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Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes

by Mark J. Penn

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Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes
Twelve, September 2007

Believe it or not, Internet marrieds, teenage knitters and tattooed professionals have at least one thing in common. They exist in large enough numbers to be considered "microtrends," or what analyst Mark J. Penn calls "small, under-the-radar forces" that have the power to profoundly shape our society. Penn maintains that it only takes one percent of the U.S. population—or about three million people—to create a movement that can change the world.

In Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes, Penn identifies seventy-five burgeoning subgroups that fit into general categories such as politics, race and religion, family life, and technology. This book's author is considered one of the most perceptive pollsters in American politics, and he is known for identifying "Soccer Moms" as a significant constituency in President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.

Microtrends, as Penn says, is "all about the niching of America." Hundreds of Americans are drawn together by common interests, and these groups—even at relatively small numbers—can generate enough interest in a book to put it on the bestseller list or in a movie to turn it into a box office hit.
According to Penn's analysis, for example, women are now taking more active roles in shaping and purchasing technology, including consumer electronics. More people are turning into Do-It-Yourself Doctors, using the Internet to research their own ailments and to administer their own cures. Video games are a mainstream activity enjoyed by American adults. Retired people are continuing to work. Dads are older and are spending more time with their kids.

Besides simply identifying numerous microtrends, Penn also looks at how the skill of microtargeting can be a highly important marketing tool. If companies, marketers, and policymakers understood the power of only a small group, they might be able to meet the needs of a niche population more effectively.

Penn offers the example of Single Mothers by Choice to show how single women who choose to adopt or bear children without a partner can have an impact on business and finance. Home maintenance, home repair, and home security—traditionally male-oriented affairs—are now within a woman's realm, and related companies therefore have a large market of single women. Ditto for investment companies that have customarily courted males or couples as their primary clients.
Another trend that Penn spots is the shift from American participation in team sports to individual sports. Sport participation in America is far from declining, but instead of playing team or partner sports such as baseball, volleyball, or tennis, more people are mountain-biking, kayaking, and skateboarding instead. This growing trend towards the individual will likely result in niche sports programming, Penn predicts, and it will likely mean that niche heroes will emerge along with niche sports in the movies.

Because of its focus on the political and commercial impacts that these microtrends will likely spawn, this book will be of interest to readers concerned with business and politics, but it will also educate the general reader about a host of small but growing cultural trends. As Penn explains, some of these trends are hard to spot although they may be rapidly growing. The forces that are changing our world may be "hidden, operating just under the surface," and Penn does a good job pointing them out.
One of the difficulties in reading this book is that as soon as one trend is explained, another is introduced. With seventy-five different trends discussed in one book, a reader might feel pushed to the limit of information overload in only a few chapters. Some of the trends conflict with others because, as Penn says, "for every trend, there is a countertrend." It becomes, therefore, hard to believe that each trend is truly significant.

But Penn's book does not predict that all seventy-five microtrends hold equal weight or that each of them will have the same type of impact on our future. Instead, Microtrends reads more like a radar, and Penn has done his part—and more—in plotting these small but potentially powerful movements on the map.
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