As a well-meaning marketer pointed out to me on Twitter, 2037 is a long time away in the world of tech. How many people could have predicted the world of 2017 back in 1997? Probably not many, though I think some would have been on the money with a perceptive guess here and there.

So why try to make predictions for 2037 now? Why were so many people who are active in SEO, PPC and PR keen to weigh in? We live in an age where thoughts of the future are captivating. Even if we don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s fun to think about what might.

What’s more, our guesses for the future, however bold and wild they may be, are based on an analysis of current trends unfolding around us: the rise of AI and VR, the popularity of voice search and the increasing personalisation of search, to name a few. Thinking about the future helps us to respond to the challenges of today in a way that sets us up for the long term.

I loved reading the thoughts of digital marketers on where our industry might end up in the next couple of decades. I’ve organised the best predictions and analyses into different themes and interspersed them with some of my own thoughts based on current tech trends and some of the most interesting stories of the past few months. If you have some thoughts on this topic – even just your own wild speculations for the future – I’d love to see them in the comments below!

Advertising & the rise of personalisation

“SERPs will be even more personalised, not just based on where you are or what pages you’ve viewed before, but who you are,” says Liam Wade, PPC manager here at Impression, “Everything will be biddable and audience targeted.”

The theme of greater personalisation in search and social advertising emerged strongly from the comments I received on the topic. A hyper-personalised future for paid campaigns seems on the cards, but that assumes that users make peace with the increasingly widespread notion that if we want free stuff online, we have to accept that we (more specifically, our data) are the products that social media platforms and search engines are selling to their real customers: advertisers.

“Everything will be biddable and audience targeted.” – Liam Wade

Assuming that we still want free stuff (which seems likely) and that global data laws continue to allow for liberal use of personal data (which is more uncertain), adverts and search results will become so highly personalised that an impersonal Google SERP or irrelevant social media advertising simply won’t exist, especially with increased cross-platform integration, which has already started with Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn and Facebook’s acquisition of properties like Whatsapp and Instagram.

Writing in the Verge, Vlad Savov commented on privacy in our brave new world: “I’ve made the choice to sacrifice those aspects of my privacy for the convenience of the services I use — I’m not entirely sure how conscious that choice is, whether it’s really worth it, or even if I can actually go on vacation anywhere without all of these services, but that’s how things are now.”

Daniel Rowles, author and digital marketing trainer at Target Internet, spoke on the implications of further data gathering: “The accumulation of data on an entire population of users, combined with AI-assisted insights into why, when and where customers want a service, will allow marketers to anticipate customers’ needs better than ever. By 2037, there’s a real chance that marketers will know what you fancy for lunch before you do. If that does transpire, they’ll be able to target advertising towards you with absolute precision.”

This puts pressure on advertisers to make good use of the data at their disposal (something that, like Daniel, I expect will be made much easier with the aid of narrow AI tools) and on search/social platforms to keep developing engaging ways to display adverts, which will become more challenging as we inevitably move away from conventional news feeds into a more visual/auditory experience (think VR and Google Home).

“I’ve made the choice to sacrifice those aspects of my privacy for the convenience of the services I use.” – Vlad Savov

Impression’s Becky Carré continued on the theme of developments in search, saying, “Users will be able to search in completely new ways. Voice search and image recognition are already hot topics in search, particularly for advertisers, but this will be accelerated in the next few years. For example, using your smartphone camera to recognise a product then instantly being able to buy it in one-click from the best-priced retailer.”

“With the fragmentation of media, the old skool ‘spray and pay’ campaigns have gone,” commented freelance digital marketing consultant Andrew Lloyd Gordon, “We’re into the era of micro-personalisation, experiential marketing and 1-2-1 marketing and promotions at huge scale.”

It looks like irrelevant ads will be long gone by 2037. Whatever platform we’re searching on by then – however we’re consuming digital media – we can expect the ads we see to be hyper-personalised, possessing a scary level of insight into who we are and what we want. Will we ever be able to say no to an ad?

