Entering Protopia and a world of continuous marketing disruption


By Mark Schaefer

This is the time when we turn to the challenges of the new year and changes we’re likely to face. My prediction for 2017 is that this is the year of marketing protopia. I’m sure this is an unfamiliar concept, so let me explain why this will be the major theme of your professional life for years to come.

Although it may seem like we have been in a world of rapid marketing technology change, we really haven’t. Largely, we have lived in a business world of peaceful evolution.

In the last 50 years, what have been the forces that have completely disrupted marketing?

  • In the 1970s, there was one: cable television.
  • The 1980s saw the dawn of the Internet and mobile technology but change from a marketing standpoint was incredibly slow. In fact, most business leaders at the time viewed the internet as a passing fad and saw no commercial value in it.
  • The 1990s brought about some early advertising and web-based marketing as search became a mainstream utility but again, change came about over a period of years.
  • By the mid-2000s we witnessed a true information revolution enabled by smartphones and social media. But change still occurred in fits and starts — Ten years later, many companies are still just getting into social media and mobile marketing. It’s been a joke among my marketing friends that it has been “The Year of Mobile” for the past five years!

My point is that we may think of ourselves as being in a revolution but it’s been relatively slow and steady iterations. 98 percent of all marketing investments have been in the same seven social media platforms for the last four years. And by the way, Snapchat, the hot newcomer, has been around since 2012.

The martech space is awash with hundreds of lookalike companies offering little in terms of revolutionary points of differentiation. All that is about to change.

The Protopian Era

In 2017 the era of sluggish marketing change will be over, forever. Vast new technological capabilities are sweeping over the landscape, ushering in an era where the very psychology of the marketing function will be forced to change.

Before I get into these changes, let’s get back to this idea of “protopia.”

In his seminal book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, author Kevin Kelly describes protopia as a state of becoming, rather than a destination. In the protopia era, progress is not happening in fits and starts, it is happening continuously every single day.

I can see this world before us now. While we may have had time to digest and master incremental changes to a Facebook algorithm or a new opportunity for native advertising, the new pace of change will certainly dispel the notion that anybody can be an expert in anything.

Kelly writes that from here on out, every professional will always be a “newbie.”

He explains, “First, most of the important technologies that will dominate life 30 years from now have not yet been invented, so naturally you’ll be a newbie to them. Second, because the new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Third, because the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating (the average lifespan of a phone app is a mere 30 days!), you won’t have time to master anything before it is displaced, so you will remain in the newbie mode forever. Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or experience.”

The tech sweeping marketing

I agree that in 2017 we will all become endless newbies because we’re entering what amounts to a new operating system for the marketing profession.

Foremost among these shifts is artificial intelligence. While we see ads about IBM’s Watson perform gimmicky party tricks like designing a glowing dress or a personalized cocktail, the true impact of cognitive computing will be profound as it is finally understood and commercialized. Task-specific pipelines into these AI supercomputers will fuel everything from human-like chatbots to automated marketing programs that create strategies … and execute them (including writing, optimizing, promoting, and measuring the content).

This contributes to the protopian landscape because artificial intelligence will create change that creates even faster change.

Another protopian force in marketing will be virtual and augmented reality. The geeky black VR headsets are mainstream technology, ushering in a revolution in how we connect and communicate with customers.

I see virtual reality as a marketing “re-set.” The backlash against annoying marketing and invasive advertising has resulted in filters, ad blocking, and consumer mistrust. Connecting through the entirely new platform of virtual reality gives marketers a chance to say “We’re sorry. Can we try this again? This time the value will be real.” At least, that’s my hope.

AR/VR offers companies the opportunity to lure consumers out of their filter bubbles with awesome immersive experiences.

The third transformational trend will be security … or the perhaps the lack of it. We hear about just a small fraction of the nefarious hacks holding companies and individuals hostage. How does marketing change when customers can’t trust the eCommerce systems that hold their financial information and deliver their products? Today it is concern, but the situation is getting worse — much worse — and every newly-connected node is another vulnerability point.


What does this mean to me and you? I’m not sure yet other than I’m feeling a bit dizzy!

I do think there will be a role for humans in this protopian world, but it might mean micro-specialization — becoming experts on small chunks of the marketing technology puzzle. In a world where marketing strategy can be commoditized, these trends provide an opportunity for exceptional human minds that can distill competitive advantage through insight (at least for now). And I think it is going to eventually mean a lot of job loss as more and more traditional marketing functions are automated.

This will certainly challenge company cultures. A wider gap will form between those who can adopt and adjust and those who cannot.

I also think this is a technological era that will solve huge problems for both companies and consumers. Ironically AI technology will mean a more human experience, a more respectful and intimate web experience. We’ll be able to connect with perfect sales or service experience every time.

In any event, I look forward to exploring these ideas with you on {grow}, this year and beyond. What are your thoughts on the change and challenge ahead?

sxsw-2016-3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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