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The smartest way forward for marketers in the smart home

Privacy is seemingly at risk from the unsettling prospect of connected devices knowing their owners better than they know themselves but if marketers can downplay that intelligence and harness a smart home’s ability to solve perennial problems they will get closer to their customers.

The smartest way forward in the smart home then is to understand how they’re making what was once invisible to their occupants visible; a smart water meter can make someone realise how often their flatmate does the laundry, while a smart thermostat could spotlight a person’s energy usage. That insight can be useful, though it’s also an intensely intimate assessment of a person that blurs the lines between a smart home and a sneaky one.

Making that distinction was drilled into marketers at this year’s CES, where Intel, Samsung, Amazon, Mastercard, Lowe’s and more talked up the smart home’s importance in a future where devices, content and bandwidth interplay.

“We’re now at the point in time where we can deliver the kinds of experiences that cause goosebumps,” said Charlie Kindel, Amazon’s director of its connected home offerings Echo and Alexa.

Like Google, Apple and Microsoft, the retail giant views the home as the future battleground for a war to push services rather than hardware. It’s why it opened up the API powering its Alexa virtual assistant to developers in order to move the service onto new devices and better compete with Apple’s Siri and Google Now. And while these systems are very much walled gardens, which Intel’s vice president of its internet of things group Eric Free said is a “necessary evil”, other experts predict a convergence of smart home standards at some point, theorising that consumers won’t accept being forced to use just one system in their home.

Samsung’s vice president of insight concept and portfolio Yoon C. Lee suggested a more robust smart home framework could only be properly harnessed once better houses were built. He drew comparisons to how older homes could not properly benefit from utilities like energy and water until after they received proper wiring and plumbing.

For marketers, a more flexible infrastructure between systems increases the number of devices and more importantly the people they can monetise. It was telling that PepsiCo’s chief executive Indra Nooyi stopped by the stand of the smart home management system from DIY retailer Lowe’s at CES, while Unilever’s top marketer Keith Weed scouted out the virtual assistants of tomorrow during the event. There were other executives scouring the showfloor on similar missions, trying to get a heads up on how their brands fit into an experience that’s customisable for the user and about what they want to do for themselves.

“Where smart homes stumbled in the past was trying to solve too many problems all at once and so what we’ve done is try to be conscientious of that relationship with the user and make sure we’re resolving a real pain point,” said Nate Williams, chief revenue officer at smart lock maker August.

“When August customers walk home they don’t have to take their keys out; they don’t have to fumble with their phone for an app; they can automatically get through the door because of the Bluetooth that we’ve done. Those little moments of magic will propel the smart home.”

Those moments are becoming more widespread; what started out as lights that could be controlled by a smartphone is now a Mastercard app on a Samsung fridge that lets people order food. It’s a shifting dynamic reflective of the way advertising and media is going from traded as bulk to personalised content.

“The best conversations I had at CES around content marketing learned from that and put a much greater focus on giving people something truly valuable. Something useful or funny or a piece that struck an emotional chord,” said Mark Mulhern, president of iCrossing’s east region added. His comments touch on how everywhere smart homes went during CES, discussions about content, from apps to services, and its dominance over the hardware followed.

“The technology pieces of the content marketing pie are easier to explain, easier to buy and operate but at the end of the day, it’s the consumer impact that matters and that’s driven by the message of the content itself,” continued Mulhern. “The rise of content marketing will be powered by great content producers and smart tech providers rebalancing their relationship and staying focused on creating a positive impact on the content consumer.”

Smart homes may have taken much of the limelight away from other technologies on the show floor there was a feeling that interoperability, networking and cyber security issues could harm peoples’ acceptance of the lifestyle. There are now 25 billion connected devices, according to the US department of commerce and companies have been urged to be more proactive about privacy and security issues posed by all of them.

“Companies need to think about this from the design up,” advised Eric Wenger, director of cybersecurity and privacy at Cisco. “Unmanaged collection of data is a liability. It’s a hidden cost that’s on your balance sheet.”

The need for data hygiene is set to be further exacerbated by the European Union’s decision to shake up its fragmented data protection laws, simultaneously widening the gap between those in the US.

“We’ve imagined our homes would get smart for as long as we’ve imagined our homes being a place where technology happened,” said Genevieve Bell, vice president of the corporate strategy office at Intel.

“The smart home trend has regularly delighted and disappointed but what we’re starting to see is the beginnings, through the technology, of what a better smart home experience looks like and what that means. And yet to imagine a home that’s smarter than you and the idea that you’ll reboot your smart home the same way we do so for our computers raises all sorts of questions….there’s an anxiety about what it might mean to make our homes technological.”