SEO & the changing technology of search

The future of SEO is dependent on the future of search engine technology. Since the start of the profession, SEOs have been playing Google’s game. Google may not have liked the unethical practices of the early days, but its algorithm still rewarded them and so they existed. Now the algorithm rewards sustainable strategies that promote high quality, user-friendly websites which are technically excellent and often full of in-depth information on a particular topic. In the future, the question is not just what the algorithm will reward, but also what medium will people be using to search. Will desktop searches still exist? For that matter, will any kind of ‘traditional’ search on any platform, mobile, tablet or desktop, exist?

Unsurprisingly, the emerging technology of voice search was mentioned by several commenters. AdPilot search strategy director, Thomas Stocks, predicts, “the largest search engine won’t be Google, but instead one created to focus solely on voice recognition.”

However, Andrew Åkesson of Venn Digital saw things differently: “I doubt voice search as we know it now will be dominant. For example, Facebook thinks we are actively looking for something, but we aren’t ‘searching’ for it, or not as we currently perform a search. As the human race becomes more dependent on search, do we become more likely to let it affect our body if it positively impact on our lives? It’s not that strange to think that we will have chips in our body that help us find the answers we are looking for, without ‘searching.’”

As Andrew suggested, I think voice is a sign of things to come, rather than the be all and end all of search. It signals the movement of search away from distinct platforms (i.e. traditional mobile & desktop search engines) and into our everyday usage. Home assistant products no longer require us to visit a search engine website to find answers; the search engine is just a sentence away.

Following on from the previous section, another development is likely to be the loss of a Google ‘base rank’ as SERPs become almost universally personalised. Freelance SEO consultant Zack Neary-Hayes commented, “I expect search results to become nearly 100% unique to the searcher, which could be achieved by Google drilling into substantially more data points. Results could be personalised by age, gender, interests, health, etc, as well as the relationships between each segment. We’ve already seen this happen on a smaller scale with how Google filters results based on location. People’s searching habits have already changed to reflect this, with people dropping location modifiers from searches. This is only the first step – why would Google stop at location?”

However, will these changes come to fruition if search engines as we know it look fundamentally different? “The future of search is product based,” predicts Aaron Dicks, Impression’s co-founder, “As search becomes increasingly integrated into connected products, like the smart TVs and fridges we already see today, the way that SEOs achieve better search engine visibility will have to change.”

I think structured data markup – schema or its descendants – will rise in importance to the point where it may even be the single most important technical consideration from an organic perspective, if Aaron’s product-based prediction comes true. Schema will tell the search engines of the future precisely what purpose a section of content serves, perhaps allowing different search media to interpret content correctly in a number of situations. Correct markup for a product could, for example, allow it to be found and served in visual, VR-based searches and auditory, voice-based searches, a natural progression from convenient knowledge cards and rich snippets seen today.

“Voice is a sign of things to come, rather than the be all and end all of search.” – Andrew Åkesson

Does this mean that traditional, text-based content will die? Maybe, though I think we’ll still consume it one way or another as long as we read off screens. Instead, we may begin to see websites that need to be ‘hyper-responsive,’ capable of serving optimised content to devices like home assistants and VR headsets as well as desktops and smartphones (which may well be declining in importance or completely obsolete by 2037). Rather than displaying less content, these hyper-responsive sites will have to be capable of serving different kinds of content, which will take canny SEOs with good knowledge of the constraints of different formats and the desires of their audiences to craft.

Impression’s Chloe Fair considered other aspects of the implications of technological change for SEO: “Tools and developments in SEO and CRO will mean that, while our roles still exist, our work will be completely different. Tools will be a game-changer for the industry; for example, there’ll come a point where we never have to do a manual search for the purposes of organic testing again. Creating and using tools will be a core part of SEO.”

I agree with Chloe. Developments in AI mean that more and more advanced automation is becoming possible. It is conceivable that even well before 2037 we’ll have tools that can conduct tasks like keyword research and research for content more comprehensively that we can manage now. With the help of AI and machine learning these tools would need some amount of human input at the start, but would quickly develop to the point where their capabilities are beyond our exact understanding. Will machines take over the execution of the strategies that they help us to create? In part, perhaps. While it seems like there’ll still be creative spaces that humans can operate in that machines can’t, perhaps that’s simply my naivety.

