Beware of analysts and “thought leaders” flogging trends

People who thrive on attention — analysts and “thought leaders” — will tell you about what’s new and on fire. Making long-term decisions based on that is likely a mistake.

If you’re not on top of a trend, you’re nobody

Imagine for a moment that you are trying to be a thought leader. This includes analysts at firms like Gartner and Forrester and IDC, but it also includes authors, speakers, consultants, and anybody else that makes a living by being visible and influential.

If you are not talking about something new, you are invisible.

On the other hand, if you want to get visible, then you’ll push to the front of the line. You’ll embrace the leading edge of something new that’s happening and attempt to name it, write about it, give speeches about it, and get quoted in news media about it.

Crucially, it doesn’t matter whether the trend is actually important right now. What matters is whether you’re one of the first to get in on the hype. This is what enables you to get a head start on the “leader” part of thought leader.

To continue to lead, you have to continue to build castles in the air based on the trend.

To be fair, the big analyst firms have to talk to clients, and if they overhype a trend, they’ll get called on it. So trend pieces there tend to be a little more circumspect, and based on a little more data — when there is data available.

But the little guys don’t worry about that. The smaller the organization is, the more likely it is to jump on an unproven “massive” trend just to get attention.

Take ecommerce. You could write about ecommerce infrastructure, platforms, trust, and the strategies of traditional and internet retailers. That would take a lot of work. Or you could write about the commerce potential of the metaverse, which, lacking any actual facts, is wide open for whatever speculation you care to share. That’s a lot less work, more fun, and easier to leverage into attention.

The blockchain, NFT, Web 3, DAO, cryptocurrency bubble

Right now, we’re engaged in a massive, speculative “Web 3” babblefest. What is Web 3? It’s some combination of blockchain and the metaverse. It includes non-fungible tokens, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and virtual reality worlds.

This is the moment when the pundits and pontificators all must get on board. After all, Facebook has embraced the metaverse as the future. Retailers are beginning to take cryptocurrency as payment. There is more than $3 trillion in market cap on all cryptocurrencies. An artist sold a “non-fungible token,” or NFT, of digital art for $69 million.

All of this has to mean something, right? If you can figure out what it means, you will come out on top as a thought leader.

I know. I was at one time the top analyst covering social media at Forrester. I gave hundreds of speeches, sold 150,000 books, and generated millions of dollars in consulting. I got quoted all over.

I know next to nothing about all these Web 3 trends. But I can certainly tell you that being one of the top thought leaders in this space will get you a lot of visibility, and you can monetize that.

But it doesn’t mean you are right.

Will NFTs and cryptocurrency fade into the background and become irrelevant? Will this incarnation of the metaverse follow Second Life into oblivion?

The point is not that it will or it won’t — it’s that whether it will or it won’t doesn’t matter to the thought leader. It is better to be on top of a trend and be wrong than to be invisible.

The hype cycle is real. And things fall off of it.

Roy Amara coined “Amara’s Law”:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

But Amara’s law doesn’t cover the technology that fails altogether, or goes underground for decades.

If you look at the early hype around the Web, social media, ecommerce, or mobile, Amara’s law applies. They were massively hyped and then, over a much longer period than the pundits predicted, they transformed the world.

But if you look at interactive TV, 3D TV, smart speakers, Google Glass, streaming services with 10-minute episodes, or any of a thousand other trends, they didn’t make much of an impact. They haven’t transformed anything.

There is a systematic way to look at this: the Gartner Hype Cycle, which actually tracks the development of bleeding edge trends. Instead of showing you the featured trends of 2021, let’s look at what happened with the trends on the 2016 Gartner Hype Cycle, from five years ago.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality were supposed to be catching on by now. They’re still out in the wilderness. I’d argue that the peak interest in autonomous vehicles continues, even though it was supposed to be at peak hype in 2016 (and proved lots harder to do than it seemed at the time). Drones certainly caught on, but how many of you have virtual personal assistants?

But you can bet that there were thought leaders flogging all those ideas in 2016, just like the Web 3 cheerleaders right now.

Clubhouse or flubhouse?

Clubhouse — a sort of virtual social network for people to gather audiences and blab at (and with) them — was peaking a year ago. People were creating rooms and spreading influence with them. If you didn’t have a clubhouse room (to go with your blog, your Twitter, your Medium, your Instagram, your YouTube channel, your podcast, . . . ) you were going to be a nobody.

Now, according to TechCrunch editor Mike Butcher, “It’s clear that the ‘shiny new thing effect’ wore off after a while with Clubhouse . . . There are only so many random, poorly curated discussions people can take.”

Where are all the people who were so excited last year? They’re on to the next new thing.

Be a skeptic

For all I know, the Web 3 hype could lead to something genuine.

But don’t become a true believer just because thought leaders are all over it.

The point is not whether these people are right or wrong. At this point, it’s very hard to know if this is a bubble, a huge trend, or something that looks very different from what it appears right now. (Based on my experience, it’s almost always the latter.)

The point is that the thought leader’s reason to hype things is not that they’re right, it’s that they want to embrace whatever’s newest.

So be skeptical. Watch closely. Don’t get swept up in the excitement.

Just because everybody is talking about it now, doesn’t mean it will be huge any time soon.

Ask all the people on Clubhouse, if you can find any.

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One Comment

  1. There are people who have actual track records. Those might actually be worthy of some greater degree of attention. Not all thought leaders are created equal. Especially the self-appointed ones.