Modeling the Future of Marketing — Part 1

Looking at marketing through the work futures lens.

Stowe Boyd
Jun 21, 2018 · 8 min read

If you were asked to describe various alternative futures for your business or marketplace, or even — at the most grandiose — the shape of the world in 2030, how would you start? What approach would you take to distinguish and contrast different possible futures? Would you draw a picture? Tell stories? Clip images on Instagram? Start with what you’d like the future state to be, and work back to the present, aspirationally?

Answering that question — or trying to — is the stock in trade of the futurist. Those who try to think systematically about the future generally are not involved in trying to ‘tell the future’ like some carnival fortune teller. In fact, the questionable practice of ‘forecasting’ that has led many to avoid the term ‘futurist’ altogether, and to be suspicious of those who do. (Personally, I consider myself an anthropologist of the future, which is a convoluted way of sidestepping the ‘futurist’ term, but holding on to the magic involved with ‘the future’.)

Still, we do need to explore alternative futures, and to try to understand the qualitative differences between them, and across a set of potential futures one of the most accessible dimensions to apply is the likelihood of the various alternatives. This way of thinking lines up naturally with the way that our minds are inclined, so we don’t need to create some futures calculus (or invent the crystal ball) to spin stories about the music business of 2030, why autonomous cars will change the world’s transport systems, or the impact of a hypothetical Chinese pharmaceutical platform on the US health care system.

When my long-time friend Marshall Kirkpatrick asked me to get involved in his Future of Work in Marketing project at Sprinklr, I was happy to do so. And when we spoke about what he wanted to do it came as no surprise that he proposed an approach that involves what futurists call the Futures Cone: a model to wrestle with varying levels of potential for different conjectured futures.

The Futures Cone

Joseph Voros’ Futures Cone

Joseph Voros is perhaps the best-known modern popularizer of the Futures Cone model as a tool to explore and discuss alternative futures.

As he describes the background of the idea in The Futures Cone, use and history,

Futurists have often spoken and continue to speak of three main classes of futures: possible, probable, and preferable (e.g., Amara 1974, 1981; Bell 1997, and many others). These have at times lent themselves to define various forms of more specialised futures activity, with some futurists focusing on, as it were, exploring the possible; some on analysing the probable; and some on shaping the preferable, with many related variations on this nomenclature and phraseology (e.g., again, Amara 1991, and many others). It is possible to expand upon this three-part taxonomy to include at least 7 (or even 8) major types of alternative futures.

Voros, (after some vacillation about whether or not to include a ‘predicted’ future in the cone) settled on the model as captured in the graphic above.

In the Cone, time is represented as extending from some starting point at the left — in this case starting at Now, but in many cases it is more helpful to start in the past to capture trends or events that have come before the present — and continuing steadily to some point in the future. The overall futures cone is visualized and conceptualized as having stratified subcones. Across all potential futures the subcones range from the projected future (with the highest likelihood of happening), through probable, plausible, possible, and preposterous futures. An added wrinkle is defining a region of the cone as being preferable from the perspective of an individual, organization, demographic, or nation based on a set of value judgments, and perhaps independent of the degree of possibility involved: an aspirational future.

Against a Time Frame

The range of possibility — projected, probable, plausible, possible, and preposterous — can be arrayed against a time frame. The way the world is accelerating time seems compressed, so it’s best to slice time pretty fine. For this project I selected these successive time periods: now (2018), soon (2020), later (2025), and the future (2030). I have a hard time considering anything outside that time frame (although I spun some scenarios for Wired through 2050 in What Will a Corporation Look Like in 2050).

As a matrix, this looks like this (before adding any topics):

Marshall’s List of Questions

The third axis of the Futures Cone is some set of questions or premises that have to be examined, using the thinking and models outlined above. I used a tool, Cardsmith, that allows users to create a matrix like the one above, and to place digital ‘post-it’ notes in the various cells, and making comments on them as well. This is a great technique for collaborating, and capturing the insights of a team of researchers.

I’ll examine Marshall’s questions and where I think the possibilities line up in the next sections.

Marshall posed a topic, triggered by the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica mess:

A data privacy backlash sends everything back to the tried and true when it comes to targeting and marketing in general

I recouched that as a backlash against data ‘publicy’ — the opposite of privacy — and said that backlash is happening now. All the other topics wind up to be farther down the line, in my analysis.

Now (2018)

Soon (2020)

Most of the issues raised by Marshall fall into this timeframe.

I interpreted one of Marshall’s questions as ‘Anticapitalist backlash’, arising from Inequality, decreased social mobility, and economic polarization, which I deem as projected. Likewise, I believe ‘conversational marketing’ is coming soon, based on tools like Alexa and Google’s Duplex demo.

A great number of the topics we discussed fall into the probable cone, I believe. I feel the ‘decline of ‘publishing’, rise of ‘subscription’’ is starting already, but will become more mainstream in the next few years.

Marshall wondered if marketers would have to operate like science fiction writers, telling plausible stories about user experiences that may be totally novel, since things are changing so fast. I agree with him.

I believe it is probable than markers will put more value on acquiring new customers than retaining old ones, which is perhaps another result of the rapid change and innovation in many industries.

I think it is probable we will see AI used to augment people at the task level by 2020.

I use the term Amazonification to characterize the increased value of platforms to create demand and the decreased value of brands in such a climate. This is probable, I think.

Soon (2020)

I think it is plausible that AI may be fulfilling entire marketing functions by 2020 (definitely probable by 2025, projected by 2030). Note that the shift of what is plausible soon to what is probable later is a general case for all of these trends, and I won’t explicitly state that shift for other trends. It is implicit. It’s plausible that ‘retention and growth is more valuable than acquisition’ in this timeframe, but I think that varies by the sort of products being marketed.

It’s possible, I think, that some marketers will find success focusing on brand over generation of new demand. Some luxury brands may be able to command high margins, for example, while selling new products to existing customers, even in a world of Amazon-like platforms.

I offered up the theme of a ‘post-screen world of marketing’, based on the idea that augmented and virtual reality might replace conventional screen-based user experience of PCs and smartphones. I think that is plausible in this time frame.

Similarly, I think it’s possible that, by 2025, some marketing roles could be filled entirely by AI, for example running a social media marketing campaign. It’s also conceivable that blockchain might have a major impact by this time, although there’s a lot of moving pieces for that to come together.

Later (2025)

I guess that Marshall’s themes aren’t so far out that many of them are delayed to the ‘future’ of 2030. But one did: marketing to His, which I think is highly likely by 2030 (and possible in an earlier time frame). If we have His running hedge funds and deciding who to hire in 2018, they will be buying things for corporations by 2030.

The ‘Future’ (2030)

Conclusions and Takeaways

I wanted to take you through one of the most commonly used tools that futurists use to help their clients think systematically about the ‘future’, and I think this has accomplished that. Perhaps you’ll be able to adopt the Futures Cone as a technique to use in your own organization, to think about your markets, competitors, and the trends that shape our world.


  1. There is no one ‘future’. There are a many possible outcomes for any trend or event, and trying to assign probabilities is a great technique for groups to discuss alternatives.
  2. The Futures Cone approach only requires a whiteboard and some post-it notes, and a room full of people. Try it.
  3. There are a long list of other techniques that futurists use, but across the board they rely onlmost without exception on making up plausible stories about people in the future: people in aggregate, in organizations, or individuals. If you can tell a story about, for example, what a customer in your market might be doing in 2020 when they decide to buy something, you are practicing futurism!

Marshall and I will be returning to the themes in this post on 21 June 2018 in a webinar, The Future of Work in Marketing. Hope you can attend.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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