Top 10 Trends of 2007

NEW YORK It’s a small world after all. Private and public lives are merging on the Internet, corporate giants are embracing environmental initiatives, industry competitors are collaborating, and the transfer of wealth from the developed world to emerging economies is picking up speed at a mind-boggling pace. Our identities and our businesses are as fluid and amorphous as they are, well, practical. To find focus within the shifting boundaries, we identified, in no particular order, the top 10 trends of 2007. While many did not originate this year, they certainly became more prominent. Which of course means that, for good or for bad, they’ll also help shape the future.

WEB SPIN-OFFS Striking writers need no better example of the intertwined lives of TV and the Internet than this year’s migration of online content to the broadcast nets. In the glitziest news, Marshall Herskovitz’s and Edward Zwick’s Webisode series, “quarterlife” (running on MySpace and quarterlife.com), was picked up by NBC, which no doubt hopes to cash in on the success of the duo’s angst-ridden generational dramas, My So-Called Life and thirtysomething. Reportedly, the eight-minute segments will turn into hour-long episodes. And in September, gossip site TMZ.com—the place to go for snarky, breaking entertainment news—became a half-hour syndicated TV show that delivers solid ratings. Even online animated characters are having their night in the limelight thanks to Fox Business News picking up Hoofy the Bull and Boo the Bear for a financial segment. The two cartoon critters are from minyanville.com, a site that creates branded properties to help make learning about finance less of a drag. Now that’s entertainment.

ALL US, ALL THE TIME People’s drive for self-expression apparently cannot be tamed. Self-proclaimed dazzling personalities are blasting their tastes, opinions, music, art and mundane routines to Web sites and mobile phones around the world in a 24-hour media fest that’s giving everyone their chance at, if not fame, then at least at recognition. In October 2007, there were 110 million unique visitors to social-networking sites MySpace, Facebook and Bebo compared to 73 million visits to those sites in the previous October, according to comScore. And micro-blogging sites Twitter, Pownce and Google-owned Jaiku caught on, too, as users sent instant messages about their daily activities, with no event too small not to share. (“Look at me, I’m stuck in traffic!”) Critics warn people will tire of the sharing of such mundane details—but there was a time when e-mail, too, was written off as just a fad.

LEAVING THE PC BEHIND “Leave the PC, take the mobile device” could be the Godfather-inspired slogan of 2007. Phones (and not the clunky “smart phones”), music players and game machines now let people do most of their planning, organizing, searching, connecting, gaming and more on the go. The redesigned Zune from Microsoft lets users share music with their friends; the PlayStation Portable, also redesigned, plays music and movies as well as video games; Zipit Wireless 2 can instant message, show photos and play music; and the iPhone lets people do, well, nearly everything. Even Web sites are getting into the act, with Google and News Corp.’s MySpace announcing plans to launch their own phones at some point next year. Now we’re waiting for a phone that extends our days so we have time to use all its other features.

THE REAL DEAL Fake it ’til you make it? Not this year. As Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” continued to garner accolades and blogs like Consumerist and Gawker remained committed to calling bullshit on companies they deem hypocritical (like, well, Unilever, who markets Axe as the anti-Dove), many brands made a move for authenticity. On the Web that meant viral videos, word-of-mouth campaigns and heartfelt apologies from Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg when early iPhone adopters and Facebook friends complained their trust had been breached by big business. Beyond its rebate, Apple even gave some brand loyalists their 15 minutes in a series of user-gen TV spots. But with “real people” modeling agencies popping up like toadstools and “electability” driving the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, is real on its way to becoming the new fake?

THE DEATH OF PRIVACY When the Federal Communications Commission met in November to discuss whether consumers’ privacy is being adequately safeguarded, we wondered what the debate was about. Yes, AOL announced plans in the fall for a do-not-track list (a preemptive strike before the hearings), and Facebook’s Beacon retrenched in its quest to turn users into ads, but such moves are not likely to beat back the tide. Lives have been turned into bits of digital data easily accessed by strangers, friends and enemies alike. YouTube videos morph into edited versions never intended by their creators; blog gossip, allegations and innuendo live forever in the public domain; and a lack of accountability in both “news” reporting and digesting has turned “facts” into fluid pieces of viral information. The Google generation has little trepidation about the sharing of their most personal details on social networking sites screened by everyone from prospective employers and marketers to law enforcement. Although one can argue that they invite the scrutiny, not only do they not fully understand the repercussions, but anyone who spends time on the Web leaves footprints for others to track. And it’s that accountability for consumers’ habits, tastes and preferences that is helping marketers monetize the medium. Welcome to the world you helped create—and be careful out there. —Noreen o’leary

