How do we get the Bluetooth baby back off the ground?
As you will see below, I’m in a pretty good position to know that they’re not, as I have been speaking to real life end-users all over the world.
And what do consumers really think about Bluetooth? Do they all think it is perfect? Do they know about the broad range of Bluetooth products that are available today? Is everything working well for them? Do they think Bluetooth is cool? How could Bluetooth be improved? Why aren’t more people using more Bluetooth products?
These were all questions that I had been asking myself on a regular basis. If I’m honest, I was getting to feel that there was a growing gap between what the industry thought consumers knew/were thinking, and what was actually going on. It’s probably natural that this should happen. Bluetooth is no longer a new technology. The world has been talking about Bluetooth since the late ‘Nineties, and it has been possible to buy Bluetooth-enabled products since the early ‘Noughties.
After a huge amount of hype in the early years, and an almost unprecedented, cross-industry effort to build awareness of Bluetooth, the technology has matured, and – understandably – the amount of effort by consumer electronics companies to promote their support for Bluetooth has tailed off. That doesn’t mean that Bluetooth buy-in from the industry has reduced. No, on the contrary, Bluetooth implementation continues to increase, and Bluetooth is to be found in more, and more diverse devices.
But ... I suspected that public levels of awareness weren’t growing any longer. And I also suspected that not as many people were using Bluetooth as had been the case at one time. This was not a popular concept with people in the industry, and there was some reluctance to accept that this might be true.
The BiteBack vehicle
There was only one thing to do. I needed to get out there and talk to some consumers, and to ask them a selection of the questions at the top of this article. And maybe, along the way, I would find some of the answers to the question that people have been quietly asking, namely, what is needed to kick-start Bluetooth? I’ll deal with that rather huge question at the end of this piece.
I created a corny-named concept called BiteBack. Yes, another play on the ‘tooth thing. During October last year, I took the Incisor cameras out and set myself up in a live music venue in the UK. I then dragged consumers in front of the cameras and asked them to tell me about their Bluetooth experiences. Afterwards, I edited the resulting interviews into what I called the BiteBack UK movie, which was published to Incisor’s readers all over the world.
You can see the movie that we made, and the conclusions that we came to, by reading the full version of the latest issue of Incisor, which you can download by clicking the link here.
Watching the movie is the best way to judge people’s opinions. And a lot of people did (watch the movie). So much so that shortly after BiteBack UK went public, the Bluetooth SIG invited IncisorTV to re-stage BiteBack in Seattle, which we did. This was a great opportunity to gauge the opinions of consumers on the other side of the Atlantic. At this point, the BiteBack programme also gained the support of two very consumer-facing Bluetooth companies, Jabra and Parrot. These two companies have developed broad ranges of Bluetooth-enabled products, and this was a great opportunity for both of them to not only learn more about the way the world was seeing Bluetooth, but also to use the BiteBack events as an evangelisation opportunity. At each subsequent BiteBack event, we took along some of the latest products from Jabra and Parrot, and these were shown to the audiences at all of the rest of the BiteBack events.
Following the BiteBack Seattle event, we took BiteBack to South Korea and to Sweden. All of the movies can be viewed in the April issue of Incisor.
And our conclusion is?
Well, yes, we are concluding, because the BiteBack programme in its existing format has probably run its course. We have spoken to people in the USA, the UK, Scandinavia and in Asia. This has given us a very broad view of how people across the world see Bluetooth.
This summary section is also where we run the risk of alienating ourselves from a lot of people in the industry, because we’re forcing people to confront unpleasant facts of life. So, if anybody is in any doubt, here is our base platform – WE ARE LONG, LONG TERM SUPPORTERS OF BLUETOOTH TECHNOLOGY AND WE ARE JUST DOING OUR BIT TO KEEP THE MUCH BIGGER, MUCH MORE POWERFUL COMPANIES THAT DRIVE THE INDUSTRY POINTING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION!