The decentralisation of media & PR

“Not only are print publications becoming obsolete, online media is becoming increasingly led by visuals and audio (think podcasts). Where will this lead?” Asks Jess Hawkes, digital PR specialist at Impression, “The authority figures that created PR in the first place are now also diminished – we relied on relationships with the media because there was only a finite amount of reputable publications that would print your news. Now there is an abundance of ‘authoritative’ sources because anyone can create content at any time from anywhere in the world with just the tech in their pocket.”

Whose content will we trust in 2037? Will any kind of attempt at objective, non-partisan content exist? Content across all media is increasingly emotionally-charged and consumed in echo chambers. My peer group was shocked when Brexit was announced because they couldn’t conceive that the majority of the country thought differently. Why? Because those views weren’t present on their news feeds.

“There is an abundance of ‘authoritative’ sources because anyone can create content at any time from anywhere in the world with just the tech in their pocket.” – Jess Hawkes

People read and share what the people they agree with read and share, reinforced by feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Google that show you more of what you’ve looked at in the past. This means that politically charged articles or opinion pieces that strike an emotional chord with a particular online community are much more attractive to publishers than more balanced articles. However, brands often cannot afford to be seen to be partisan. Assuming the echo-chamber trend continues, how will brands’ neutral content break into increasingly isolated online communities?

Amelia Easten of Plant-Powered PR shared her thoughts on the topic, “We’re currently living in a polarised world. Environmental issues, equal rights, child labour laws… they’ve never been more critical and it’s unclear which way the coin is going to fall, with or against them. As the world moves towards ethical businesses with transparent practices, we need effective digital marketing with the same values.

“In 2037 for the world to progress and survive, ethical companies need to lead the way, with digital marketing agencies promoting them now that so much happens online,” Amelia continued, “We need companies to know that we’re on their side, and that we’re allies not opponents, and for this we need to practice transparency ourselves and stop hiding behind our keyboards. As we move into millennials being the bulk of the workforce, meaning SEO and digital marketing is more widely understood, our hands might be forced with this anyway – we won’t be able to hide behind jargon anymore. It will be interesting to see who survives the next twenty years, and which way the world will go.

Content across all media is increasingly emotionally-charged and consumed in echo chambers.

One trend that seems set to produce fruitful results for a long time coming is the use of pop-culture. I’m confident in this prediction because this has been a content strategy for decades already across all kinds of media and shows no sign of slowing down. Tapping into popular TV shows and movies that transcend political boundaries has been fruitful for many brands, and will likely continue into the future.

Brands’ success will also be continually shaped by how they adapt to changing information consumption habits. Businesses that are slow to adopt graphics and visual content are currently in danger of being left behind by savvier competitors. In 2037, will the leading brand voices be producing VR content experiences?

Jess summed up her thoughts on the changing state of PR, saying, “The relationship side of PR will eventually decline, with forums and open platforms for data sharing becoming more dominant. Getting content published won’t be about who you are or your relationship with a publisher, but how interesting and shareable it is. This shift might actually start improving the quality of content and if not, at least there’s less room for bias.”

The changing face of social

“Facebook will have a paid-for platform which will include an option to remove ads if you subscribe, but won’t be the biggest social media platform anymore,” predicts Thomas Stocks of AdPilot.

Thomas’s prediction raises an important question: how many ads can social media users tolerate before something has to change? The answer may be that there is no limit, but if Facebook and other social platforms expand into VR (as Facebook is already doing with Spaces) with no seamless way to integrate ads, their presence may become increasingly annoying for users, leading to a decrease in the ROI of social advertising and a decrease in how many ads Facebook and other platforms can sell.

If this becomes the case, how do social media giants make money? We’ve already seen Twitter struggling to answer this question in recent years. Will Facebook, Instagram and the rest be the next to realise they have to adapt or die? Their popularity isn’t in question, but their primary source of income is another matter.

