We’re fast approaching the end of 2019, which aside from being the end of a year (with all of the traditional reflection and future-gazing that that entails) is also the end of a decade – which of course makes it a perfect time to look back on the last ten years and take stock of where we’re at.
A lot can happen in ten years, and the early 2010s were a pretty different time. The internet landscape was very different, social media was different, technology was in a different place, and marketing techniques and best practices in 2010 definitely looked different to what you would see today.
To put it into perspective, 2010 was the year that Apple released the iPad and just three years after the release of the iPhone. Twitter had been around for four years, Facebook for six, and Instagram launched in October of that year. We were still a year away from the launch of Snapchat, four years away from the launch of the Amazon Echo, and six years away from the adoption of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. A lot of the things that would shape the technology and marketing landscape as we know it today had yet to even come into existence.
As a result, many of the predictions about what the future would look like in the 2010s have turned out, in hindsight, to be hilariously off the mark. I should qualify this by saying that there are also a lot of predictions (of the many I read when researching this) that turned out to be surprisingly accurate, or that emerged in a slightly different form but were broadly correct even if some of the details varied.
But it’s also pretty funny to look back at some of the trends we thought would completely dominate the decade and realise, Wow, we were way off. It’s also interesting to look at why that was, and how things played out instead. So, here are seven marketing and technology-related predictions from the 2010s that have aged, in hindsight, pretty badly.
1. “QR codes will be the future of mobile marketing”
I had to start off with the big one – probably the most memorable and most-ridiculed fad of the early 2010s, and the one that will go down in marketing history as a spectacular flop: QR codes, those blocky, black-and-white (or sometimes creatively-patterned) squares of code that when scanned with your phone would take you to a webpage.
QR codes were first invented in 1994 by Japanese company Denso Wave, and they had a couple of different moments in the limelight, but Peak Hype for QR codes (at least in the west) was probably 2011. According to statistics published by comScore, in June 2011 14 million mobile users in the US – about 6.2% of the country’s total mobile audience – scanned a QR code on their mobile device.
If you lived in a country like the USA or the UK in 2011, you probably remember how QR codes were absolutely everywhere. Every ad had one, every brand had found a way to integrate QR codes into their marketing material – regardless of whether there was a genuine use case for them. They were the in thing, and a lot of commentators predicted that they would become even more ubiquitous as brands fine-tuned their use in mobile marketing.
But the backlash against QR codes was already building, and by March 2012, Forbes had published an article querying whether QR codes were dead. Econsultancy published a round-up of dubious uses of QR codes in January of the same year which illustrates a lot of the problems with the way QR codes were being implemented by brands and advertisers. Some brands persisted with them for a few more years, but ultimately, QR codes were considered a fading fad by then and their reputation for failure had already set in. We featured QR codes in a 2014 round-up of mobile marketing trends that didn’t live up to the hype.
QR codes have a lot of potential as a means for linking online and offline – we only have to look to China and parts of Southeast Asia, where they’re used for everything from convenient mobile payments to brand activations and app installations, to see how QR codes could have succeeded. But in the west in 2011, few smartphones had an in-built QR code reader, and the mobile web was still in its infancy, meaning that scanning a QR code required a lot of effort for very minimal reward.
QR codes are still around in a limited form – you see them on a lot of food packaging, and in our loyalty apps and mobile passbooks – and there’s been talk of a potential comeback, but ultimately their gimmicky, pointless reputation has proven difficult to shake. We probably won’t see QR codes making a sudden comeback at any time in the 2020s.
2. “Augmented reality will become a part of our everyday lives”
Ah, Google Glass. If there were a 2010s Hall of Shame, the doomed Google Glass would probably be right up there next to QR codes as one of the most infamous flops of the 2010s. And while Google Glass was just a single device that failed to take off, it had a lot of specific expectations and predictions tied to it about the technology that would shape our lives in the 2010s, all of which then failed to play out.
The early 2010s looked like a promising time for augmented reality, what with the advent of Google Glass – a device that was supposed to bring wearable computers to all of our faces, making it possible to projected an augmented digital reality over our day-to-day lives – and the rise of companies like Blippar that promised to turn our smartphones into a portal for augmented reality, adding a digital, interactive dimension to everyday objects. Econsultancy’s blog post about whether the rise of Blippar could make QR codes redundant is possibly one of the most quintessentially 2011 things ever published.
Augmented reality and QR codes have more than a few things in common: both of them are ways of potentially linking the digital and physical worlds, and both of them have a lot of exciting potential in a marketing context, but the technology to realise that potential hasn’t been there. In the case of Google Glass, the device was plagued by issues with usability and concerns around privacy, as well as a high price point and a lack of aesthetic appeal. Other would-be makers of smart glasses – and there have been quite a few – have run into the same problems: privacy concerns, striking a balance between fashion and utility, and finding ways to make using the device comfortable and intuitive.
