A Recipe for a Successful OTC Hearing Aid
Since over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids hit the stores in mid-October, an initial group of products have entered the space. Sadly, many seem to miss the boat, lacking the sweet spot of features, form factor and price that will likely appeal to a mild-to-moderate hearing loss consumer. Still, I remain optimistic that with time, market forces will push manufacturers toward the right combination of attributes that work for this new and varied client base.
The Market for OTC Devices May Have Two Distinct Market Segments
The OTC hearing aid market is complicated. While focused on adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss, the purchase cases likely vary, creating what I see as two distinct target markets.
1. Primarily price oriented
This segment is comprised of adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss who would like a traditional hearing aid involving an audiologist’s care but are priced out of the market. Perhaps they have tried Costco, but even that price point is too high. They want something basic yet effective that works with their budget. This segment likely includes seniors with age-related hearing loss living on a fixed income.
2. Situational users
This segment is comprised of adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss who are not interested in a traditional hearing aid but do want assistance hearing in certain situations. They think of the product more as an electronic accessory than a hearing aid so they want something fun and sleek that they can use when they need it and leave at home or in their purse when they don’t.
My Recipe for a Successful OTC Hearing Aid
Distinct products may appeal to different segments of the consumer base, but there are a few must-haves. Below I share my recipe for a successful OTC hearing aid. Do you agree?
1. Devices must look modern
These cannot be the big beige plastic hearing aids that have been used in much of the media imagery surrounding OTC hearing aids. The actual devices must be streamlined, modern and sleek. A variety of styles can work—behind the ear, in the ear, or big and bold sticking out of the ear like earbuds—but most importantly, the devices’ outward appearances should match the efficient and powerful electronics inside.
For the situational customer, OTC devices may feel more like a nice-to-have than a need-to-have, making an attractive outer package potentially more important for this group.
2. Streaming capability is a must
OTC hearing aids that do not include Bluetooth streaming are doomed to fail, especially in the situational user segment. Many mild-to-moderate hearing loss consumers are already using Bluetooth connections with other consumer electronic devices to make phone calls, stream media and listen to music. They will demand this capability in any new device.
Additionally, as Bluetooth Auracast becomes more widely available in the next several years, OTC devices with streaming capability will provide easy access to mainstream entertainment, public lectures, and other large-venue events, huge selling points for the mild-to-moderate hearing loss consumer who likely struggles in exactly these situations.
3. Offerings must be affordable
Price point is critical. One of the main drivers of the OTC hearing aid legislation was to increase access to hearing devices for people who cannot afford them. Unfortunately, some of the current offerings have price points similar to what you would pay for a prescription model at Costco. Others are priced liked glorified PSAPs. I expect the price point range will narrow over time as OTC devices find their place in the hearing space.
Since OTC products do not include audiological care, price points must be more comparable to consumer electronic devices than prescription hearing aids, or the value proposition is lost. For situational users, price points must be competitive with comparable consumer electronic devices, many of which provide similar self-fitting features.
4. Products must be easy to program
Hearing technology is sometimes only half the battle, particularly with older adults, some of whom may not have Smartphones. The easier the devices are to program and use, the more likely they are to succeed.
For the cost-conscious segment, a device that is hard to operate is likely to be returned. Since no standard return policy was issued with the OTC legislation, retailers will set their own. Without sufficient time to acclimate to hearing better, devices are likely to be returned.
Situational users may also be turned off by an overly complicated setup process since Apple AirPods Pro and similar existing consumer electronic devices may get them almost everything they need with less hassle. I am hoping Apple will soon enter the fray with their own derivative version of the AirPods Pro targeted at this market.
5. Marketed with fun and positive imagery
Can hearing aids be fun? I think so! Ads featuring people enjoying media, lectures, performances and all types of activities with their hearing devices on full display will be most effective. Connecting the features to the benefits will help sell the devices because they target the exact situations where this mild-to-moderate hearing loss group struggles.
The Recipe May Change Over Time
The market for OTC devices is new and rapidly changing. As new entrants bring new technologies and form factors to the fray, the recipe may continue to evolve. I remain optimistic that OTC hearing aids manufacturers will rise to the challenge of this new market, benefiting millions of people with access to better hearing at a reasonable price.