For marketers still neck-deep in creating a mobile marketing strategy, contemplating yet another hard-to-grasp, disruptive, and hyped-up technology may make their head pound. Regardless, welcome to wearables, declared the next big thing everywhere in the press — and by plenty of digital marketing heavyweights.
I’m no tech wallflower, but grappling with this one hurts. On the one hand, smart “everything” seems inevitable — a natural extension of existing trends like mobility, personalization, and location-based information. (Of course my coat will have embedded computers someday.) On the other hand, so much of what I’m hearing still seems like some distant sci-fi promise or is just plain ridiculous: Turn off the house lights just by thinking? Get diet help from my undergarments?
But with wearables seemingly bearing down on us all, how can we adopt a pragmatic but open frame of mind for this new category? To get some reasonable handle on it, I turned to someone closer to the front line — and far more comfortable with the current ambiguity of the market.
Redg Snodgrass, co-founder of technology accelerator Wearable World, offers modest reassurance: “The good news is your budget allocation is safe for 2014. You’ve got at least six months before early adoption of wearables takes off.”
A self-described tech optimist, Snodgrass says the market is accelerating even faster than he anticipated. “I’ve never seen people more excited about the promise of the technology. They’re even more excited than they were about the iPhone App Store. It’ll only be 12 to 18 months before we begin to see massive adoption… and start including the wearables topic in interviews for junior- to middle-level marketing hires.”
Erick Schonfeld, executive producer of DEMO, International Data Group’s (IDG) emerging technologies conferences, offers a similar forecast, underscoring that different wearable categories are developing at different rates. “If it’s Fitbits and Nike Fuel bands, wearable tech is already hitting the mainstream today. If it’s Google Glass, it’s still an open question whether the masses will ever adopt it. I see industrial and business applications gaining traction first for Glass over the next two to three years.”
While Google Glass is the nearly eponymous example of wearable devices, the market is exploding with consumer, enterprise, and industrial gadgets and applications. Health-focused or “quantified-self” wearables like Fitbit help us measure our daily life, capturing data on steps taken, calories burned, and even sleep patterns. Watch-like bands like Samsung’s communicate with your smartphone and its portfolio of apps to give you at-a-glance connectivity. Fujitsu recently announced tag- and gesture-reading gloves for use in enterprise or industrial environments. And dozens of new gadgets are sprinting out of the gate, many funded by Kickstarter campaigns. Ski goggles display speed, altitude, and descent within your field of vision. Even a ring can unlock your front door.
What they all have in common is simple: They are items you can wear that happen to have computing power. Their potential impact on our behavior and expectations — and our marketing strategies — is far more complex. As a feature in WIRED magazine recently explained, the newest wearable devices aim to reduce “the time between intention and action,” going so far as the day when “the device knows what users want before they want it.”
Market Maker: Wearable World
Through education, incubator and accelerator programs, and events, Wearable World aims to spur innovation and foster the business ecosystem necessary to make wearable technology grow. In less than one year, Wearable World has grown from three employees to 18, launched a wearables news channel, inspired “Wearable Wednesday” roundtables in multiple cities, and is working on its second annual conference, Glazed.
Marketers are urged to experiment
Given how quickly the wearables market is developing, Snodgrass believes marketers need to carve out a small amount of budget now to do what he calls micro-tests. “Focus half of your mobile team on trying to understand and explore how this new market works. At the least, the market share for mobile will flow naturally into the market share for wearables.”
Schonfeld concurs, saying marketing teams will benefit from some wearables-spurred experimentation — even if it doesn’t yet lead to integrating wearables in the marketing strategy. “For quantified-self wearables, it’s all about the data. How can brands tap into that data or enhance it to actually deliver value to consumers? Glass is more experimental, but thinking about ways to market on a heads-up screen could lead to broader insights about mobile marketing in general.”
What should we be on the lookout for in these experiments? Based on Snodgrass’ view of the market, there seem to be four ways in which you’ll find you need to adapt your marketing strategies:
1. Make it (even more) glanceable: Recently, a techie colleague of mine showed off his Samsung Galaxy Gear and quipped that since donning the smart watch, digging out his iPhone feels like too much of a hassle. So, what’s going to happen to all of your mobile marketing efforts when your audience considers today’s most accessible device way too inconvenient?
Snodgrass calls these new mobile demands “glanceable marketing,” requiring companies to winnow information and messages to even more relevant, usable information that comes across in less than two seconds. Companies like Wearably already offer subscription services to deliver “your news to any wearable device.” But retooling the same email and news feeds to yet another format is the bare minimum a marketer will need to do to engage with customers through smart watches and glasses.
To do justice to wearable tech, marketers will need to consider questions like: What information would our customers consider “just in time” and when? What can our customers not do or not do easily because they’re looking down at their phones instead of straight ahead? And what are the visual elements of our service or product experience?
The real-estate company Trulia was an early experimenter with Google Glass. The company created a prototype application to illustrate what house hunting could look like when viewed through smart glasses. The app notifies users when they near a property that matches their search criteria (e.g., number of bedrooms, price, total square feet, etc.), lets them view the property listing through Glass, directs them to the location, and contacts the listing broker if they need more information.
Snodgrass strongly encourages companies to conduct similar experiments, playing with the possibilities early and often, even if only in pencil sketches and brainstorming sessions.
