For many years the much-heralded Internet of Things has yielded little more than wild speculation. Today, some of the stranger inventions offer tantalizing hints of future opportunities and threats. As we introduce them into our cities, homes and our bodies perennial dilemmas for marketers become more acute.
You might be forgiven for assuming that the dawn of sentient appliances in our homes and workplaces has been impeded by technical limitations. In fact, most of the components necessary to deliver IOT products have been available for some time. I wonder if the most significant variable affecting the maturation of this sector has been the extent to which inventors can empathise with their fellow humans.
Of course, a decrease in the cost of tablets and smartphones and the widespread mesh of wireless connections are certainly factors necessary for IOT products to evolve. But these are catalysts for innovation rather than reasons for consumers to adopt. Now that a wider array of curious inventors can explore the possibilities for the IOT, we’re beginning to see some credible products emerge. And ‘IOT’ is appearing ‘IRL’ in part because more entrepreneurs are now imagining societal and emotional benefits for people, rather than viewing the development process primarily as an exercise in engineering.
In the next generation of technology our products will be part of the conversation
Initially, many proposed IOT products were limited in appeal because their fundamental purpose was predicated on interaction between devices to the exclusion of humans. A search was on to find problems to solve with our new technologies rather than seeking to address the needs of people. The widely ridiculed internet-enabled-refrigerator is an exemplar. Empowering white goods to manage stock control and purchasing of household groceries is not a glorious achievement.
In comparison, the ‘the Internet of Information’ (the web) brings value to our lives not simply because we can access data from a wide range of sources. It offers utility and amusement through a combination of the aggregation and exchange of data and, crucially, human transactions. Without the interaction with people it is merely an IT network.
Similarly, the IOT emerges as a valuable network only when personal needs and wants are integral to its design. Moreover, it is only when our relationship with the network is overt and reciprocal that we can get truly excited about it. And, it’s only when we perceive emotional connections with ‘things’ that our purchasing behaviours change.
Over three decades ago, sci-fi visionaries Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons imagined an IOT of sorts in the comic strip Rogue Trooper (above). The main protagonist, Rogue, was a genetically engineered soldier who carried connected, intelligent equipment. Biochips containing the personalities of his fallen comrades were embedded in his rifle, backpack and helmet. Although this post-apocalyptic war story is bleak and dystopian, the premise of the quasi-virtual characters has universal and enduring appeal. Rogue’s kit was able not just to deliver enhanced functionality; it could also discuss ideas, share information and formulate strategies with their owner-operator.
There are now examples of device networks (as opposed to networked devices) that establish rudimentary but promising human/machine alliances. Some of the most interesting and innovative provide a starting point for a raft of better and different marketing techniques. These techniques rely on interdependencies; relationships between users, between users and their products and between the products themselves. Parallels with the current social media ecosystem can already be seen. The key difference in the next generation of technology is that our products will be part of the conversation.
For marketers, IOT ‘things’ fall into three neat categories, namely; public, home and personal. I’m particularly intrigued by the public things.
Where the streets know your name
A smart trashcan may not seem that exciting example of public IOT but the BigBelly® networked street bin might change your mind. Not only does the device crush its contents to achieve greater capacity, it notifies the city sanitation department when it needs emptying. The result is a more efficient waste collection system, which can result in significant savings when factored across hundreds of sites dispersed in an urban area. Waste removal workers track the status of bins via a PC or mobile device and have near in real time data about garbage generation on a street-by-street level. Furthermore, the device gains extra environmental kudos through its solar power supply.
What’s still missing from this technology is some kind of feedback loop; a means of informing members of the public about the hard work that these rudimentary rubbish robots are undertaking on our behalf. It’s a missing component that could transform the devices from money savers to revenue generators and ultimately good citizens in their own right.