Other incarnations of augmented reality have also had difficulty getting off the ground. A lot of early smartphone-based AR was notoriously clunky and impractical; the vision that everyone had of gorgeous digital graphics seamlessly overlaid on reality didn’t really match up to the tech. Despite its lofty ambitions of creating a visual search engine for the world or an ‘AR browser’, Blippar ultimately collapsed into administration last year after burning through more than $130 million in funding (before being bought out of administration and installing a new CEO). AR enjoyed a return to the limelight in 2016 with the release of Pokémon Go, but again, the hype failed to translate into any kind of more widespread adoption.
AR hasn’t gone away – beauty companies are currently making great use of it as a means of virtually trying on different nail shades and make-up looks, now that the technology has advanced to the point that it can be executed well. The Ikea Place app, which visualises furniture in your living room, is another genuinely good use case. But the future that many envisioned with the advent of Google Glass, Blippar and later, Pokémon Go, hasn’t really arrived in any meaningful way. For now, AR is still a niche phenomenon.
3. “[Insert name of new social network here] will kill Facebook”
The 2010s have seen the transformation of Facebook from the hot, new social network to an almost unstoppable juggernaut, with so many of the decade’s defining advertising and marketing trends, from clickbait to the ‘video revolution’, livestreaming to privacy fears, playing out on and shaped by Facebook.
As its rise has continued, commentators have repeatedly predicted – or hoped – that whatever hot new social network is currently trending will be the ‘death of Facebook’. Here are just a few of those would-be Facebook killers:
Path (2010-2018): A mobile photo-sharing and messaging network that limited a user’s social circle to just 50 friends, it was widely viewed as an antidote to Facebook at a time when usage of the social network was exploding, and many found their feeds full of people they weren’t really that interested in interacting with. Path was seen as a breath of fresh air, and at one time Apple was reportedly in talks to acquire it.
Unfortunately for Path, Facebook successfully replicated a lot of its pioneering features, like reactions and emoji stickers; the company was also dogged by a data collection and privacy scandal in 2012 (so it was ahead of Facebook in that regard). Path was sold to South Korean internet company Kakao for an undisclosed amount in 2015, and ultimately closed down in 2018.
Ello (2014-): Ello, a social network that built its premise around the notion that “You are not a product” and refused to carry ads, enjoyed a rapid rise to fame in a period when public opinion was turning against the increasingly commercial nature of Facebook and other major social networks. Facebook was also mired in one of its many ‘real name scandals’ at the time, giving Ello the perfect opportunity to present a privacy-focused alternative.
Ello’s infamous “You are not a product” statement, which users would agree to upon signing up to the site
Of course, it didn’t last – Ello wasn’t able to capture users’ attention beyond the initial interest or gain enough critical mass for a serious migration, Facebook sorted out its privacy scandals, and people went back to using it. Interestingly, Ello reinvented itself later and focused more heavily on visual social media – it’s still up and running as a platform for artists and creatives.
Google+ (2011-2018): Remember when Google+ was seen as a viable social network and people thought it would kill Facebook? No? For a few years in the early 2010s, it looked a lot like Google’s new social network was going to be the thing that killed off Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg certainly thought so. It was new, it was cool, and it was linked to your Google account – making it easy to set up a profile, which gave Google+ an edge in early growth. Google+ also gained a lot of traction with marketers due to the perception that Google+ posts were favoured by Google’s search algorithm.
Numerous post-mortems have dissected exactly where Google+ went wrong – I even wrote one myself when the shutdown of Plus was announced in October 2018. In short, Google+ failed to do anything particularly different from Facebook, and the few interesting features it did have weren’t enough to convince people to switch. Users also resented Google’s attempt to foist Google+ on them by linking it to other Google-owned services, like YouTube. Ultimately, Google+ became just another item on Google’s long list of failed ventures – and the list of failed ‘Facebook killers’.
Snapchat (2011-): Snapchat, with its viral popularity among younger internet users, was once considered a serious threat to Facebook – to the point that Mark Zuckerberg made multiple attempts to acquire it. Snapchat turned them down, and so instead Facebook resorted to duplicating its most unique feature, Stories, on Instagram (and Facebook, and WhatsApp). The move worked, and Instagram Stories far outstripped Snapchat in popularity.
Snapchat is of course still alive and kicking, and though it’s had some tough times in recent years, it has been making a decent comeback with the release of a new Android app design, and is seeing renewed user growth, retention and engagement. But Facebook ultimately came closer to killing Snapchat than Snapchat came to killing Facebook.
4. “Tablet computing will explode”
This was a common prediction in marketing and technology circles for a couple of years after Apple released the iPad in 2010. At the time, many predicted that tablets and e-readers like the Kindle Fire would revolutionise computing, providing a sleeker, more portable alternative to a desktop computer or laptop, but with more power and screen real-estate than a smartphone.
While this wasn’t completely wrong, as tablets did enjoy a brief heyday from about 2010 to 2012, it didn’t last very long either. Smartphone screens got bigger and their functionality improved, while laptops became lightweight and more portable. Ultimately, tablets didn’t replace either of these devices, but they were an important ‘bridge’ during the years before smartphones and laptops had improved enough to fill that gap in the market.
