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Excite Home builds a Home of the Future
“Really, once you go high speed, you’ll never go back.”
“Sounds like a drug addiction.”
“Well, not a drug addiction . . . but my husband and I do have DSL in every room of our house. It’s been really hard to use dial-up on the road.”
Yes, it’s another industry cocktail party. In a loft in Manhattan, at an event timed to coincide with this year’s October Internet World at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the beautiful, the rich and the plugged-in are schmoozing.
“Did you see the Picasso and the Miro? They’re real, you know.”
“Who are you with?”
“I’m an analyst at J.P. Morgan, but I didn’t want to wear this name tag because it doesn’t match my outfit.”
The cocktails flow, the noshes are noshed, the line for the bathroom grows longer. A weary conventioneer might well ask, “What’s the point?”
We asked the hosts of this particular party, held as part of Excite Home’s Home of the Future promotion, what their point was: Why they did it, how they did it and what they gained.
Now in its second year–the previous version was executed only by Home before its merger with Excite–the Home of the Future promotion has become a central part of the way that the Redwood City, Calif.-based company sells jaded reporters, advertisers and potential partners on the idea that broadband is here, and the best is yet to come.
Rather than just a glitzy PR event, the Home of the Future promo is the Excite Home sales team’s way around a problem. The cable modem-based service has only 840,000 subscribers because building infrastructure for such high-end, high-tech services can take years. (About 4 percent of the 21 million homes who could subscribe to the service do.)
Partly owned by a number of major cable operators, including TCI, which is in turn owned by AT&T, Excite Home plans to build out in all of its owners’ coverage areas, eventually making it accessible to 72 million homes. But the Manhattan demo may not only be viewed as important because the infrastructure still is being built out; the island’s major cable operator is Time Warner, the only major MSO not to be affiliated with Excite Home. Therefore, aspirant cable modem subscribers are much more likely to be offered the rival Road Runner service than Excite Home.
All of these factors mean that explaining the benefits of a home wired with a broadband connection can be a bit like telling the people of Fiji about the joys of snow skiing. The company’s solution is to wire a working miniversion into someone’s groovy habitat and invite people to test drive the service. This year’s setup showcased much more than a broadband pipe, however. It was a cannily devised demonstration of Excite Home’s “all-band, all-device, all-the-time” strategy that sends content and advertising to everything from cell phones and pagers to PDAs as well as PCs. (See sidebar.)
We’ll Wire Manhattan
To pull this off, Excite Home partnered with several companies. Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., built the network, using servers stashed in the laundry room, and added an IP/telephony application, so people could talk to each other over the Net. Aplio of San Bruno, Calif., showed off its IP address-enabled wireless phone, which lets users get simplified Web content. ShareWave of El Dorado Hills, Calif., provided a wireless networking application to connect all the IP-enabled devices in the loft. Panja of Dallas contributed a device to manage home networks for such things as lights, music and security, while Arepa.com of Cambridge, Mass., gave visitors a taste of its new PlayNow service that offers on-demand access to a library of video games, as well as educational and productivity CD-ROM titles. Users can try before they buy or subscribe for online access, similar to the premium cable channel services model.
Also showing their wares, but not kicking in marketing dollars, were 3Com for its Palm VII, Diamond Multimedia’s Rio MP3 player and NuvoMedia with its Rocket electronic book, a portable device that lets one download large quantities of text and read them offline, sort of like a book.
Excite Home had a two-pronged marketing agenda, pushed by senior vice president of marketing Fred Siegel and vice president of market development Susan Bratton. For Siegel, it was about getting to potential subscribers through the consumer press. Bratton is responsible for marketing the service to potential advertisers. She says she, too, wanted to get press, including consumer press for a change, plus reach potential and current advertisers and their agencies.
Says Bratton: “It was a chance for us to show the different kinds of applications a consumer could have–we put them all in. We showed what this all-band, all-device, all-the-time thing would be like in the different rooms of the home.”
For example, in the home office, the setup featured IP telephony and high-speed conferencing, while in the kid’s room, the company showed streaming CD-ROM content. And then, there was the Internet refrigerator in the kitchen. Unlike most of the displays, this was not a true working model, but a mock-up put together by ShareWave. (Frigidaire has a prototype of such an appliance, which could automatically order milk or other items, that it’s been lugging to trade shows. But Excite Home preferred to stick with its close partners.)
For Siegel, the Home of the Future simply is a way to make the blue-sky seem real, as well as intelligible. “Describing what the home of the future would look like is a scary thing,” he admits. “And overall, the consumer press is not as savvy as the Internet people.” But seeing is indeed close to believing.
Peeping Is Good
How do you cut through the social noise at a huge show like Internet World, and make your party one of the must-attends? Excite Home’s solution was to locate it at the intersection of voyeurism and glamour, by inviting people to come to a real, if repurposed, loft inhabited by real groovy New Yorkers. The task of finding such a venue fell to Lisa Byrne, principal of Lisa Byrne Consulting, San Francisco, who has made a specialty of project management for consumer outreach campaigns.
