10 Tips for Tracking Trends

Libraries can stay relevant to their users by strategically riding the wave of societal trends

May 11, 2010


As a public library director I spend a great deal of time searching out ways to keep my library relevant in today’s fast-changing environment. I’ve found that one method to do this is to keep myself current about societal trends and to strategize regularly about how my library might ride the wave of those trends to better serve the needs of the library’s users. This article explains the process that I go through to do this. It doesn’t take long, it is invariably interesting, and I’ve consistently found that it produces results. As you work, keep in mind that your primary goal is to identify trends and evaluate them for implications they might have for your library. That will help keep you focused among the myriad of fascinating ideas that you will discover.

Step 1: Identify potential sources of information for societal and library trend tracking. Trend tracking is now an entire profession in the world of business. There are people and companies that focus exclusively on tracking trends and defining their potential implications for businesses. Because this is a relatively new phenomenon, most of these trend trackers are internet-centered. They tend to share their information broadly and freely online with the goal of attracting business to them. This means that librarians can find a tremendous amount of trend-tracking information online, for free.

Go online and search for “trend tracking” or “cool hunting.” You’ll get a whole list of individuals and organizations that do this; in fact, you may be somewhat overwhelmed by the options. You need to do some evaluation of the websites you find to determine which ones will be useful and provide good information. I would look for sites that 1) have been in existence for more than 10 minutes, 2) have received positive reviews in well-known marketing or advertising journals (the equivalent of peer review in the world of marketing), and 3) provide a great deal of free information—otherwise, what’s the point? (To see eight recent trends our library spotted, go to the “Trends in Action” .)

I generally try to find sites that provide general rather than specific information. For example, I’m less interested in specific trends in the car industry, but I’m very interested in trends that involve marketing to baby boomers. The more general the trend, the easier it is for me to determine its implications for what I do in the library. To help you get started check out trendwatching.com, Cool Hunting, The Cool Hunter, and Tomorrow’ s Trends—all great sources of information.

Step 2: Develop a method for regularly reviewing those resources. I block out an hour every Friday morning to sit down and go through my trend tracking. I try to hold that hour on my schedule, no matter what. I start by going through the new information on each site, scanning for content that grabs my attention. If something is particularly interesting or seems like it could have direct and immediate relevance to the library, I’ll do some additional, general searches on my own through common business resources (Advertising Age, Business Week, Business Source Premier) to see if I can find more information.

I spend a total of about 20 minutes reviewing, reading, and researching, and then I write down each idea in two to three words (to be used in the next step), along with a few additional sentences to summarize the basic concept and the source for that information. (I always track this so that if I need to refer back to the source I know where to find it quickly.) I usually spend about10 minutes doing this, so I don’t spend more than two or three minutes per idea. If I come up with 10 ideas in a session, I’m very happy.

Step 3: Search social networking sites. I spend another 10 minutes using the two to three keywords I identified above to search social network sites like Twitter and Facebook to see if anything of interest pops up. Sometimes you can find a great Facebook site of someone who is driving a trend or a “trend groupie” who can prove to be a goldmine of information. Don’t spend a huge amount of time doing this, but it can be a helpful way of amplifying an idea that you might be developing.

Step 4: Review each idea that you pulled out of your research, considering potential implications for your library. Don’t be afraid at this point to be a little crazy and to have some fun. This is really the brainstorming part of this enterprise, and as we always say when brainstorming, there are no bad ideas.

Go through all of the ideas that you captured in your scanning. Ask yourself how this trend might be relevant to your library or your job. Jot down anything that comes to mind. Trust your intuition and write down the first ideas that come to mind. Write down questions about the idea. Don’t worry if the idea seems crazy or too vague. All you are doing here is getting ideas out of your brain and onto paper. If nothing comes to mind, then there might not be any value in this trend for your library, so move on to the next one.

This step should be fairly fluid and fun. It’s even more interesting if you can find a fellow librarian to do this with, because you’ll find that you start to build on each other’s ideas. This brainstorming phase should take about 20 minutes. When you have completed this work, stop and put your idea list in a file.

Step 5: Leave your idea list in a file until you start the same process the next week. I firmly believe that good ideas get better after “percolating.” Let them sit and allow your subconscious to noodle them. Then for the first 10 minutes of your next trend-tracking hour, before you start scanning your resources for new idea leads, look at what you wrote down the prior week. Can you expand on any of the ideas? Do any of the ideas lead you in a new direction? Did you find any information during the week that might lead you to think an idea was potentially very good or very bad?