2. Tap into location and emotion: While marketers are still learning how to leverage location-based marketing, wearable tech is now upping the ante. The ever-present technology will challenge marketers to develop “an EKG understanding of our end users,” as Snodgrass characterizes it. The minuscule sensors embedded in smart clothing (as well as glasses, watches, and jewelry) will read people’s biological responses when purchasing (or not purchasing) and using (or not using) products and services. Responding to a customer’s context may no longer simply be about her location, but about her emotional state.
Snodgrass looks forward to seeing smart clothing as a blank canvas for expression, with changeable designs controlled by the consumer or the brand using simple coding languages. “Imagine what that does to a branded experience for a marketer or for a content creator,” he says. Questions for marketers to play with include: What is the optimal context and timing for my service? How does it depend not only on location and buying stage, but on time of day, proximity to other resources, activity, or mood?
3. Integrate experience and create convenience: As wearables proliferate, they will add to a vast universe of interconnected, smart devices. Snodgrass points out, “Google bought NEST Labs, (maker of the smart home devices, the Nest Learning Thermostat and Protect smoke alarm) for three times what they offered for Instagram. Google’s bread and butter is advertising. What does that say about the priority and maturity of smart homes and smart… everything?”
Far from delivering location-based coupons through your Glasses, this is where the true promise of wearable tech lies for marketers: combining the refined knowledge of both location and emotion with the “Internet of Things” to solve very specific problems and create convenience.
Snodgrass offers a scenario: “You have a meeting across town in 20 minutes. Traffic reports indicate the trip will take 35 minutes. What network of companies, devices, and services can help alert you that you’re running late based on your distance from the meeting, call Uber for a car, notify your colleagues waiting across town, and (because we can tell you’re stressed) pre-order a drink?” Calling this “convenience marketing,” Snodgrass contrasts the efforts to create that kind of integrated experience to pushing promotional messages about your brand: “If you’re able to deliver a service right when I need it, you’re making my life easier. It’s a convenience, and not seen as a marketing position.”
During your experiments, ask:
- Where are the disconnections between our customers’ worlds (online vs. offline, work vs. home) causing them unwanted delays or other struggles?
- What clicks and calls can I eliminate for my customer if I’m with them all of the time?
- How might the always-on connection increase our customers’ expectations for a seamless experience, regardless of how or where they’re interacting with us?
- What weaknesses might be highlighted as that happens?
- How else can this device connect to solve a problem or create convenience?
- How can I start to target and integrate their experiences across all sorts of contexts — location, emotion, buying stage, activity, etc.?
4. Get ready to interpret (even more) data: Setting aside the inevitable questions of personal data and privacy, Snodgrass acknowledges that the grand promise of wearables depends on a Holy Grail of marketing: a team and plan that are able to make profitable heads or tails of data. No company is currently broadcasting its intention to sell the data generated from wearables, but Snodgrass insists it’s only a matter of time: “Even if you have great analytics, you’re still gonna need somebody on your team to be able to interpret what that means. Refining data is going to be even worse, because all of the data will be about a human being. So your people are going to be interpreting intent, when in reality, you just got a bad data set or misunderstood what it meant.”
In a category of its own, Glass is Google’s two-year experiment in wearable tech. While still not widely available to consumers, Glass has helped Google test the market and make important refinements to Google Now — an intelligent personal assistant (i.e., voracious data gatherer) that will power the next generation of wearable tech devices.
Wearable fitness trackers:
Wearable fitness technologies have gained the broadest acceptance among consumers. The challenge is whether consumers will continue to buy limited-function devices when their smartphones can deliver a lot of the same value.
- Fitbit Flex
- Jawbone Up
- Shine Fitness Tracker
Wearable tech watches are often designed as smartphone extenders, allowing users to see messages and caller ID without taking out their phones — and are the category where fashionistas are making their mark.
- Metawatch Frame
- Pebble Steel
- Samsung Galaxy Gear & Gear Fit
While still in its infancy, wearable tech jewelry offers highly targeted functionality. For example, the NFC Ring can be used to unlock doors and mobile devices.
So, start simple… but start
At a time when the marketing function is already going through seismic shifts, it can be easy to glaze over this not yet fully formed tech category. Kathleen Schaub, Vice President of International Data Corporation’s CMO Advisory Service, helped bring me back to this harsh reality. For many CMOs, particularly those in B2B settings, wearables are still the bailiwick of techies doing “look-at-the-cool-future” conference talks. Schaub explains, “CMOs are facing enormous change tasks in the next few years… absorbing some 78 categories of automation; getting whole companies to think like a customer; shifting from a media silo structure to one that is more systems-oriented and adaptive; integrating data, content, and interactions into more holistic customer experiences; making marketing more accountable to the business and revenue generation.”
Are CMOs really going to add wearable strategy to that list? Perhaps the very fact that the technology and its applications do still feel so sci-fi offers guidance: For marketers, this is the time to dabble in low-risk experiments and back-of-the-napkin brainstorms to ask some tough questions. What will an even, slow rise of these sensors and devices — and (perhaps more importantly) the network between them — do to our customers’ and clients’ expectations? How will they add to the mounting pressure to be customer-driven and data-driven?
We all know how hard it is to change behavior. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have to adapt to changing behaviors.