Since Google demoed its Glass API at SXSW in March, marketers have been abuzz about wearable technology. Small, wearable gadgets like glasses, watches, pedometers, fitness trackers, and sleeping monitors are appearing everywhere, leading some to call them the future of mobile. Given that most wearables have limited functionality, it may not be accurate to put them in the same ranks as smartphones and tablets. But the devices are inherently mobile as well as hands-free, which explains a lot of their appeal.
As wearables catch on – they are projected to reach 100 million devices by 2016 – marketers are debating which platform will take off the fastest. Will it be Google Glass, with its feature-rich platform but questionable fashion sensibility? Or more functional devices like the Pebble watch, Fitbit pedometer, or Jawbone Up wristband? It’s probably too early to tell. Most likely, there will be several winners and many niche players, and even then it will take some time before marketers can actually access data from wearables to improve their mobile strategies.
But that does not mean marketers should dismiss this new trend. On the contrary, the growing popularity of wearables suggests they should evolve their thinking to place a larger emphasis on the consumer.
For all of the data that is accessible through a mobile device – people’s location, when and how often they use an app, the number of purchases they make – we still lack some key information about their physical state and mindset, which is especially valuable for brands. Of course, we can make some inferences from the information we do have. Publishers have been doing this for years, selling emotionally driven personas to advertisers based on a limited set of data points (“active, mid-twenties athletic types who enjoy a new challenge”). But it’s not the same as actually having access to this data and deriving specific insights from it.
Wearables open the doors to a much more granular understanding of people’s behaviors through the myriad of instruments that measure physical change. For example, an altimeter can tell us when someone is in an elevator, flying in a plane, or climbing a mountain. Similarly, a health tracker can identify movement and stress levels, a microphone can detect noisy environments, and an air meter can differentiate between indoor and outdoor spaces.
Understanding these user states becomes very valuable when creating mobile marketing programs, because it eliminates any assumptions about an audience. For example, a fitness brand may send a targeted push notification to people who work out, rather than those who read fitness magazines. A music service may appeal to people who spend a lot of time in transit, narrowing its focus from those who simply enjoy music. And a pharma brand may only target people with high levels of stress, moving away from TV ads that target the broader population. In each of these situations, context drives a more relevant message, which is better for both the advertiser and the consumer.
Of course, physical lifestyle tracking is not a reality just yet. Wearable technology manufacturers still need to find their place in the mobile ecosystem and address the privacy concerns associated with sharing personal data. But judging by how quickly the market has developed, it doesn’t seem very far off. Only a year ago, Target used predictive analytics to determine a girl was pregnant even before her father found out.
So what can marketers learn from wearable technology? That understanding the mindset and needs of mobile consumers isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. As small, wearable devices go mainstream, data about people’s behaviors will become more abundant and more accessible, opening the doors to more personal marketing experiences.
Sure, marketers can ignore this trend and keep sending people unwelcome push notifications or serving mobile ads with little context, but that will only secure them short-term engagement. The better route is to embrace wearable technology and the customer-centric thinking it promotes. In doing so, they’ll create more effective marketing programs and build long-term relationships with their customers.