It’s time to fact check the big pandemic trends predictions
The Drum Columnist Sam Scott's been keeping tabs on dozens of trends predictions made by business and marketing bigwigs during the pandemic. To mark the new year, it's now time to separate the know-it-alls from those with no grasp on reality. Buckle in.
If I invest in widgets and then proclaim that widgets are the next big thing, is that legitimate promotion, jumping on a bandwagon or engaging in a pump-and-dump scheme? Younger readers might not know this, but business fax machines once got almost as much spam as email accounts receive today. Sometimes it was from publicists who had programmed theirs to send press releases to a list of numbers overnight. Other times, local restaurants would send lunch menus.
But the faxes were often from penny stock pushers. The spam would include false news and proclaim that a random, over-the-counter (OTC) stock was going to jump tenfold from, say, $0.01 to $0.10. If you just invest $1,000 now, you’d get $10,000 within days!
If there are enough buyers, the share price will rise and then the spammers will sell their shares and make a large amount of money. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calls the practice a “pump and dump” scheme and prosecutes those who do them. Today, it is often done over email, social media and text message spam.
This is what I think about every time that I see someone making a prediction for the marketing industry, I always wonder how much the person is invested – literally – in the outcome. And it has been no different over the past two years when I would see people proclaiming how the coronavirus pandemic will “change everything” in the business world.
Looking at coronavirus business predictions
As longtime readers will know, I use my last column of every year to evaluate the predictions that marketers and business people had made for that year.
In 2018, I looked at Deloitte, Forrester, Gartner, Scott Galloway, HubSpot and Salesforce. (Read the results.) In 2019, I critiqued GroupM, Kantar, MoffettNathanson Research and the World Federation of Advertisers. (See the victor.) In 2021, I judged the Future Today Institute, GWI (formerly GlobalWebIndex), McKinsey, and Zenith Media. (Here are the scores.)
And now we're back and bigger than ever. This year, I will evaluate some of the pandemic-specific predictions that I had collected since early 2020 to see whether they came true.
Spoiler: Many did not.
Just as the world quickly returned to normal after the 1918 influenza epidemic, so has the same generally occurred today. I personally saw how quickly Israel returned to semi-normal after the country’s successful marketing-led vaccination rollout in 2021.
And then at the end, I will show how people can avoid falling for overzealous predictions in the marketing world – whether they are merely bandwagon jumping or doing something worse.
Here we go – in random order.
James Altucher (August 2020): “NYC is dead forever” because people are moving away, remote work is eliminating the need for commercial space, and many students will learn remotely.
Today? According to the New York City Recovery Index – a joint project between Investopedia and the local news channel NY1 – the city is 73% back to normal.
Scott Galloway (March and April 2020): “Companies that will experience a temporary downturn but are robust enough to survive the shock” will see their stocks “return to pre-corona levels.”
He mentioned Hudson News, American Airlines, and Carnival. Hudson Group’s share price was $0.40 before the pandemic and is $0.03 today. American Airlines is half what it was. Carnival is still down sharply.
“Peloton’s rally will outlive coronavirus.” $30 in January 2020. $162 in December 2020. $11 today.
“Facebook and Google’s business will have the rebound pattern the president is hoping for the economy, a V” Meta and Google’s stocks both recovered rapidly in 2021 but have declined ever since in 2022.
“The two largest radio firms, iHeartRadio and Cumulus Media, will likely be Chapter 11 (again) within 12 months.” They did not.
“Amazon will be the first $2 trillion value firm by the end of 2021.” No, it was Apple in August 2020.
“We’re going to see dozens, maybe hundreds, of universities not reopen.” At least two dozen US colleges and universities have indeed closed.
A Fast Company headline (May 2020) bluntly stated that “the office is dead” as 71% of VC-backed startup founders said they would let some or all of their employees continue to work remotely when restrictions were really lifted. A Gallup survey in June 2022 found that 8 in 10 people are now working hybrid or remotely.
Hannes Weissensteiner, a managing partner at Artefact (April 2020): “Traditional marketing will finally die.” But OOH ad spend has returned to where it was before the pandemic. US TV ad spend has almost completely rebounded. That's just two examples.
Victoria Petrock, eMarketer principal analyst (April 2020): "Businesses will use virtual reality to hold events and conferences." This did happen, but it remains to be seen whether the trend will continue. A computer screen can never replace in-person human interaction.
Martin Lindstrom (May 2020): “When we’re released [from lockdown], everything will be different. We’re not going to travel, eat, shop, or exercise the same way… perhaps forever.” Uh, what?
Another Fast Company report (April 2021): “Gyms aren’t coming back.” Today? A September 2022 study by UpSwell Marketing found that 50% of respondents returned to gyms within nine months of restrictions lifting, but almost 28% had not gone back at all.
