Marketers: How to Define Your 'Internet of Things' Strategy

Five Steps Brands Can Take Now to Prepare for a Connected Future

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The SwingSmart smart golf club attachment.
The SwingSmart smart golf club attachment.

The hoopla emanating from CES in Las Vegas is doubtless troubling execs anxious not to be seen as missing out on the next big thing. From smart projectors to smart beds to a new smart golf club, CES is certainly throwing up something for everyone right now.

If you work in digital, then the question of an IoT strategy is likely to crop up imminently. But innovation undertaken for the wrong reasons is rarely conducive to career progression, so it's probably best to be pre-armed with a position that both defends against misconceived projects and also prepares for the internet-of-things-future now before us.

While IoT and wearables are not a short-term bet, I firmly believe in them as transformational in the long term, in the same way that mobile has been since 2008. I'd prefer to be best-to-market rather than first-to-market, so while you wait for the legion of devices and connectivity protocols to settle down and for your competitors to get burned with ill-conceived vanity projects, here's how you can productively spend your time to deliver a successful launch, perhaps in 2016.

1. Wait. It might seem like the easy option to refuse to engage in an exciting new area of technology, but the fact is that -- with the possible exception of Apple Watch -- no IoT device is going to hit scale in 2015. With Amazon's Echo and Wand little more than proof-of-concept and Google Glass failing to shake the "nerd" label, consumers are not going to have either high expectations or immediate needs for a slew of connected devices and brands being able to service consumers using them. And with a lack of standardization between devices, the reasons to jump in headlong seem fairly thin compared to the inherent risks.

2. Define your vision. Starting out by defining "What kind of devices should we make or use" is a bit like starting a novel 10 pages from the end. A full vision of a future-state customer experience is required, which will likely incorporate elements of product, CRM, physical space, content and branding, and require plenty of integration into other channels you already run. The vision has to provide concrete reasons for your customers to take on a new device or behavior, and should be strength tested against real-life customers. If it has no genuine value to consumers, start again.

3. Build your programs. Any brand hoping to get the most of IoT and wearables will likely need to honestly reassess the state of their current relationship with their customers. In reality, consumers only have a very small number of brands they actually care about, so launching a new device "cold" to an inactive user base will be difficult. So use this time as the market develops to build up active programs of membership, coupons, social media, proactive customer service and anything else that will engender positive digital interactions among a larger proportion of your audience. It's the stuff that brands should probably be doing anyway, but it's doubly important for any innovative device strategy to sit over a solid bed of existing consumer engagement.

4. Build your infrastructure. Once you have a vision in place of personalized services enabled by new devices, there are very likely some fundamental building blocks you can start to deliver while the market figures out whether Watch or Glass or smart rings or smart golf clubs are going to be our digital destiny. Connectivity in physical spaces can often be a problem, particularly for retailers buried in shopping malls. Plans for wifi and beacons could be made and implemented now to allow devices to connect in later phases. On the backend, a robust data infrastructure and multi-platform marketing automation system will be needed to make sure you offer relevant services to individuals through their new devices. With few businesses having any expertise or technology to deliver personalization today, this is already mandatory -- and will only increase in importance. For IoT, a raft of web services will be key, and a flexible approach to their development will enable you to quickly bring your offering to a range of new form factors as they appear.

5. Prove your offering. It's highly likely that the most successful IoT devices will run on platforms from Apple to Google and act as extensions of the mobile phone, which will power core application logic and handle web connectivity. This means that your core offering is likely to be operable on mobile, web and in retail well before IoT becomes "a thing." Therefore, running your new programs on mobile apps in particular is going to help cement core behaviors in the minds of your customers, and offer the chance to run lightweight trials of extending the programs to new devices.

If the early years of IoT are anything like the boom in pointless branded mobile apps in 2008 and 2009, there are going to be a lot of failed projects launched, and a lot of unused devices abandoned in basement storage before we figure this one out.

But if we take a deep breath and concentrate on what our customers really want, we can make the best of our new connected world.