Impression’s Becky Carré sees a different challenge for Facebook in particular. She agrees with Thomas that Facebook will no longer be the primary social media platform, continuing, “WeChat already has a near-monopoly in China, allowing users to do everything from message friends, shop online, order a taxi or find someone to go on a date with – it’s all your most-used apps rolled into one.

“The fact all transactions and interactions are carried out without leaving the app means the amount of customer information WeChat can collect about a single user is astounding. I believe WeChat will have taken off in a similar way in the West within the next decade.”

“Facebook will have a paid-for platform which will include an option to remove ads if you subscribe.” – Thomas Stocks.

My own feeling is that social media will become increasingly dominated by visual and auditory media – this trend already exists with the popularity of Instagram and types of posts that get engagement on Facebook and Twitter.

The rise of VR will make this trend even more prominent. What will a VR social feed look like? Will we see our friends in realtime lobbies (something that already exists)? Will we watch VR videos and send messages with voice/thought, seamlessly shifting from newsfeeds to something altogether more immersive?

I can’t help but consider how social platforms would monetise something like this without a feed that we can scroll through. I wonder if VR platforms could adopt a YouTube-esque pre-roll ad system, where users are taken into an advertorial experience before whatever else it was they were planning to do. Such ads, if designed well, could be incredibly powerful, especially in the early years of widespread VR usage. By 2037, they may be the norm.

Another possibility is Spotify-esque audio ads. These would be less immersive, but easier to ignore, which may encourage people to tolerate them. It’s hard to tell whether social VR will make ads easier or harder for users to avoid.

AI and automation

A discussion of AI and automation within the context of digital marketing is inevitably broad, especially when considering changes 20 years into the future. One topic that is of great importance to digital marketers, however, is what AI and automation will do to our jobs.

Some of the changes and adaptations mentioned already in this article give clues, but Thomas Stocks addressed this issue head on in another of his comments, “In terms of jobs in the digital marketing sector, I think they’ll always exist because of course, you can program a robot/machine to work out a user’s intent or behaviour but the planning of a campaign, the consultancy side of marketing and the care element shown by an account manager can’t be replicated by machinery. AI and automated tools or scripts will be like second-nature to us, but this will just make people in the industry more efficient, not redundant.”

I agree with Thomas – providing that AI in the next 20 years stays somewhat similar to its current state, which is not a given. As long as our machines can clearly be defined as ‘narrow’ AI (i.e. capable of performing just one task very well) our jobs will probably continue to exist alongside the kind of tools and software that Thomas and Chloe (who commented in the SEO section) have discussed.

However, it is plausible, if unlikely, that AI will take a gigantic leap forward within the next 20 years, making the current accomplishments of AI technology look like Pong compared to FIFA 18. If we take a step towards general AI, there’s no way of telling what it will and won’t be able to do, and it won’t just be digital marketing jobs under threat, either. We may be staring at the need to restructure the global economy…but that’s definitely beyond the scope of this post.

If we take a step towards general AI, there’s no way of telling what it will and won’t be able to do.

After an interview with Google’s Sundar Pichai, Dieter Bohn wrote this in the Verge: “Fundamentally, [Sundar Pichai’s] question about every hardware product is ‘how do we apply AI to rethink our products?’ He doesn’t want to make AI just another feature, he wants AI to fundamentally alter what each device is.”

I’ll return, briefly, to more concrete predictions now. Narrow AI is very, very good at training itself to predict values for unknown data, for example, how much you will earn per year if you’ve had x years of higher education or you have x qualification. This will lead to much greater personalisation in advertising/SERPs, but also has implication for SEO and content tools.

Competitor analysis or research for a content project could be completely automated, and a complete strategy could be suggested. Imagine you need to write a fashion guide for a client’s website (a task I completed just last month) – the whole research process could be automated by an AI that analyses millions of pictures containing relevant outfits or items of clothing before returning to the human operator a few artificial graphics that best capture the trends it’s found.

I think the execution of these tasks, like writing the guide, will remain in the realm of human actors for foreseeable future, but tools powered by machine learning will make research and gathering insights from data quicker and more precise.

