Show me the money: Advertising and the internet of things

As we connect more devices to the internet and invest in wearables that have limited screen space or no screen space at all, big brands accustomed to grabbing our attention on phones and social media are pondering what connected devices mean for their ad efforts. There are two options they need to consider: The incredibly intimate data they can glean from connected devices (a scale that knows you’re on a diet, for example) and how to use these platforms to put their brands front and center.

I’m hopeful most advertisers realize a banner ad isn’t going to make the transition to Google Glass or a smart watch, but Zach Coelius, the CEO and founder of Triggit, laid out a good way of thinking about the way to advertise on connected devices. He envisions a spectrum, where at one end are the interruptive interstitial ads or television commercials that users tolerate in exchange for free content. At the other end are ads that are related to a search or a decision the consumer is trying to make.

Some might be downright useful. An example might be a sushi restaurant paying for placement on Google Maps when someone searches for Japanese food in their area. But Coelius believes that we won’t tolerate interruptive ads as part of our home appliances or on our wearables. The interruptive model isn’t going to work as we embed computing into everything, especially as we embed computing into items we’ve already paid for.

So then what models might we see as the connected world becomes a reality? I’m actually hugely optimistic about the chance for brands to reach consumers in innovative ways that feel less intrusive and offer value. Below are a few examples that seem to offer a way to marry advertising and connectivity without alienating users.

The automatic delivery model

Home appliances, connected home, internet of things
Already my dishwasher asks me for Jet-Dry, which I actually am completely oblivious to since I have no idea what the product is supposed to do and my dishes seem clean enough. But with a connected dishwasher, it could track how many cycles it has run and automatically offer to order the detergent of my choice — or even offer me a coupon for a competing option. Same thing with a connected fridge and water filter, or a connected washing machine and detergent.

Want to take it even further? Starbucks is putting connected coffee machines in more of its stores. That will allow the company to remember your coffee preference, which means that instead of offering you $1 off a latte when you get within 100 feet of a Starbucks (a favorite cliché of the location-based ad world) you might instead get a notification that the store will stop selling pumpkin spice lattes this week and have the chance to order one from your phone to be ready when you drive by the next morning.

APIs as the future of product placement

Do you track your food? The food industry spends billions annually marketing its products, but as consumers spend more time looking for recipes and inspiration online, and quantifying their fitness (including calorie intake), the food industry is missing a huge opportunity to put their products in front of consumers.

One example is super fun. There’s a Kickstarter project for a robotic bartender called Monsieur. The machine mixes cocktails from an assortment of eight mixers that the consumer fills. In talking to the founders, they are excited about letting big name liquor companies send recipes to the machine, effectively publicizing new drinks to the folks who own the machine. But even restaurants or bars can get in on this action, offering a signature cocktail. And if you enjoy it at home, the next time you’re in the neighborhood of that bar, you might recognize the name and stop on in.

The Monsieur robotic bartender.
The Monsieur robotic bartender.

It’s not just drinks or kitchen robots, either. Something as simple as food logging is an opportunity. Big name brands should open up an API to their nutritional databases. I spend roughly five to 10 minutes a day tracking what I eat and the unwillingness to put in new nutritional information for foods acts as a kind of vendor-lock in on products like my yogurt and breakfast cereals. But if my food-tracking app had access to a database of existing foods, it’s not only going to promote new products and options as I scroll through the list, that company could have data on what I’m eating.

Which brings me to my next point.

The Campbell’s cookbook model

My mom has this old Campbell’s soup cookbook from the ’70s that she used to make a variety of casseroles for my family. Every week she probably bought four or five cans of the stuff to make meals. That doesn’t even count the stuff we ate as straight soup. That same model can be updated for the connected age if food companies participate in open food databases. I want the ability to let my fridge or my pantry track what’s inside because I think then, sites could suggest recipes based on that information.

food52 rap genius

But instead of sending out a cookbook — even one online — the best way to get my attention once I have a smarter home will be via a connection to my food-tracking app or an API. Right now, companies pay to make it easy for me to find their products by buying eye-level shelf space. When I trust my home and appliances to generate my grocery list, should food companies think about getting on it before I even hit the store?

Where do the ad men come in?

The trick with the internet of things is that as computing surrounds us, ads have to become more subtle and ingrained into the experience. It’s more akin to product placement or influencing someone at the right time. The benefit is that the data available as devices come online makes it far easier to give the message to the consumer at the point where it could have the most influence.

There are many more examples of how these things might work, but one big element worth thinking about is that the creative thinking here isn’t around a Mad Men style of splashy creative messaging, but about creative engineering. It’s unclear where Don Draper fits into this future, but the industry will need plenty of Steve Jobs-like visionaries who want to create an experience using the available technology in a way that is seamless to the end user.

So while in the current era of computing, the best minds of a generation are trying to get people to click on an ad, the next era will call for creative services not clicks.