In 2006 I joined Control4. It was a fledgling whole-home automation start-up founded by Will West, Mark Morgan, and Eric Smith. The three founders had tremendous experience and deep familiarity with home automation. Smart home technologies had seen traction with high-end clients and commercial applications. Control4 was created to serve a different market, the broader market.
As the head of marketing and product, I used to say that buying home automation should not need a customer to say, “after my company IPOs.” We were making affordable solutions within reach of the statement, “when we get our tax return.”
Despite redefining the total available automation market, we did share something in common with older tech. We sold through the same network of dealers. These were often members of CEDIA, the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association. They are independent businesses ranging from one-man operations to regional and even national powerhouses with hundreds of installers. Despite the size differences, they were similar in that it was an industry dominated by men. It was an industry that had solidified the way it thought about customers, the way it talked to customers, and the way it sold to customers.
A NEW PARADIGM
When we entered the market, we had a price-point and feature-set that made us much more accessible. Typical installations in the past could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They targeted only a small portion of the population.
With Control4, dealers could outfit home with lighting, multi-room music, or one-touch home theater for a tenth as much. It was still expensive but now it was within reach of so many more households. These dealers were skilled at installation and configuration. Some could create incredible home theater and automation experiences with disappearing TVs, or theme-driven theater rooms. They took great pride in their ability to cater to customer requests. These customers were predominantly men and they often had very specific ideas of the perfect “man cave”.
Much of this changed when we entered the market. The dealers were the same. What we saw was a shift in buyer demographics. This led to a change in the purchase process. In the traditional market, these systems were installed in homes costing more than $1M. Installations were often in new construction in order to accommodate custom control wiring. The highly customizable interfaces of the competitors meant that a great deal of the cost of the system was the programming to create a custom user interface and user experience.
THE NEW EASY
Control4 changed this with a simple-to-program system and a tightly defined user experience. The products communicated using ZigBee, a low-power, wireless, networking technology. It was new, inexpensive and robust. For streaming music, we used Wi-Fi or Ethernet, eliminating the expense of custom wiring.
All this made us much more retrofit-friendly. It also made us more modular. Homeowners did not have to commit to an entire home system. They could select a room or two to start. Or the particular subset of automation tech like smart lighting or HVAC control, multi-room audio and of course, the poster child of the automation dealer showrooms, the home theater.
So Control4’s software and hardware architecture in 2006 was a fundamental change in the way home automation could be deployed. It also expanded the markets where it could be sold. Dealers saw the potential of this disruptive approach. Many signed up in the first year.
MARKETING THE NEW PARADIGM
The challenge was in marketing. While the company was a lower cost option for affluent customers looking for automation, we wanted to expand into the broad market. Addressing this different segment required more than new slicks and marketing materials for dealers. It required a shift in approach because it was a different market. We called it the “broad market”.
First, we knew that broad market buyers were different. They had many more financial trade-offs to think about. A buyer for a $100,000 custom installation had different economic considerations than a mainstream client with $10,000 to spend. The mainstream customer was certainly not poor. But, he or she was much more likely to have to wrestle with “share-of-wallet” concerns than a traditional, wealthy client. Even though the dollar amount was less, mainstream customers often faced a decision to spend that money in other areas. The same $10k would provide a great vacation. It could go toward a new car or boat. It could be tucked away in a child’s college 529 account.
These clients were rich enough to have that disposable income but not so rich that it could be spent without consideration for the alternatives.
To figure this out, we commissioned a user demographic profile. This formed the basis for our user personae framework. The biggest epiphany (which, in retrospect, seems glaringly obvious) was the need to effectively address the concerns of the female head of household.
OUT GUNNING TOP GUN
Our research showed that traditional sales demos emphasized the home theater experience. The standing joke was that every demo room had copies of Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Apollo 13. Demos centered around the immersive home theater experience. It is still a primary benefit of automation. But the research indicated that the female head-of-house was a significant consideration in the purchase process for Control4’s target market.
This sort of demo was missing the mark for half the population. What tested significantly better with the female audience were convenience and safety features like alarm integration, thermostat control, and automatic lighting.
Let me pause here and clearly state that these are generalizations extracted from market research. Many female consumers are only interested in home theater. Many male consumers who are only interested in the non-AV features of automation. Many households have a non-traditional composition. However, what was very clear was a gender-specific tilt in responses. More than a decade later, these results may no longer be relevant. But, at the time, the insights enabled us to refine our approach.
Emphasizing booming home theater demos would be less effective in convincing everyone. We stressed an interview-based approach to determine what was important to all of the decision-makers. From there, it was much easier to educate on what was possible.
We helped dealers communicate this message by creating a message framework of 5 pillars of automation:
- One touch home theater
- Multiroom music
- Smart lighting
- Advanced temperature control
- Safety and security
Each domain had specific value propositions for the consumer. They could stand alone but offered powerful synergies when combined. They played to the retrofit-friendly architecture. We provided real examples of features and use-cases. We even offered preconfigured programming examples to make sales and implementation simple. Control4 now had 5 possible points of entry with both of the key decision makers in a typical engagement.
These 5-specific product-centric areas of focus rolled up into three key benefits:
- Effortless entertainment
- Comfort and convenience
- Peace of mind
This was the basis of our first tagline: Everyday easy
We built marketing materials, tooled the online presence and created training materials to flow into this framework.
Our messaging construct was clear and simple.
Homeowners (Early Majority)
“Control4 improves your everyday lifestyle by letting you easily control the things in your home that used to control you…”
“Control4 makes your life easier by getting all the systems in your home working more easily. You can now tame your gadgets and transform your home into a better living environment. Turn on and off the things you want, where you want and how you want. Music, TV, video, lights, temperature, security and much more. It is the only affordable, complete home automation system that will grow with you. With Control4 you have control over the things in your home that used to control you, which makes life easier every day.”
There are three takeaways from my experience working with the excellent team at Control4.
First, know the users and their concerns. Second, communicate in a way that speaks to benefits, not features. Finally, execute a consistent and thorough go-to-market plan. Execute with discipline and consistency. Make it easy for your advocates and teammates to tell your story the way you want it to be told.
Control4 continues to be a market leader in an increasingly crowded space. More companies are pushing affordable, easy-to-install solutions, yet Control4 continues to perform well. They went public in 2011 and are have a market capitalization of over $630M and an acquisition offer from SnapAV at the time of this writing.