The future of ecommerce

Another comment from AdPilot’s Thomas Stocks got me thinking about ecommerce: “Amazon will be the go-to place for every product – including healthcare, new cars (possibly flying ones) and trips to space.”

While ecommerce and digital marketing are separate, many of us work for ecommerce businesses or with ecommerce clients. My prediction is that VR/AR will impact ecommerce in ways that the digital marketing industry is not currently prepared for, possibly even sooner than 2037. Let’s use furniture as an example. Digital ‘showrooms’ already exist, where you use AR to see how a new sofa could look in your lounge. As VR/AR becomes more widespread, it’s not a stretch to think that this functionality could become a core part of the online sales funnel. Rather than visiting Ikea, you could see products in the context of your home as you search for them online.

This will present a challenge for search engines. How will you crawl and index pages like this? My guess is that some form of schema markup will tell search engines what users are seeing. However, optimising a page like this will require a different mindset to optimising a current category/product page. The focus is less on written content and keywords, and more on an accurate description of the visual products, perhaps in a way that’s most similar to the image alt tags we have currently.

VR/AR will impact ecommerce in ways that the digital marketing industry is not currently prepared for, possibly even sooner than 2037.

As with all search innovations, companies that are quick to adapt are likely to see big benefits in their organic visibility. Historically, this would be an opportunity for smaller companies to get the jump on bigger companies that are slower to adapt, but budget constraints could be a factor here. A company will have to have a sizeable media budget available to get their products VR ready and the technical knowhow to optimise them.

It seems like a step in this direction could cause giants like Amazon to leave smaller competitors further behind. The only way I could see the trend not heading in this direction is if VR tech drops in price and becomes widely accessible before search engines pick up on it, which seems unlikely as the companies behind the big search engines (Google & Microsoft) are already heavily invested in VR/AR.

What will happen to the wider industry?

“My thought is that ‘marketing’ as a concept will have changed; I don’t think it will be called ‘digital marketing’ anymore,” predicts digital strategy consultant Andrew Lloyd Gordon, “Marketing has shifted so much in the last 20 years. And the shift has only just started.”

If the advent of VR and new social/communication technologies leads to more holistic, experience-based media consumption could blur the lines between online and offline marketing to the extent that the modification ‘digital’ is no longer needed to distinguish online marketing from offline.

“Marketing as a concept will have changed; I don’t think it will be called ‘digital marketing’ anymore.” – Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Ben Michaelis, managing director of ThinkEngine, said, “Digital marketing will evolve to be more digital experience focused. You will see a rise of agencies and companies specialising in this area.

“I believe you will see a shift in the needs of customers (very much like the shift we’re already seeing in the retail sector) and the ‘experience’ will become as important as the marketing.”

Another trend in the wider tech industry that has implications for digital marketing is the dominance of so-called ‘Big Tech’ companies like Google and Facebook. Andrew Lloyd Gordon notes, “Marketing to people online already means ‘doing what Google or Facebook allows and wants’. This trend is accelerating and unless governments step in to break up their power, marketers won’t be able to reach mass consumer markets very easily themselves (even with traditional agencies, who may have disappeared by then).”

In the current trend, the biggest tech companies are already making it difficult for startups to succeed outside of their all-encompassing umbrellas, by buying out or copying successful startups until all that remains is the giant. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are four of the most prominent ‘Big Tech’ businesses leading the way when it comes to innovation, and they all have search engines or platforms that marketers have to work on or with.

Digital marketers will have to play by their rules for as long as their monopoly remains intact, but those rules are likely to extend into VR and across newer forms of media, even if search and social marketing end up looking very different 20 years from now.

 

A lot has been said about the possible future of digital marketing in the future, but there’s a lot more we could have covered. What do you think our industry will look like in 2037? Tell me what you think in the comments below!

Ben Garry

SEO Account Executive

I'm an Account Executive in Impression’s SEO team. This means that I work to make our clients stand out in the crowded online space through on-page optimisation and original, high-quality content.