The rise of DIY: the paradox of choice
“To DIY or not DIY?” is not the question, as Charlotte Ashley learns speaking to integrators and industry associations about how the pro home technology market can adapt and thrive in the ever-evolving age of consumerisation.
In early 2017, Joe Whitaker left a surprise package on the doorstep of twenty homes in his neighbourhood: an Echo dot. But this wasn’t your ordinary Amazon device – each one was encased with details about the potential of the Dot and Whitaker’s US integration company, The Thoughtful Home, can do with it. And his very bold pitch for neighbours to ‘Create your Thoughtful Home with Alexa’ with Control4 home automation worked, and in the months that followed he would sign on new projects worth US $40k+ (€33k+), among smaller installations. He now plans to do the same with Crestron.
“Running this programme was an eye opener for me,” says Whitaker. “For the home technology professional not much at all has changed in the way things are marketed – yes, there’s social media now, but marketing is largely still the same.”
“This project was born from looking at the current tech sales environment around me and seeing big service providers giving away Roku Sticks to sign up or 4K Apple TV for a four-month pre-pay subscription and asking ‘why can’t these things work in our industry?’ Why are we still sending out mailers, emails, and creating ads – can your potential client turn on a TV with your mailer? The campaign was about giving them something that can actively show technology with our branding,” he adds. These weren’t just random homes on any street, notes the integrator – each one was carefully targeted in a neighbourhood already awash with home technology, but critically, it was something different – it stood out, it started a much-needed conversation about custom installation via a ‘DIY’ product.
Creating marketing magic
Of course, everything doesn’t automatically fall into place after committing to a scheme like this – not every recipient responds, not every homeowner had tens of thousands of dollars or euros lying around to upgrade or ramp up their home automation system. But the value of the marketing experiment goes beyond signing on the dotted line. “Neighbours chat. Whether it be organically or through HOAs news travels,” says Whitaker. “The trend we realised is that while these homeowners wanted home tech, they had no idea where to start. That’s where we step in. Listen to the wants and pain points, educate on the technology options and systems, and then propose a solution.” With products in the industry backed by the marketing kudos of the Amazons, Googles and Apples of the world, Whitaker says the success lies in “showing them [prospective clients] something they might not have known about with something they are hearing about every day.”
“…while these homeowners wanted home tech, they had no idea where to start. That’s where we step in. Listen to the wants and pain points, educate on the technology options, and then propose a solution.”
Z-Wave’s executive director, Mitchell Klein, agrees: “Rather than resisting these products and their popularity, installers should be using them as an entry point into larger systems and whole-home platforms to offer new value and capabilities.” He adds, “They should be buying these products themselves, learning how to use them and finding new ways to implement them, and then promoting to customers accordingly.”
These “products” with the most significant consumer traction come from every corner of the marketplace. “For us, Sonos has been the product we seem to come across most in clients pre-owned equipment and we can understand why – when it first came out, there was nothing like it on the market,” states Benjamin Davies, director at Inspire Audio Visual. Klein offers a different perspective; “I think that smart thermostats and HVAC products currently have the most consumer and client awareness. Huge marketing campaigns from companies like Nest promoting the simplicity of smart thermostats and benefits they bring, have made consumers increasingly familiar and comfortable with the idea of a smart home, making the transition to adoption easier than ever before.”
Of course, it’s easy to say “my client isn’t interested in these products,” or “I can’t get significant profit margins with these products,” but for the awareness they create alone, they can serve as an invaluable tool of entry for those with little knowledge of home technology – i.e. “you may have heard of the Echo Dot, but just let me tell you what you can do with an Origin Acoustics Valet amplifier.” Knowledge is power, and even in cases where the initial product sale may be lost, there is money to be had in its integration, servicing, and making sure the network is secure and robust.
For Walte Zerbe, senior director of technology and standards at CEDIA, 2018 is a significant landmark when it comes to capitalising on the popularity of ‘DIY.’ “This, in my mind, is the first year there is real opportunity to install, configure, and deploy services that cover all of the DIY technology segments (home automation, security, lighting etc.),” he states. “I say this because the marketing from the likes of Amazon, Google, and DIY device manufactures is very prominent. The end user is being bombarded with information from all media outlets about what’s possible with technology today.”
‘DIY’ damage control
This aptly labelled “bombardment” is not all sunshine and roses, however. One of the reasons ‘DIY’ is such a talking point for the custom installation industry of course is the potential damage it can do to it. “The DIY market is what it is – led by huge companies with even bigger research budgets,” says Davies. “Personally, I love this as we will see technology within our sector taken to new limits, but as a business owner products being designed to remove the need for an integrator is damaging for me.”
