Welcome to the Year of Wearables. Maybe.

For at least the past five years (if not more), industry prognosticators have been heralding each successive year as finally being “The Year of Mobile.” Hyping mobile became such a cliché within certain tech and marketing circles that when mass consumer adoption of the platform started to gain real traction, particularly in the U.S., some folks on the bleeding edge of technology had already moved onto the Next Big Thing. Today, mobile is widely accepted as an important marketing and engagement platform, but as technology continues to evolve, it’s clear that all eyes are now moving from what’s in your hand to what you’re wearing on your body.

Spurred by hype-worthy appearances at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and at 2014’s South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, wearable technologies certainly have gained lots of attention and buzz, just like mobile did back in its early years. And just like mobile, the promise of wearables will take time to catch up to reality.

It has been estimated that between 2013 and 2018, wearable device connections will increase by more than 700 percent, reaching nearly 177 million consumers worldwide. The category that currently has the most growth and adoption is health and fitness, with activity tracker devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone Up24 leading the pack. Activity devices track stats such as steps, calories burned, and some devices also include functionality such as blood pressure and posture monitoring. According to Endeavour Partners, currently one in 10 Americans ages 18 and older owns an activity tracker, with the highest penetration of users in the 25 to 34 age range, where one in four own an activity tracker.

However, aside from activity trackers, several other categories are quickly gaining followings, notably entertainment, with Oculus Rift and Pandora’s recently launched app for Pebble Smartwatch. While many of these engagement capabilities are available on other devices, the personal nature of wearables (as with mobile) will have a significant impact on functionality, adoption, and in the end, engagement. What does this mean? Similarly to mobile, the overall functionality in terms of ease, user experience, and connectivity is on par with the advancements of other devices today; however, the added benefit or unique selling proposition outside of simply being wearable is key for initial adoption, which is why the health and fitness category has experienced growth from both product offerings and consumer adoption.

Like any new device in the marketplace, the keys to wearables’ success are creating real utility for consumers and providing desirable services delivered through the devices to ensure ongoing engagement. The question that brands and marketers will need to answer is whether or not they can better (or more personally) connect with consumers through a wearable device? And this is where privacy concerns come in. For consumers concerned about the amount of “non-personally identifiable information” available about them today, data-driven growth could explode with wearables, from being able to detect a cold to getting a coupon for cold medicine within seconds. After all, “the machine” knows more than we do, right? Despite the accuracy of any given message, though, consumers are not as predictable as we would like to believe. If programmatic media buying is so smart, wouldn’t display advertising click-through rates be better than the meager rates they are today? OK, maybe that is not a problem we are going to solve today, but there are things brands should all consider as new technologies enter the space.

The current hype surrounding wearables isn’t so much about what they are doing today, but more about the possibilities of what they can do and offer tomorrow. As new devices are introduced, consumers’ behaviors change and adapt (and vice versa), so applying what consumers might be doing today with your brand directly over new devices isn’t a long-term solution. Understanding your customers will help to know their needs and preferences to make a solution that is both valuable and relevant. After all, adoption is great, but it does not mean anything unless there continues to be engagement.

Related reading