The Art of Making Predictions

By David Burda  |  January 8, 2016

Cartoon man standing on books looking through telescope

Starting in mid-December and running through the end of January, my inbox, news feeds and social media channels are ripe with year-end reviews and year-ahead outlooks. I’m a news junky, so I read the reviews for pleasure to test my recall of all the big stories.

I’m also a healthcare business journalist, so I read all the outlooks to get a sense of what I might be writing about over the next 12 months.

My favorite type of industry outlook is one that makes predictions about what will and won’t happen over the next year — the more specific the prediction, the more I like it. I also think outlooks that make specific predictions create more fruitful earned media opportunities for the brands that make them, especially if those predictions end up coming true.

To explain why, let’s start with the types of predictions that don’t work. There are two: watered-down and self-serving. Watered-down predictions are so general and so safe that any self-proclaimed expert can make them and think they sound smart. To avoid embarrassment, I won’t identify the organizations whose experts predicted that healthcare reform will continue to have a major impact on the healthcare system in 2016, and that concerns over healthcare costs will continue to drive strategic business decisions by all industry stakeholders this year. Zzzzzzz. Watered-down predictions fail because they don’t provide useful content to their audience, and their earned media chances are as slim as their insight.

Self-serving predictions typically foresee more of something that will create more demand for whatever the prognosticating company is selling. Again without naming names, a cybersecurity firm forecasts more healthcare data breaches, a telemedicine firm said 2016 will be the year of telemedicine, and a generic drug manufacturer is sure that the prices of brand-name drugs will continue to rise this year. Good for them, but not good for earned media opportunities. Credible media outlets will recognize the lack of credibility in those predictions and likely will take a pass.

So what makes predictions useful, and what makes them credible? Let’s start with the former. Useful predictions make an audience think about something they haven’t thought about before or had thought about before but were afraid to utter it out loud. Useful predictions also live somewhere between plausible and reasonable based on facts and trends known to the audience. And useful predictions give their audience valuable insights that could have a material impact on how they run their organizations and corporations. They may adjust their business plan, business practices or even their business model based on those valuable insights. More than a fun read, they’re useful market intelligence.

Examples of useful predictions include the ECRI Institute’s Top 10 Health Technology Hazards for 2016 (watch out for those dirty endoscopes) and the PwC Health Research Institute’s Top 10 Health Industry Issues for 2016 (ready to Skype with your doctor?).

Let’s discuss the latter — credible predictions. What makes credible predictions credible are source and track record. Does the person or organization making the prediction possess industry credibility in and of itself? You’re probably too young to remember the famous line from a brokerage house advertising campaign that went: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” But that’s the point. The prediction is credible because the source is credible.

Examples of credible predictions from credible sources include the Cleveland Clinic’s Top 10 Medical Innovations for 2016 and John Halamka’s 2016 Predictions for Health IT. Halamka is a physician and CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and one of the healthcare industry’s leading authorities on health information technology. His predictions appeared in his blog in Healthcare IT News. And the Cleveland Clinic is, well, the Cleveland Clinic. Both the clinic and Halamka got a lot of pub for their forecasts simply because of who they are.

Predictions also gain credibility if past predictions by the person or organization have come true. I’ve never met a healthcare futurist who ever admitted to getting a prediction wrong. But I do remember a few predictions that they did get right. Among them were the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and legalization of medical marijuana. (I also know a healthcare executive whose business ventures invariably fail, so I stopped reporting them as the next big thing after the third failure.)

One prediction for 2016 that I’ll be watching is one made by Forrester Research that said it expects ransomware for patients’ medical devices and health wearables. The prediction generated a lot of earned media for Forrester and will make an even bigger story if it comes true. And it gave me yet another reason to avoid a pacemaker and a Fitbit.

Many brands inside and outside of healthcare may think making predictions for their industry is beneath them, or perhaps they’re just too conservative culturally to go out on a limb. But when done right, becoming one of your industry’s leading forecasters will create multiple and regular earned media opportunities for your brand. That’s my prediction.

Check out MSPC’s collection of 10 Content Marketing Predictions for 2016, and sign up for our monthly E-newsletter to get more exclusive content like this.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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