The project leaves us with enough data to be able to make some recommendations to anybody in the industry that wants to listen – although we know that this won’t happen automatically! If you work in marketing it’s a lot easier to believe that your audience is as educated and well-informed as you would like them to be, and that all of the work you have put into creating your web site means that the job is done.
Well, actually it isn’t. The utterly overwhelming fact is that consumers all over the world know much less about Bluetooth than we would like them to. Had we talked less to young people, and more to middle aged and older people, there is no doubt that this would be even more the case.
And people are using an extremely narrow selection of Bluetooth-enabled devices. Usage is almost completely limited to cellphones, mono headsets and computers. Note that we are restricting ourselves here to the vast consumer market. It may well be the case that some traction is being gained in markets such as sports and healthcare, but as yet these are tiny markets. Why aren’t people using stereo Bluetooth headsets, Bluetooth speaker systems, photo frames, in-car Bluetooth and any of the other clever Bluetooth gadgets that keep popping up? Why are consumer facing companies like Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Parrot, Jabra etc all finding it hard to gain acceptance for the great products that they have brought to market?
And, crucially, why are people now using Bluetooth less than they were a couple of years ago?
In my own view, the simplest answer is the fact that the impetus, the industry-wide ‘push’ that was driving Bluetooth forward ran out of steam probably 18 – 24 months ago. Following the timeline, vendors had put several years into getting Bluetooth into their CE devices, had suffered the slings and arrows of consumer disillusionment resulting from poor user experiences from early generation Bluetooth silicon, then did what they needed to, which was to put later Bluetooth silicon (V2.0 and later) into their products and then ....
Well, it’s not necessarily the case that they had lost interest in Bluetooth, but it was no longer the latest thing. And consumers only ever want the latest thing, don’t they? Well, yes, but they also want the technology they once got excited about to fulfil its promise. The irony is that the products on retail shelves today generally do work as they should do, and will make consumers love Bluetooth again. The trouble is, by this time the vendors have lost the enthusiasm for putting another major push behind Bluetooth. They are probably wary that the audience will say ‘tried it once, it didn’t work, don’t want to try it again’. Building a market for a new technology is enough of a challenge. Trying to make a new market for a technology that has disappointed customers once is another matter altogether. And why take on that challenge when there are lots of shiny new technology bandwagons that you need to be seen to be on?
The media view
Publishing Incisor I can see all sorts of evidence to support this main view. Before looking at the various indicators that my job puts in front of me, it would be foolish not to reference the small matter of a global economic recession, which has hit sales of handsets and other CE devices. Cellphone companies have been hurting, badly, and haven’t been developing the accessories that they once were.
But then there are the other telltales. The bottom fell out of the Bluetooth industry event market more than 2 years ago for example. Various event companies have tried and failed to stage successful events around Bluetooth. Then consider that while the industry is uncertain as to know what to do with Bluetooth, marketing of the technology has dropped off. Most of our interviewees told us that they never see any marketing of Bluetooth technology. We all know that without marketing, it’s going to take some sort of miracle to get consumers swarming to buy a technology. The extent of the marketing fall-off extends beyond consumer marketing. Courtesy of both the downturn in the economy and Bluetooth fatigue, companies in the Bluetooth industry aren’t marketing to each other either. As a publication servicing the SRW industry, Incisor knows that not only has advertising virtually stopped, but companies aren’t even putting any energy into PR either. The number of Bluetooth-related press releases that are issued each month is now tiny in comparison to previous times.
Even the market research companies seem to have lost interest. Incisor is aware of only one that seems to retain significant interest in the Bluetooth market, and even that company seems to be wavering over its continuing commitment. They know who they are .....
And yet, life goes on
The irony of all of this is that the companies operating in the Bluetooth industry haven’t ceased to exist. Most are still out there and are looking to carry on doing business, often to each other, selling semiconductors, protocol stacks, testing and certification services etc. Though with the almost total lack of marketing and PR activity, how the heck anybody is supposed to know what anybody else is doing is very hard to tell! There’s a real danger of the ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’ factor coming into play here.
