It's January again which for a lot of us means ringing in the New Year with a packed week of meetings, product demos, floor tours, and well, Las Vegas at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
For marketers, it doesn't really matter which gadgets have the sharpest resolution, or which screens are the thinnest, biggest, or the best for 3D viewing. Don't get distracted by all the glitter and noise. Instead, here are five themes to follow this year:
1) TV is no longer the first screen.
For football fans spending most of the week following scouting reports online for their fantasy teams and playing Madden Social on their iPhones, is TV the first screen anymore? A "real housewife" may appear on TV a few hours a month while chattering every hour on Twitter. This era of screen agnosticism for consumers should start taking form in the CES exhibition halls. If the TVs are in one corner and mobile devices in another, as has been the case in years past, it will completely go against how consumers are interacting with devices and media. Look for savvier product manufacturers to show how devices really fit into people's lives.
2) Touch screens need new types of ads.
Thanks in large part to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad, touch has become the predominant way to interact with many digital devices. Tapping rather than clicking has changed how people interact with advertising. This is going to change further as voice recognition evolves from a gimmick that makes for a pretty good commercial with Samuel L. Jackson to a meaningful way to navigate digital media. Beyond that , look for gesture controls to move beyond the Xbox to other kinds of devices. If In-N-Out can have a secret menu, why can't brands have their secret gestures that unlock hidden content and offers?
3) The internet of things expands its social network.
The CES version of social media isn't about people connecting with each other; it's about devices connecting with each other. While the idea of the refrigerator with an internet console in it may be a stale cliché, the new era of connectivity is far more useful. The refrigerator can now send alerts when food spoils, the thermostat can automatically adapt to homeowners' preferences, and the washing machine can tell a busy parent or distracted college student when the laundry is ready. Brand marketers need to play a more active role in furthering the innovation and popularizing the most viable products while creating software that can make these technologies more useful.
4) As tech titans bruise each other, consumers benefit.
Google's most buzzed about mobile app in 2012 wasn't on Android; it was its Maps app for the iPhone. Microsoft quietly released Xbox SmartGlass on iOS and Android devices, not just Windows. Standalone e-readers seem to be dying, but the software is more important for Amazon than the hardware. Why hasn't there been a Facebook Phone? Because it's on every phone.
This all adds up to a dramatic shift in how market share is defined, as many of the biggest and most important technology companies aim to expand their reach (and thus their opportunities for marketers to reach consumers) by becoming as ubiquitous as possible. This isn't some act of generosity. It's entirely driven by greed, but a form of greed that is most beneficial for consumers. The most exciting electronics manufacturers at CES will be those that both invite others to build on their platforms and while adapting to wherever consumers are.
5) Forget about product announcements. None of it will matter in February.
Quick, what were the biggest product releases that debuted at CES 2012? Try to name even one. Looking at the 2012 recaps from Huffington Post and CNET, there's practically no correlation between what journalists loved and what consumers bought. The Nokia Lumia 900 was called the best cell phone, but Apple and Samsung were the ones winning market share. Both outlets named the HP Envy Spectre the best laptop, yet the top selling Spectre on Amazon currently ranks at number 586 in the Computers & Accessories category. CNET was at least prescient enough to include the Makerbot Replicator on its list, as Makerbot's at the vanguard of the disruptive 3D printing field.
CES is an extraordinary opportunity to meet some of the most important people from media and product companies, get first-hand experience with an array of technologies, and start the year off with a deeper understanding of how media usage can change in the months ahead. None of that will come from staring at the flashiest displays or scanning the prevailing headlines. Go there or follow remotely to see which devices have the potential to adapt to and shape consumer behavior, and you'll see a lot that matters at CES.