5. “Virtual reality will go mainstream”
Like its cousin augmented reality, virtual reality has had a bumpy ride when it comes to getting off the ground, with a few promising starts that ultimately didn’t live up to expectations.
Virtual reality hype predates the 2010s – VR technology has been around in some form since the 1970s, and commercial VR first started to seem viable in the 1990s. But the technology was clunky, expensive, and ultimately underwhelming – so things fizzled out for a couple of decades.
Enter the Oculus Rift, which was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter to the tune of $2.5 million in 2012, and was purchased by Facebook two years later for close to $3 billion. It kicked off a wave of virtual reality interest and enthusiasm, with competing headsets produced by Valve, Sony, Google, Microsoft and numerous others. Brands were quick to jump on the bandwagon with VR marketing campaigns, which were seen as a way to connect with consumers in a memorable and immersive way, particularly in industries with a less tangible product offering, like travel.
A woman wearing an Oculus Rift headset in 2014, shortly before the company’s purchase by Facebook
But the predictions that VR headsets would sweep the mainstream within a year or two and change the way we consume content forever turned out to be premature. VR struggled with many of the same issues that plagued it back in the 90s: headsets were still unwieldy (even if they’d come a long way from the bulky rigs of two decades ago), the price point was too high, they were seen as too anti-social and/or the sole province of hardcore gamers. Even games developers were stymied, due to the sheer number of different devices available to develop for. Which one should they cater to?
Virtual reality headsets still have a place in consumer entertainment, but the hype among brands and marketers has long died down, and it seems that we’re still searching for that elusive factor that will tip VR over into the mainstream. The recent revelations that Facebook intends to use people’s Oculus Rift data for ad targeting – despite explicitly denying that it would do so – probably won’t help matters.
6. “Voice will be the next revolution in search/ecommerce/user interaction”
Excitement around voice search and voice interfaces has been a pervasive trend during the 2010s. First, the hype was oriented around mobile voice search and the idea of voice search on the go, before shifting to smart speakers, voice apps, and the internet of things more generally following the advent of the Amazon Echo.
But despite the continued certainty among many commentators that a ‘voice-first revolution’ is just around the corner, it still hasn’t arrived. While Google announced at its I/O developers conference in 2016 that voice queries made up 20% of all searches on Android and in the Google app in the US, it was huge news – but Google has been quiet on the subject ever since, and has yet to issue an updated statistic. Many were sure that voice commerce would be a huge trend thanks to the Echo’s link to Amazon, but consumers don’t seem interested – internal figures leaked to The Information last year revealed that only 2% of people who owned Amazon Echo devices had used them to make a voice purchase. And despite the plethora of brands and agencies developing voice apps and experiences, there is a dearth of case studies indicating that they’ve yielded any results.
There are a number of theories as to why voice hasn’t managed to take off despite its potential, ranging from self-consciousness about speaking aloud in public to concerns about security and privacy, the lack of a visual, lack of a clear use case for voice, and issues with the user experience. In my opinion, it’s due to a combination of all of these, but particularly the last two – the others are issues that could be overcome if consumers had more of an incentive to overcome them. As I wrote in my previous piece about the lack of case studies for voice,
“Smart speakers and other voice-controlled devices are an attractive novelty to consumers, but so far, they can’t achieve anything that isn’t already possible with a smartphone or computer. […] For [a voice revolution] to happen, voice will need to have much, much more to offer consumers than a slightly more useful way of compiling a shopping list.”
7. “Social commerce will be the next big thing”
Technically this prediction has come true in the 2010s, but I’m including it on the list because it had a lot of false starts, and for most of the decade seemed like a trend that would never take off.
A lot of marketing predictions over the past decade revolved around social media and commerce merging to create an environment that allowed people to shop on the same platforms they used to socialise, or socialise on the same platforms they used to shop – either thanks to the emergence of new dedicated platforms for social commerce, or the introduction of commerce features to social platforms, such as with Facebook Marketplace or ‘Buy’ buttons on platforms like Twitter and Pinterest.
All of these things did happen, but none of them took off in the way that was expected. Social commerce platforms opened, gained a bit of interest, and ultimately flopped or remained niche phenomena. Social networks introduced commerce features, but they were under-used, and many were ultimately dropped. In some cases, this was due to the friction associated with making a purchase – Facebook Marketplace, for example, didn’t have an in-built payments mechanism until the advent of Facebook Pay in 2019, meaning that buyers and sellers had to arrange the transaction privately. In others, such as Twitter’s Buy button, it was because users weren’t in a shopping mindset when they used the social network.
Eventually, social commerce began to take hold on more visually-oriented social networks: after years of being used as a platform for design, fashion and shopping inspiration, Pinterest introduced Buyable Pins; similarly, when Checkout was introduced on Instagram earlier this year, businesses were already adept at using the platform to drive sales. And just like that, social commerce was a reality. In the end, the secret to success turned out to be introducing it on platforms where there was already a clear use case and demand, instead of trying to impose it from on high.