Go through your list and amend it, based on this process. Each week during these 10-minute scans, review and edit the prior weeks’ lists. After a period of time (it could be a week or two or three) you’ll find that certain ideas hold up to scrutiny and keep growing in interest; those are the ones that should take the forefront for actual development. I generally don’t let an idea sit for more than six weeks without moving it to the next step; otherwise, it’s too easy to miss a trend opportunity.

Step 6: When you identify the ideas that you want to pursue for your library, get together with some of your fellow librarians to help you review the ideas and find the good and bad about them. You might ask an informal group to meet for a brown-bag lunch and discussion session, or do it after work over a dinner out. Share one of the ideas that has worked its way to the top of your file. Ask the group if there is any way they could amplify or build on the idea. Would the idea be useful to them individually in their section of the library? Does the idea intrigue them, or do they immediately brush it off? Work to find reasons to try ideas rather than identify all the problems with implementing something.

Once you’ve gone through the brainstorming discussion, ask the group to tell you all the reasons why the idea won’t work. Try hard to poke holes in the idea. Find all the reasons for failure and write them down. Put together a list of the pros and cons that you’ve developed. Ideally, the pros will outweigh the cons—but they might not. That’s okay; don’t discard anything yet but go on to the next step.

Step 7: Put the ideas back in the file and let them sit for another week. They need to percolate again. Pull the ideas out one more time at the end of the week. If an idea still seems intriguing, start pursuing it even if it has a big list of cons against it. At least now you should have a clear list of issues that you can address as you plan how to move the idea forward. If the pros of the idea are lengthy, then you are in even better shape to move the idea into development.

Step 8: Once a month, pull out one idea that has gone through steps 1–7. Spend an additional hour writing a one-page summary of why your library should give that idea a try. The summary should never be longer than one page and here’s why: You are going to use this summary to “sell” your manager (or the library director or the board of trustees) on pursuing this idea. The following are the key elements to include in this summary:

  • Summary of project idea: One or two sentences outlining what the idea is.
  • Sources: How did this idea surface?
  • Value to the library: If this idea is implemented, what could it do for your library?
  • Cost: How much would it cost to implement this idea?
  • Timeline: How long do you think it would take to implement this idea?
  • Resources: Who would need to be involved in implementing this idea to make it work?
  • Potential issues: Identify any major issues to consider.
  • Success measurement: Identify how you will measure success in this project.

That’s it. Don’t do any more work than what is identified above. What you are doing here is compiling the most essential points for decisionmakers so they have the information they need to review an idea and decide whether it has merit. You don’t want to spend too much time on this, because they could easily come back to you and say no. Your goal is to demonstrate that you have thought through the implications of pursuing this idea, both positive (the value to your library) and negative (cost and resources). Give your proposal to your manager and wait to get a response.

Step 9: Approval. Your project is approved. The next step is to start putting together the team that will execute the project. You should also work with your manager to ensure that any funding needed for the project is in place and that you will be able to pay for expenses as they come up. To that end, you should develop a simple project budget so that from the first day you are managing your costs.

Step 10: Turned down. Don’t despair. Many good ideas take time to be realized. When an idea is turned down, the first step is to ask for feedback. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Was the idea turned down because it was not a good idea or was not of value to the library? If so, next time you submit an idea you will know that it is important to make a very strong statement of value.
  • Was the idea turned down because of financial constraints? Consider whether there is any way to execute the idea less expensively.
  • Was the idea turned down because it used up too much in the way of resources? If so, consider whether you could have more of the project managed or executed by library volunteers versus paid staff.
  • Was the idea turned down because the decisionmaker didn’t understand the concept? If so, then you need to clarify the concept and make sure that it can be understood quickly and easily. Consider reading your concept summary to friends and coworkers. Do they understand immediately? If not, then keep reworking the idea.

Above all, if you feel passionately about an idea, don’t give up on it at the first rejection. Sometimes it just takes time to clarify a concept or to build support. Keep at it and don’t be afraid of “no.” The best ideas will eventually find an audience to support them and most importantly, will make a real difference in your library’s efforts to stay current and relevant to its users.

Elisabeth Doucett is director of the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine. She holds an MLS from Simmons College and an MBA in marketing from the J. L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston. Her strategy and marketing proficiencies were developed over more than a decade spent in the consumer packaged goods industry as a marketing director at Quaker Oats and Dunkin’ Donuts and as a brand manager in Kraft Foods’ Maxwell House Coffee Division. This article is excerpted from What They Don’t Teach You at Library School, to be published by ALA Editions in July.