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.”

Amazon Echo Dot on table next to phone and bedOf  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.”

black and white models of alexa-powered Sonos One speaker

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.”