening their manufacturing process by leaps and bounds. Because of their size and enormous storage capacity, redox flow batteries are perfect for storing very large amounts of electricity. It is precisely during the down phases of renewable power generators that redox flow batteries can then step in and ensure a constant flow of energy.