GREEN CAPITALISM Call it corporate social responsibility or cold, hard capitalism, but marketing a brand or corporation around the environment stepped out of the fringes and squarely into the mainstream, seven years after British Petroleum repositioned itself as “beyond petroleum.” Yes, scoring points with environmentalists is important to retailers like Wal-Mart and oil companies like Chevron, but the bottom line is there’s money to be made in less bulky packaging and renewable energy exploration. Indeed, corporate social responsibility is an issue that “no chairman or CEO will duck”—as WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell told industry analysts this month—because “it’s a major area of potential revenue generation and profitability.” Hence, Toyota advertises its “zero emissions vision” and goal of “zero waste in all our plants,” ExxonMobil touts technology designed to improve the performance of batteries used in hybrid cars, and utility holding company Exelon Corp. says, “A low-carbon energy future is possible, and national climate change legislation is a critical step.” Even Al Gore has switched from being a presidential candidate to an environmental advocate, a Nobel laureate, an advisor at Google and a venture capitalist. And unlike oil companies whose new stance appears hypocritical or at least a stretch based on past actions (Exxon Valdez, anyone?), Gore’s transformation at least jibes with his days as a tree hugger. Will corporate America make good on its trendy promises? Time will tell.

GAMING GETS SOCIAL We’ve retired the myth that young men living in their parents’ basements were solely responsible for the $7.4 billion in video game sales last year (per the Entertainment Software Association). Now the notion that gamers are loners is changing as well. New systems from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all have some form of online connectivity that allows players to interact: Nintendo’s Wii has some online capabilities, and both Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 let gamers talk, text message and video chat. Sony’s Home, a planned virtual world set to launch next year, will go even further, creating a spot similar to Second Life for video games.

DATA IS KING “Content” is no longer the be-all, end-all in the digital age. The growing number of social networks and marketers interested in targeted, relevant messages has given rise to a new proclamation: data rules. Google built its business on this premise, and Facebook’s $15 billion valuation was due to the plethora of information it has on its 58 million users. On the media-buying side, we’ve moved from mass media to precision media. Marketers now equate consumer knowledge with “insights” that can help hawk their wares and justify the huge bucks they’re shelling out for media time. The Nielsen Television Index more than doubled its data output to clients this year (with the addition of average-commercial-minute ratings for live audiences, among other numbers), and companies including TiVo and TNS introduced services that measure audiences for commercials and programs down to the second. Number crunchers, your day has come.

BRIC KEEPS BUILDING This year, for the first time, half of the world’s population now lives in cities—and five of the planet’s top 10 most populous cities are located in the burgeoning BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, according to Goldman Sachs. Sao Paulo, where 10 percent of Brazil’s population lives, and Mumbai, home to 1.6 percent of India’s citizens, are the largest of those BRIC cities. Urban areas are, of course, the centers of economic activity and wealth generation, where consumers with increasing disposable income work their way up the social ladder. The investment bank predicts the middle class in BRIC countries will exceed 500 million by 2010. Already that growing financial clout is starting to be felt: The MasterCard Index, which ranks 50 cities according to their financial power, includes five from BRIC nations in that hierarchy, the most important of which is Shanghai, rated at No. 32.

OPEN BEATS CLOSED When it comes to digital media, the new prevailing wisdom is open networks beat closed systems. The most successful companies of the age—think Google, Facebook and MySpace—are platforms that allow others to build on them. Facebook in late May opened its site to outside developers, letting them not only build applications on the site, but also make money from them without giving a cut to Facebook. What’s in it for the site? An army of developers dreaming up ideas it never would on its own. Thanks in part to a flood of apps that let users do everything from throw virtual sheep at each other to share movie and book recommendations, Facebook’s user base has grown by 50 percent since it opened up, according to Nielsen Online. Now the Internet open-beats-closed ethos is moving into new areas like telecom. Within days of iPhone’s introduction, it had been hacked by users to allow them to add features they wanted and the service provider of their choosing. After Google announced plans for an open mobile operating system, Verizon said it would begin to open up to outside developers. That’s good news for consumers, but it will challenge incumbents whose business models are based on exerting tight control.