To find a home with the right panache, she worked with a location scout whom she won’t name, to avoid giving competitors a leg up. The job started with a huge list of places that were available for rent, but the list narrowed fast when Byrne explained that she wanted to take over the house for four or five days and run computer equipment all over the place. She had some other criteria: “We wanted something hip but not too far removed from a family environment, something that was relatively cozy.” The site had to be accessible through public transportation and, ideally, close to Javits. The look she wanted was modern but not intimidating. She liked the idea of a loft, because it would offer good traffic flow, wide hallways and an open floor plan, all important for loading in equipment.
So, what kind of people are willing to vacate their home for a trade show?
Byrne says they tend to be affluent, but not rich; they’re frequently in the creative community–for example photographers, who are used to having clients come through.
The loft she found is owned by a couple with grown children; the wife, an artist, was putting together an exhibit of her work, and therefore was “motivated to get a little extra funding,” Byrne tactfully explains. Byrne liked its sophisticated style, with a color scheme tending toward black, brown and taupe, and its impressive art and book collections. She turned the guest bedroom into a child’s room, using purchases from a local bed and bath store.
“People love the voyeuristic aspect,” she said. “There’s nothing like getting to see inside someone’s home. It’s an interesting chance to see someone’s life.”
Let’s Get Loose
The biggest challenge for Excite Home’s marketing staff was convincing its executives that it could work. The loft would be open for nearly three days, with two evening cocktail parties, providing ample opportunity for throngs of interested people to come and see what the future might look like.
Theoretically, press, current and potential clients and partners could make an appointment to have an individualized tour. “It’s very different from a normal press tour, which is very regimented,” says Excite Home public relations manager Alison Bowman. In a normal press tour, the company’s PR reps would have carefully determined beforehand who would meet with Bratton and who with Siegel, for example, and the meetings would have taken place in private, closed-off conference rooms. “Assigning three people per hour to talk to anyone coming in was hard for them to get their brains around. People show up late or early–especially the daily newspapers, who got there when they could and met with whom they could.”
Nevertheless, Bowman says: “It ended up being fantastic. It allowed people to wear a number of different hats and was a lot of fun.”
The Bottom Line
Byrne says the promotion was like “doing a press tour on location. It was tremendously efficient.” Instead of the Excite Home staff members trudging from meeting room to office to newsroom, they got everyone to come to them. The marketing staff hasn’t yet weighed how much press the promo gleaned, but the tally shows that 90 editors came through the Home of the Future, and some major stories look likely.
Vincent Grosso, CEO of exhibitor Arepa.com, says: “The value of the Home of the Future is to see things working in a real space. That’s what happened there.” Bratton believes that the promotion got bigger deals signed faster. Says Siegel: “We got tremendous compliments and buzz. Some key reporters said, ‘Now I get it, now I understand what this is about.’ ” n
With additional reporting by Kipp Cheng
Coming Soon
For most of us, the homes of our futures aren’t likely to be art-filled, camera-ready loft spaces with fancy-pants downtown New York addresses.
However, a handful of the Logan’s Run-meets-Jetsons innovations showcased at this year’s Excite Home Home of the Future demo actually may make their ways into our everyday lives, and sooner than you’d expect.
After all, more than offering mere playtime with bleeding-edge gizmos and convenient on-demand services, a household wired with broadband capabilities will give consumers an abundance of outlets to receive information, entertainment and at-home shopping opportunities, just to name a few of the myriad benefits. Additionally, in a high-speed, fat-pipeline home, advertisers and marketers will be able to target their messages and offers to consumers, literally where they live and through various wireless gadgets, creating a brave new world where the lines between the medium and the message blur into our broadband-enabled lives. Welcome to the future today.
A look at some examples from the Excite Home demo illustrates how broadband services kick dial-up speeds to high heaven:
-In-house multiterminal networks.
Benefit to consumers: Instead of needing to hard wire every computer terminal throughout the home, infrared signals can be sent from a single main server (discreetly hidden, say, in the butler’s pantry) and deliver multiple signals through one pipeline. Benefit to advertisers: A computer terminal in every room in the home.
-Audio/video telephony that really works. Unlike existing videophones that deliver herky-jerky picture quality and dubious sound, broadband offers near-broadcast quality video and crisp audio. In a wired home, video telephony can be used to monitor household activity.
-PDAs/eBooks/video on demand.
News and entertainment can be had on the go, at quick download speeds.
-Internet fridge. Forget about the pencil and paper shopping list–a smart fridge that’s wired will know when you shop, what you buy and when you’re running out of staples, such as milk, and dial up the local Web grocer and have everything delivered to your door.–KC