A CNN report (July 2020): “Kiss your sharply-tailored menswear, your sheath dresses and high heels goodbye. The new work-from-home reality has rapidly recalibrated the fashion code for professional wear… The pandemic may have ended formality forever.” In March 2022, Mark Ritson found that the number of UK searches for men’s suits had rebounded to where they were before the pandemic – along with several other trends. Ask yourself: How are people dressing in ad agencies and in-house marketing departments when they are in the office today?
That same month, Tom Goodwin also found that US retail sales trends – including e-commerce – had also regressed to the pre-pandemic mean.
Nielsen (June 2020 and February 2021): “In this new normal, we see that connected TV and co-viewing are a big part of the new media consumption equation.” This still seems to be true. In one example, the 2022 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards had the highest level of co-viewing in the awards’ history.
“As the world re-opens, people will gradually return to in-person dining and shopping, but the convenience of online ordering and curbside pickup will remain an important service for many retailers and restaurants.” According to an August 2022 report in The Washington Post, practices such as curbside pickup are here to stay.
Note: I have purposely not included the predictions of anyone who I think approaches or crosses the line between legitimate promotion and pumping and dumping. Rather, I would encourage people to think about who that might be and view their forecasts warily. They're not hard to spot.
What marketers should remember
Consultant Mark Schaefer recently argued in a blog post on his website that “ChatGPT will profoundly transform every marketing career.” ChatGPT is a new, trendy chatbot developed by the company OpenAI that purportedly uses artificial intelligence.
My point here is not to discuss ChatGPT. It is to explain why many marketers jump on every bandwagon that comes along and what people should keep in mind instead.
Tip #1: Remember that many hyped technologies and products will fail
Every year, Gartner’s Hype Cycle makes countless appearances in boardroom and conference presentations. Everyone is eager to see what technologies are in what places on the map.
But the model has a fundamental flaw: it assumes that every listed technology will – after ups and downs – ultimately succeed. For marketers who promote new technologies, that reassuring prediction is an optimistic way to look at things. But even though many have taken the chart to heart, it does not reflect objective reality.
Many technologies and products have failed and never made it past the trough of disillusionment. The Windows and Amazon Fire smartphones. Google+ and Google Glass. Juicero. Segway. All of the Spice Girls’ solo musical careers.
Even in the VC-funded high-tech startup world, venture capitalists assume that, say, nine out of ten of the companies in their investment portfolios will fail. (They need only one to succeed to make a lot of money.)
Tip #2: Pay attention to the predictions of those who matter
In January 2020, I wrote here that personalization would be that year’s most overhyped marketing trend. (Mark that as a failure on my part. While I still think that personalization is often a drawback rather than a benefit, the pandemic did overshadow everything that year.)
But remember what I wrote about how those who claim that personalization is the future of marketing are usually those who are selling personalization software. Such people will always frame predictions in ways that help what they are selling.
That principle is still true in today’s so-called post-pandemic world: “The discourse within the marketing industry is too often poisoned by companies that are selling something to marketers… To obtain real insights into industry trends, look not at businesses that sell products or services but at those that sell information. Such firms live and die based on the quality of their findings rather than the popularity of products or services.”
And that, in part, is why this annual end-of-the-year column aims to find out who has the best information.
Furthermore, remember that a prediction is not a good prediction if the opposite is never true. "Widget sales will increase in 2023" is a good prediction. "Advertising will be important in 2023" is not a good one because there is never a year when it is not important.
Tip #3: The more bandwagons, the less credible
In 2021, people ranging from venture capitalists to celebrities began including their Ethereum usernames on their Twitter profiles. For example, talk show host Jimmy Fallon had Fallon.eth. But in October 2022, The Information reported that many had dropped the promotion as cryptocurrencies had begun to implode.
I have one question: When they endorse something else in the future, why should anyone trust them? Endorsers and promoters are forever connected to what they pitch. Something similar occurs when marketing pundits and agencies jump from prediction to prediction every year and promote some new thing that will supposedly change the industry forever.
Every jump dilutes their credibility as they keep spreading their ever-changing ideas around. It runs thin. I could name numerous marketing influencers who went all-in on cryptocurrencies and NFTs and whose Twitter profiles are still full of breathless hype and childish emojis.
Tip #4: Never forget what marketing truly is
Marketing does not fundamentally change. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
Do the research. Segment the market in a valuable way. Choose who to target. Decide how to position yourself to them. Create a marketing mix that covers the product, pricing, distribution, and promotion. Select a promotion mix that states which marcom actions and channels to use. Run the campaigns, measure, and evaluate. Rinse and repeat. The rest is details.
Just remember: ChatGPT is the new NFT is the new Clubhouse is the new newsletter is the new podcast is the new personalization is the new brand purpose is the new blockchain is the new growth hacking is the new agile is the new Pokemon Go is the new QR code.
Every year, people will make predictions, and trends will come and go. You can disregard most of them – whether there is a global pandemic at the moment or not. And you can especially ignore the crazes whenever it is someone doing a pump and dump.
Just see what the SEC found earlier this month.
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker and head of marketing at the IT mapping platform Faddom in Tel Aviv. His opinions are only his own.