Jonathan Hopfner | December 16th, 2020

If there’s one thing the past year has shown, it’s that forecasts are fragile.

Looking over the torrent of predictions for 2020 that were churned out around this time last year is a fascinating, if slightly morbid, exercise; a glimpse of the hopes and fears of what now seems like a very different world. Needless to say, an epidemic of the kind that gained momentum a couple of months later didn’t seem to be on the cards; most of us were a lot more worried about trade frictions and environmental threats. Both of which have indeed been significant issues this year, but have taken a definite backseat to you-know-what.

In fact, what’s most striking about these ‘here’s what’s coming in 2020’ type lists isn’t what they missed or got wrong, but what they got right … for entirely the wrong reasons. Somehow, the post-pandemic rear-view mirror adds a delicious irony to predictions like “the remote workforce will continue to grow” (will it ever - exponentially, as a matter of fact); “millennials continue to embrace the suburbs” (absolutely - because pokey studio apartments in the city centre become a lot less appealing when you’re forced to spend most of your time in them) and “Christine Lagarde will have plenty on her plate at the ECB” (the poor woman probably hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months).

It’ll be interesting to see to what extent our esteemed colleagues at publications like The Economist stick to the tradition of issuing report cards on the performance of the previous year’s predictions; presumably this year there’d be some poor grades all around (those of us in Hong Kong are still waiting for the M+ arts museum to open, for one thing).

Yet as fraught an exercise as looking into the crystal ball can be, organisations from Fortune to Forrester are still at it. Some even seem to be embracing the all-prevalent uncertainty, with Denmark’s Saxo Bank unveiling a list of ‘Outrageous Predictions’ for 2021 that include a successful COVID-19 vaccine inadvertently killing off a bunch of ‘zombie’ firms (let’s hope so) and China throwing its capital markets wide open (think we’ve heard that one before …).

Bravery has its benefits

So why do companies still insist on publishing these kinds of lists, when the risks of being caught flat-footed, disputed or just plain off the mark are probably higher than ever?

Quite simply, because they work. People crave and engage with content that’s forward-looking, takes a clear position, is opinionated and even slightly provocative. If it doesn’t take itself too seriously, like the Saxo example, all the better. When it comes to this kind of thing, audiences in general are more interested in whether assertions are argued convincingly and compellingly than whether they turn out to be ‘correct.’

In that spirit, here are a couple of not-so-outrageous predictions for 2021 from the desks of New Narrative:

*A webinar recession. We reckon after the last six months or so everyone’s had their fill of awkward and technologically stilted online interactions. Expect more events next year to be live with smaller groups of people, or a hybrid of live and virtual, until big-ticket conferences make a comeback.

*Calm makes a comeback. Done with being disrupted? Had it up to here with unprecedented? Does reading about volatility make your eyes glaze over? You’re not alone. Uncertainty is pretty much a given at this point, so hopefully we’ll be hearing a lot more about the benefits of staying on an even keel and looking to the opportunities emerging with the many positive trends that are pretty much here to stay, whether the growth of green finance or the swelling ranks of Southeast Asia’s middle class.

*Personalisation becomes more balanced. We’ve spoken before about the importance of personalisation in content campaigns, but also about the need for a certain amount of subtlety, and a healthy respect for privacy. Over the past year awareness that excessively personalised marketing can come across as, well, creepy, seems to be on the rise, perhaps because people have had much more time to scrutinise these practices with the pandemic keeping them online. That gives us hope that in 2021 personalisation will become a much more participatory process, with brands actually seeking not just the consent but also the input of their audiences, rather than trying to profile them furtively from a distance.

Of course, there’s every possibility all of these will turn out to be way off the mark - wait for our 2021 report card to find out. We promise to grade ourselves rigorously.

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