Add a screen to each BigBelly® and you can display engaging infographics illustrating current news about the city, its garbage collection and recycling. Then include content based on live neighbourhood information such as air quality and weather forecasts and the local authorities have the perfect digital out-of-home (DOOH) advertising medium. Consequently, the bin is able to communicate its value to local people and generate some incremental income from ads placed by brands keen to assert their ecological or CSR credentials.
The key difference between this approach and many recent attempts at DOOH innovation is twofold. Firstly, the starting point is the provision of value for the audience. The advertising is subordinate and consequently has a greater chance to succeed through being pertinent, rather than intrusive or distracting. Secondly, there is scope for natural, spontaneous interaction initiated by the consumer needs, rather than driven solely by the insatiable desires of the advertiser.
It’s a subtle but fundamentally different methodology to simply sticking LCD advertising screens onto street furniture and retail decor. And this is a tactic that is as old as the advertising industry itself. Remember that TV soap operas were, in essence, advertiser-funded dramas contrived to attract and entertain potential buyers of detergent. With a minor upgrade therefore, by combining content, connectivity and practical utility in a smart street device, products like BigBelly® can be at the vanguard of the public IOT. Compare BigBelly®, with some of the latest ‘digitally enhanced’ street furniture and the difference is clear. WiFi enabled poster sites and kiosks are examples of beautifully designed architecture contrived solely to create advertising inventory. Any public entertainment or utility is secondary or a by-product of the advertising content. They’re little more than features bolted on to billboards, if you will.
Other fledgling technologies in this category that should inform next generation marketing communications include intelligent lighting systems. Echelon, for example, is one of a number of ventures to enter the IOT space with the promise of energy-saving systems. Their products include networks of building or roadside lights that can adapt to environmental conditions and customer demand. Individual lamps or groups of lights can be switched on and off or dimmed in response to ambient light levels or the volume of passing traffic.
What marketers need now are OOH media that adapt in a similar way. If the messaging and placement of copy were automatically influenced by the nature and extent of the available audience, efficacy would increase.
When congestion impedes the flow of vehicles on a highway, cars nudge forward, bumper-to-bumper at walking pace. In this scenario, the roadside billboard should surely behave differently to when traffic is flying by at 50mph.
What’s more, data indicating prevailing routes and onward journeys of vehicles should be used to plan and schedule cascades of consecutive messages. Live links between the media and their intrinsically dynamic audience will also improve tracking and measurement.
If you’re prepared to entertain the notion of ‘anthropomorphic advertising’ whereby the medium – or in this case the product – strives to establish a personal connection with its audience, it’s possible to imagine a more emotive scenario. On a lonely journey home in the early hours of the morning, you see an empty road stretching before you in the darkness. The next message you encounter has a unique opportunity to establish some empathy with you and it need not come from a conventional advertising medium. A building or bridge could offer you solace by associating a brand with the comfort and security of home. A smart city that is benevolent is a nice idea. Equally, it’s not inconceivable that your Google car might conspire with the local DOOH network to take you on a scenic route via preferred advertising messages.
These methods are all technically possible but their deployment demands upfront capital costs. Moreover, adoption is influenced largely by the media owners’ ambition and their ability to demonstrate commercial viability to their advertisers.
Right now, most DOOH innovations are little more that amusing side shows, like the Dove Deodorant billboard (right) that changes its colour to match the clothing of each slack jawed consumer that stops to gawp at the advertising.
Notable trials in Canadian malls and movie theatre complexes have been more imaginative, combining cell phone data, social media and audience analytics to optimise the delivery of real-time video advertisements. This kind of IOT/DOOH mash-up will succeed only if the media owners and agencies seek to connect with audiences. If the network is used to deliver timely, useful and empathetic content, any interstitial messaging in the form of similarly pertinent advertising will surely be (more) effective.
If marketers use connected devices as a means to bark at people or corral them like livestock, resentment is inevitable. But if physical real estate can, like Rogue Trooper’s kit, become helpful, friendly allies, we’ll grow to love our newfound relationships with inanimate objects.