I caught up with Katherine Barr, General Partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures and a panelist at this week’s Grow Conference in Whistler.  In line with the conference theme of living in a connected world, she’ll be delivering a presentation titled Finding and Engaging your Audience and she shared some of her thoughts on consumer technology investments and marketing with us.

Katherine Barr, VC Investor, General Partner Mohr Davidow Ventures
Katherine Barr, VC Investor, General Partner Mohr Davidow Ventures.

What investment areas are you most interested in currently?

One of the areas I’m focused on is Lifetech – consumer technologies that make our lives more efficient and enjoyable.  I’m passionate about how our lives as consumers are being optimized and automated leveraging new technologies, platforms and devices. A few of the companies that I’ve invested in exemplify this: TicketFly — using technology to expand and monetize the live event experience; BandPage — a platform for artists to share content and unique commerce items with fans, pushing the needle on music experience and monetization; Ruby Ribbon — using technology to efficiently and effectively reach and engage women interested in purchasing fashion shape wear; and BuildDirect, a Vancouver company – leveraging data and technology to enable digital discovery and efficient delivery of heavyweight home improvement products such as flooring to consumers and contractors.

What kinds of challenges do you see in the world of consumer technology?

A key challenge is that technology still doesn’t do enough of the heavy lifting in our lives as consumers. I need technology to help me more with organizing my personal life, automating tasks, bringing relevant and personalized purchase options to me, for example, instead of overwhelming me with data. Consumers need smart data and systems, not necessarily big data!

Another issue in this emerging “connected world” or “Internet of Things” is that many devices and platforms are not yet interoperable or interconnected. A number of large incumbents and startups alike are trying to create their own standards and my hope is that we move towards a truly interoperable world versus a world where we need to select among technology silos beyond our smart phones.

A third issue in this increasingly connected world is of course challenges of security and privacy. Some companies are going to step in it, as Euclid did recently over in store consumer Wi-Fi tracking (and Apple is now cracking down on consumer tracking to protect consumer privacy), however these kinds of incidents raise awareness of the issues and push innovation forward in terms of how to balance privacy with consumer utility. I for one would choose an opt in to Wi-Fi tracking if it meant some kind of improved in store experience – personalized product suggestions, or discounts, for example. I’ve already surprised myself with the personal data I’ll share in exchange for a better, more personalized experience online; the websites Trueandco.com and Stitchfix.com are good examples of this.

What will your panel be discussing at the Grow conference?

I will be moderating a panel on Finding and Engaging your Audience.  In terms of a preview to what we’ll be discussing, we are seeing many wearables that are cool but the question is how are they really differentiated and what is their value proposition to the consumer? What is the sustainable differentiation so that the wearable category is not a race to the bottom and most devices just become commoditized?

The panel will be talking about how companies can connect with their users — how to build a brand around that connection as the technology itself becomes less differentiated.  And of course, there is a concurrent need to continue to innovate on the technology side while building that brand.  One powerful enabler for companies building both brand and technology – especially given that the pace of change continues to accelerate in a connected world – is the current capability for real time testing and learning via data.

Another topic that we’ll be covering on the panel is the importance of having each member of a product team play a role from early on.  Marketing has to be at the core of what you’re doing, not just a layer on top of the product as was the more traditional approach in the past. Tech companies need to build product teams with a holistic approach to value proposition building and product creation, not just have one functional area pass off to the next as in the past.

What else do marketers in a connected world need to consider?

Customer engagement in a key to marketing in a world where consumers are connected and empowered.  In terms of  engagement strategies, there’s still got to be a hook, something that stands out and creates that spark of a connection — that hasn’t changed.  But the way you go about it is different.  One example of this is the WestJet Christmas surprise campaign, where customers offered their wishes to Santa, which were fulfilled when the customers arrived at their destination. This created “consumer delight” combined with reaching consumers via an omni-channel approach using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social as well as traditional media.  Technology products need to build a relationship and emotional connection with a consumer who is much more empowered these days – relevant content and customer service (among other things) play an important role here.

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