Potentially harder to adapt to is the well-publicised stat that it only takes one bad experience with an entry-level IoT product, whether it be from poor performance, or lack of security or longevity, to turn a user completely off smart home technology – meaning installers sometimes will not even have the chance to pitch what they can offer beyond that first smart speaker or security camera. Whitaker, from first-hand-experience, says the outcome of this can be extremely damaging; “The negative experience typically leads to a positive impact or a hatred for tech.” He explains: “Homeowner X buys a bunch of DIY IoT gear. It’s not as dependable or stable as they had hoped, it’s not as easy to install as they assumed, and it won’t tie into other IoT devices they purchased. This either leads to the search for a pro or an ‘I hate this junk’ attitude’.”
“There have been DIY threats all along that were going to ‘kill’ our business segment; the iPod was one of them! All of these threats turned out to be opportunities.”
However Zerbe is optimistic about the professional industry showing its worth to dispel any potential ‘threats’; “There have been DIY threats all along that were going to ‘kill’ our business segment; the iPod was one of them!” He adds: “All of these threats turned out to be opportunities; we just need to keep an open mind, stay current with what’s going on, learn every day and look at where things are going.”
Putting the ‘WM’ in DIWM
Aside from upping the openness to every level of product, what can the CI market collectively do to remain relevant and affirm its place in the construction and continued maintenance of the modern-day smart home?
Amazon may be slowly opening its doors to the professional channel (in the US, at least) with partnerships with CEDIA and real estate builders, but these are only baby steps and perhaps offer the value in the way of gaining slightly more publicity, rather than tangible profits from partnering with companies that seemingly have global domination in their sights.
The resounding message is one of hope when it comes to DIY – but one that requires flexibility and not being afraid to attempt to shout with (not necessarily over) the loud marketing of the GAFAs of the world. “Educating everyday consumers about the benefits of a full home system has been a challenge for our industry since day one,” states Klein. “It has required a lot of funding, marketing, education and support to get to the level of awareness we’re seeing now. To support this growth and expand upon it, we need both manufacturers and integrators to take a step back and really evaluate the way that they’re messaging their products. Growth in the sector truly starts with them.” He concludes: “We need to look beyond simply selling products and start selling the product benefits and specific use cases.”
Whitaker says his Dot experiment was just the start and he advises others to do the same; “What CEDIA members have to realise is that we all sell similar products and services. What is the deciding factor for the client? What sets you apart? You are selling you and your company! But if you are doing that the same as everyone else you will drown in the sea of sameness.” He adds: “Look at your closest three competitors. Identify your competitors’ most common two ways to reach potential customers. Now, stop doing that – well, maybe not entirely stop, but please scale back. Put your money in a creative manner that none of them do. Be different. Reach them in a way that can be impactful and leave an impression that puts you on the top of the pile.”
“I have heard some of the leading experts in our industry talk till they are blue in the face on the doom and gloom of DIY. Hear it from me, this is not a threat,” affirms Whitaker. “We service the ‘DIFM’ market segment. These potential clients have much more important things to than to play with some gear they ordered online and try to figure it out.” For the integrator, it’s about giving the client their most prized possession (and it’s not their huge TV): time. “My clients would rather be spending time with their family watching the big game on the 4K display you just integrated or installed.”
Zerbe agrees; “In many cases DIY products can act as a ‘gateway’ to a larger installation. There’s opportunity to monitor networks, stability and other options through remote monitoring services and generate monthly recurring revenue at the same time.” He continues: “Once they are in the door, professionals have an amazing opportunity to introduce the next level of products, which the consumer may not even know exists.” Davies adds: “For example, a client can install Philips Hue everywhere and control his lighting from an app but have they considered when someone turns the light switch off? Here we’d show how a product like Rako can offer the same app control but without the floors.”
For every stat on how many Amazon Echo Dots or Nest monitoring cameras have been sold, there’s also one about how consumers are increasingly willing to look to a professional service to deliver and maintain their home technology. Look no further than CSG International’s worldwide survey for this, which found half of respondents were looking to install security monitoring and/or home automation in their property, with 67% admitting they lack confidence in completing “simple, single-device installations” and 84% seeking support of some kind when connecting “between two and five devices.”
There may still be work to do in making the home technologist more accessible to a wider audience and becoming a standard like an electrician or gas engineer in the current age of ‘uberisation,’ yet the key to success still hasn’t dramatically shifted: carving your niche and excelling at it. “Personally, I think this is about setting yourself apart from the crowd and becoming specialised in certain areas of the market to which DIY can’t compete (whether that be lighting design, cinema specialists, unique automation such as car lifts and mirror TV’s),” says Davies. He adds: “We as a company have been preparing for the market to shrink for a number of years and training our staff in specialist skills (such as IT) to allow for areas of income and will continue to look for specialist areas to work into in the future.”
Click below for more on: