Editor's note: George Terhanian is chief research and analytics office at The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., research firm. Also based in Port Washington, Matt Powell is the firm’s vice president, industry analyst – sports. Jia Guo is executive director in the firm’s Portland, Ore., office.

Before Malcolm Gladwell became a super-famous writer, he penned a long article in The New Yorker in 1997 that chronicled the adventures of professional coolhunters searching for the next big thing in the athletic shoe industry. Gladwell wrote about people named DeeDee and Baysie who scoured the edgiest streets of big cities everywhere for what was hot, before it became mainstream hot. The companies they worked for – Converse, Reebok, others – then placed bets on which shoes to take to market. 

If you dig deeper, you realize this approach didn’t deliver the goods. As Gladwell observed, there’s a fundamental challenge to coolhunting: “The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight.” In other words, once everyone knows what’s cool, it’s no longer cool. That’s not a good thing for an athletic shoe manufacturer, particularly when it can take 18 months for a shoe to move from the drawing board to the store shelves. 

There are other challenges with coolhunting, too. It places a tremendous amount of faith in a small number of so-called experts, which runs counter to today’s more contemporary “wisdom of crowds” philosophy. Why rely on a handful of experts when, through technology, your customers and prospects can be at your near-immediate beck and call?

So if you’re Converse, Reebok, Nike, Adidas, Under Armour or any company trying to make killer products people love, you need to make sure you’ve got a trustworthy way to distinguish the winners from the losers, no matter how you come up with the product ideas. You also need to move fast to account for how quickly fashion trends change. You might even need to pla...