Throughout all of this the Bluetooth SIG continues to plug away at keeping Bluetooth’s profile up, and making sure that the technology continues to provide the functions that the market needs. It has always done a good job of this – it’s generally recognised that the SIG has done a better job than any wireless industry associations. The problem is that for a long time, the SIG’s hard work was boosted by the co-operation, support and resources of the huge, powerful companies that make up its principal membership. Take this level of energy away, and the SIG is left somewhat exposed, and with a huge global challenge ahead of it.
But, hang on a minute ...
Well, yes, hang on a minute. The Bluetooth market is still huge. There is still a lot of money to be made. And, bearing in mind the latent potential that there must be – consider the lack of business success achieved so far by any Bluetooth product that isn’t a handset, mono headset or Bluetooth-enabled computer - there really is a market worth shooting for. And if consumers can only be persuaded to try out the latest generations of Bluetooth product, they are likely to be happy bunnies and motivated to extend their Bluetooth usage.
So, what is it going to take to tip Bluetooth off the edge of the very high slope it is been sitting patiently at for 2-3 years now, and to open the sales floodgates? Well, let’s not pretend that it isn’t going to be a big job. A challenge that is so big that I wouldn’t pretend for one minute to have all of the ‘what you must do is...’ pointers.
But I can make some observations, based on 5 months of talking to consumers about Bluetooth. I’m going to limit myself to just a small number of suggestions.
• Do not for one minute reduce the effort that is being made to continue to improve the Bluetooth user experience. Without ease of use and a good UE, you might as well pack up and go home. PCs in particular need to be more Bluetooth friendly. In the PC ecosystem there’s nothing approaching the degree of uniform (-ish!) Bluetooth config that consumers have been starting to get used to in the rest of the market.
• Focus on making people want to use Bluetooth. Time after time it was made obvious that people want to have fun – e.g. they’ll give their Bluetooth device a name like ‘sausage’! For heaven’s sake have the courage to get out there and try some marketing, and make it something that consumers will like – fun, viral, cheeky,
• Listen to the fact that people are feeling hugely reluctant to wear Bluetooth headsets for fear of looking stupid. What’s the answer? I don’t know, but ignoring this factor, and continuing to churn out more ‘me-too’ headsets certainly isn’t it.
• Be realistic about Bluetooth pricing - £100 for a Bluetooth headset is just crazy. You may have invested millions in developing your headset range, but just because your latest product has noise-cancelling and a DSP in it, t doesn’t mean that a consumer will feel motivated to pay a lot of money for your little piece of plastic
• Conquer the ‘tried it, it didn’t work’ stigma. Current generation Bluetooth products need to be experienced by consumers. Some of the braver CE companies need to find ways of doing this. Roadshows, dedicated events and exhibitions are costly. Use your web sites and create good content that shows real people using and enjoying your product. I hate to be an Apple groupie, but the company does this sort of thing very well. And don’t be too proud to copy the technique. After all, why agonise, when you can plagiarise?
• If you thought the Bluetooth evangelisation phase was over, well, it’s not!
Most of all, the players within the Bluetooth industry should try to see if there are ways that they can co-operate in the way that they used to. It was pretty unprecedented, I know, but it worked. Maybe a new, pan-industry, consumer-facing marketing initiative can be devised – a game, a celebrity endorsement campaign, a competition, a charitable project – there are many possibilities. The Bluetooth SIG can be the axis around which it revolves, and can perhaps host the core activity at its web site. The end result could be a great deal of positive publicity for Bluetooth and the Bluetooth community. And by combining resource and effort, this doesn’t need to be too taxing for any one company. Maybe we will get the opportunity to talk about this at the SIG’s All Hands Meeting in Seattle later this month. ‘Seems like a good opportunity.
The IncisorTV BiteBack programme may be pretty unprecedented in that it has provided a video-based market research resource for companies that have a real interest in knowing what consumers really think about Bluetooth. But, I believe that this has been a truly valuable exercise, and I know that there are people out there that have genuinely appreciated the insight that BiteBack has provided.
What comes next? Something equally innovative and valuable.