Originally written June 23, 2016.
Since the dawn of capitalism, companies have suffered from a yawning gap in their business models. No matter how refined and rationalized their operating procedures may have been in the past, no matter how excellent and exhaustive their customer service, almost all of them were afflicted by a glaring “blindspot” in the very systems that comprised their businesses. That is, while they could undoubtedly control their own actions and make sure they provided first-rate products when called upon to do so, many could do little to guarantee that the public wanted these products, that other people or businesses would actually decide to come forward and demand their services.
Sure, they could advertise and cultivate their respective brands, but this would take them only so far, especially now that we’ve entered an age where traditional marketing is becoming increasingly ineffectual. As such, companies had to live with a glaring hole in their otherwise meticulous operations, relying on the whims of the consumer to make a profit.
There are, however, signs that this is all about to change. No, companies aren’t about to be saved by social media and its reputed advertising potential, but by the Internet of Things (IoT). While still very much in its infancy, this so-called internet has the potential to fundamentally alter how we become the customers of any given business. This is because, quite apart from the convenience of knowing how warm your living room is, the IoT is set to become one giant mechanism for telling us that we need to buy more stuff.
This is already painfully obvious in some of the more specific IoT devices, such as the Amazon Dash buttons now serving as a constant reminder that we always need to keep topping up our supplies of Doritos and condoms. Such implements are the clearest, most naked expression of what the IoT is all about, yet even with the subtler IoT systems and “solutions” that are gradually seeing the light of day, there’s still very much the sense that the endpoint almost always involves raising the number of purchases we make.
To take one less brazen and more honorable example, SweetSense Inc. is a spinoff from Portland State University that has in recent years attached more than 200 sensors to water pumps in Rwanda, sensors which inform Rwandan farmers and plumbers immediately when these pumps go awry. Since these sensors have been installed, the percentage of broken pumps covered by the initiative has dropped from 44 to 9 percent, while the average time for repairs dived from seven months to 26 days. Beyond helping with economic development in a low-income nation, what has happened here is that engineers and pump manufacturers have essentially been given a very direct line to Rwandan farmers, who are told by the smart equipment they own that they need to enlist the services of these engineers and manufacturers.
The same basic principle will apply to almost every other consumer gadget hooked up to the IoT. In the world of gardening, there is now a sensor that will tell you when it’s time to buy more fertilizer and new pots for your plants, while there are also coffee machines that will text you to ask if you want another cup of joe and, after you’ve drunk your seventh cappuccino of the day, let you know that it’s time to buy more beans. Even when such pieces of intelligent hardware aren’t expressly tasked with making us spend more than usual on consumer products, they will nonetheless have the very same effect, at least insofar as their monitoring will preside over purchasable and re-purchasable objects, be they lightbulbs, garage doors, thermostats or food.
The beauty of these devices from a marketing perspective is that, rather than attempting the difficult task of stoking our desires and wants, they’ll play on our needs and requirements instead. They’ll remind us that we have to buy more milk, fertilizer or coffee beans, invoking a sense of obligation that will overcome the barrier of cynicism often faced by more aspiration-based advertising and marketing. Just like the smart toothbrushes that reportedly incite guilt by asking you if you’ve flossed today, most consumer IoT gizmos will work to impose a feeling of compulsion on us, making us buy more things and spend more money as a result. That’s why they’re a marketer’s dream, and why — as soon as prices are brought down and the issue of a universal standard is resolved — it will only be a matter of time before more established brands get in on the act, partnering with emerging IoT concerns to have their products directly recommended to us consumers.
In fact, this scenario isn’t that far away, at least when taking the Amazon Echo and Google Home into account. These are voice-operated ‘smart speakers’ that can link themselves to other IoT devices, thereby acting as a hub or central node for every compatible contraption you might have in your home. While these both have nifty features such as the ability to stream music and time you while you boil an egg, what they both fundamentally amount to are omnipresent gateways to the internet that don’t require you to be in front of a computer. Or to put it more accurately, they both provide the internet with an omnipresent (so long as you’re in your home) gateway to you, ensuring that you’re always connected to the World Wide Web, even when you’re not.
It’s in light of this role as an always-open gateway that the ability of Amazon Echo to order an Uber, a pizza from Domino’s, or roses from 1-800-Flowers makes more sense. It and Google Home enable a situation where the window of opportunity to buy something never closes, where businesses can effectively always reach us with a suggestion to purchase their wares. In this respect, they are very much the next step on from the numerous chatbots being rolled out by the likes of Microsoft and Facebook, who similarly endow their Messenger bot with the capacity to intercept our online conversations and suggest that we book a taxi or buy some flowers. The only difference here is that such suggestion will not be restricted to your phone or laptop, but will be able to reach you almost anywhere in your home.
This is the ultimate endpoint of the Internet of Things as far as it concerns consumers, and given that we are consumers and consuming is what we do, how could it possibly be otherwise? As I’ve written elsewhere with regards to chatbots, the IoT will give brands and companies direct access to us (as well as our data), allowing them to move away from the transparency of traditional advertisements and repackage these ads as recommendations from pseudo-humans we trust more than hoardings and TV commercials. It will permit advertizers to leave behind the obsolete arousal of desire as a marketing tactic and replace it with reminders us of what we (allegedly) need, compelling us — under the pain of neglecting something necessary — to buy fresh supplies or new products that might enhance our health/cooking/love lives/gardens/homes. In other words, it will see companies finally plugging the longstanding gaps in their business models, enabling them to exert a little more direct control over us the consumers.