New technology and services are fundamentally changing the way consumers live their lives. With so many new launches making a real impression and turning the hype into actual take up, marketers are required to explain the ‘how’ and ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’.

Manufacturers of virtual reality (VR) headsets, for example, face a huge marketing challenge in the months ahead. HTC, Facebook-owned Oculus and PlayStation are all planning to launch new VR systems, yet these companies must educate – as well as excite – the majority of global consumers, who are largely unfamiliar with the technology.

Smartwatch failure

The difficulty of launching new devices was highlighted by the disappointing sales of some smartwatch brands last year. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2015, several big tech companies such as Huawei and LG unveiled new smartwatch products that run on Google’s Android Wear operating system. Despite the fanfare that greeted these devices,  combined Android Wear shipments represented less than 10% of smartwatch sales in 2015 because the Apple Watch dominated, according to a recent report by Juniper Research.

It was noticeable at MWC 2016 last month that many companies were not pushing smartwatches and instead turned their attention to VR as ‘the next big thing’. But if the likes of HTC and Facebook wish to see their VR products gain a large audience, rather than flop at launch, effective marketing and customer engagement is crucial.

HTC has opted to steadily build awareness about Vive since the product was previewed at last year’s MWC. This has included a global tour of gaming and film festivals in order to showcase the different uses of the VR system. HTC is targeting early tech adopters through such events and is continuing this approach by promoting Vive on social media and through digital advertising.

The company will soon reveal a group of retail partners that will provide demonstrations of the technology for consumers in-store. Product marketing director Ryan Hoopingarner says HTC will prioritise these one-to-one engagements over mass media advertising during the early months of the launch.

“A full-on television campaign isn’t necessarily the right choice to resonate with the core audience right now,” he says. “There’s definitely an educational piece to [VR] and it’s not something you can tell in an elevator pitch – it’s hard to get it out in 30 seconds.”

In addition to experiencing VR for the first time, potential Vive buyers face technological barriers to entry. A retail price of £689 plus shipping in the UK was announced last month, but users also need a high-powered desktop computer to download and play Vive software. This immediately precludes a high proportion of consumers from using the device.

HTC is working with its retail partners to offer GPU (graphics processing unit) upgrades to customers’ machines, as well as with computer makers such as HP and Alienware to provide “box ready” systems that work with Vive. “For people who are very interested in VR but may not have a PC at home today, we’re trying to come up with unique bundling solutions to make it as easy as possible,” says Hoopingarner.

HTC wants to raise awareness about VR rather than just focus on its own product, he claims. Vive uses room-scaling technology that allows users to walk around and interact with environments using hand-held controllers. By contrast, ‘rotational’ systems such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, where users clip their phone into a headset, offer a 360 degree viewing experience but no movement.

Hoopingarner claims that these alternative products can help to boost interest in Vive, with HTC keen to grow the entire VR ecosystem. “Rather than selling people a product, we’re trying to show them what VR can be,” he says. “There’s room for everybody. You’ll never see us put down another type of VR because the marketplace is so in its infancy [that] any negative aspects to VR would hurt everyone.”

Ford’s Fordpass app helps customers find parking spaces, plan driving routes and collect reward points

Engaging new audiences

This open-minded approach is shared by other brands launching new technology. In January, car manufacturer Ford unveiled details of a new ‘mobility assistance’ app called FordPass, which helps users find available parking spaces, plan journey routes and collect reward points to spend with Ford and its partners.

Ford claims the app is vital to its “transformation into an auto and mobility company”, allowing it to have ongoing interactions with customers. Importantly, membership of the FordPass platform, which goes live in April, is free to both Ford car owners and non-owners alike.

Barb Samardzich, chief operating officer at Ford Europe, says that gaining a wide consumer audience and developing brand partnerships are important steps towards ensuring its new technology services take off. Parking app Mobile City and petrol station operator BP will initially offer their services through FordPass, while Ford also plans to offer ride-sharing on the app.

“We’re refocusing as a manufacturer of cars and trucks to a company that also offers mobility as a service for our customers,” she says. “Connectivity is an area that changes at a much faster speed than we would normally see in our business. Development of a new vehicle is years long; development of new software and new connectivity is months long.”

Samardzich reveals that Ford last year conducted 25 separate experiments looking at different “mobility issues” and how to solve them. This was designed to see which aspects of connected car technology were most useful to drivers prior to launching them.

In addition to FordPass, the company is rolling out the latest version of its Sync in-car platform this year. “[The experiments] were the building blocks that told us where we should and shouldn’t go,” she explains.

Ian Carrington, head of performance media solutions at Google EMEA, argues that it is not problematic for companies to fail with their tech launches, provided that they learn from their mistakes and move on quickly. As the internet of things grows ever more vast, he suggests that choosing the next technology to launch will be an increasingly tricky task.

“Companies should make lots of bets across lots of different areas about what they think will be the big thing because it’s very difficult to predict the future,” he says. “Just make sure that you’re experimenting and you’re agile enough to take advantage of these innovations and trends as they come along.”