Wrist watch media is nearly dead, now what?
aBlogtoWatch founder Ariel Adams writes: In the late 19th century, Mark Twain is famously reported to have quipped, “News of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” after it was published in a paper that he died while traveling in London. It seems that the vitality of wristwatch media is similarly endangered. But is it dead, or just dying? Or is its demise, like Twain’s, being exaggerated? In short, from my perspective as a publisher in this space, the slow demise of wristwatch media is not only real, it has also not been emphasized nearly enough.
Try to put aside for a moment that I am a party to the media side of the luxury watch industry. While I do advocate for the wellbeing of my own business, there is much more at stake. Consider this a “wake-up call” to the industry from someone who is in a good position to speak authoritatively about it.
One possible consequence of this crisis is serious harm to global wristwatch sales. My aim isn’t to lament a dying and, perhaps, semi-out-of-touch art form (professional content production by third parties), but rather to point out a huge problem the watch industry will continue to face even more severely, should watch media sputter into virtual non-existence. The good news is that it can all be fixed with money that is currently available.
The cause of death for watch media? Bygone advertising budgets. My business, aBlogtoWatch, is agile enough to have pivoted a number of times as the “moving target” of how to do business with watch brands has evolved and shifted numerous times in my dozen or so years in the watch industry.
I don’t think any wrist watch publication out there still in existence would be able to survive on advertising budgets alone. Furthermore, it would be incorrect to say that aBlogtoWatch is merely an online publication anymore.
It is more accurate to say that we are a benchmark editorial team that manages a large consumer audience, and who also specializes in the niche area of wristwatch marketing and content creation.
Editorial content is what we wish to be mostly doing, and what we will continue to do, as long as the practical motivation exists for it. Talk to any of my colleagues at “rival publications,” and they will quickly also tell you how little business sense it currently makes to simply cover the watch stories you are passionate about. That’s an effort for Sisyphus, these days.
It is both unsustainable and unwise for media to operate or be incentivized in such an indirect manner where they have to produce advertizable-space but really need to monetize something else.
The implication is that if the remaining watch media publications (and there is no business interest I’ve seen in developing serious new ones these days) all become entrepreneurs and try to make it for themselves, the watch industry will have just deprived itself of a necessary part of the consumer-development engine. Hey Paris, hey Geneva, listen up. No more watch media means, far, far fewer watch purchases globally as a result. Got it?
For the sake of being complete, let’s talk about the supposed other legitimate business models that appear to be attractive for watch media who, these days, must contend with far smaller brand advertising budgets. How about my model? Developing an effective creative agency isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t a replicable model that other watch media businesses can easily adopt and modify for themselves. As a creative and marketing professional, I’ve had to cultivate my uncommonly intense interest in timepieces, as well as utilize my diverse educational background to reverse-engineer how a modern creative services agency can actually do positive things for consumers and watch brands, alike. More so, my strict desire to want aBlogtoWatch to remain genuinely useful to consumers is a strong balancing force that I have incorporate into my company’s business values.
That value is not an industry standard or pressure. If anything, it is mostly contrary to watch industry pressures, which have, time and time again, forced me to consider the ethics of these exchanges. If a watch brand manager essentially says to me, “Ariel, can we just pay you to say good things about us?” where do I land? I routinely reject such offers, saying “no” to profit, while advising a potential client how to do things properly. My point is that what makes me a unique actor in this space cannot be readily applied to the decision-making of most other business people in the space (as practice has verified). Quality watch media should not be an exclusive result of anomalistic or eccentric personalities.
If watch brands have a cultural problem with investing appropriately in necessary marketing, then watch media professionals alone will not be able to resolve the watch media funding problem. In order for watch media to deliver its full potential value to the industry and brands that would benefit from it, industry stakeholders must embrace the very notion that a free exchange of ideas about its products – including useful constructive criticism – is a healthy part of how most contemporary consumer product categories currently operate.
Another contemporary example of how a media business can grow or earn revenue outside of advertising profits is by monetizing its audience and becoming a store. More buzz is hovering around this concept than anything else right now. At first, the idea of being a magazine and a shop sounds compelling – even if it is, more or less, unproven on any mass or long-term scale, as only a handful of companies are making money at it, each with fewer than five years under their belts and in a mostly unregulated space. The idea is that media companies can produce editorial-style content its audience likes and then turn around that sell them products that relate to the items they are reading about, as well as merchandise from the media company itself.
I do want everyone to realize, first and foremost, that any media company that adopts such a strategy does so out of desperation, not established opportunity or proven success. Becoming a store is actually an enormous risk. Strategically, there is also no model for how to effectively create a stable media business while also running a store that directly attempts to monetize that business. There are models for how a store can create non-editorial content designed to sell products, but let’s not for a moment confuse marketing content with media. So, in that regard, what is media for the purposes of this discussion? Let’s think of it as some form of peer to peer, or professional to peer editorial content.
Editorial content is professionally packaged reporting and opinion designed to inform, educate, or entertain a public audience. It isn’t designed to do anything on a commercial basis, and it certainly isn’t trying to immediately inspire readers to take commercial action (just like a friend wouldn’t try to hard-sell another friend). Editorial content should be trustworthy, and, ideally, it should be relatable. Editorial content has value to the consumer, while marketing content has value to the marketer. The differences between editorial and marketing content are clear if you understand the space, but many professionals in the luxury industry today seem to believe that marketing, alone, will get them where they want to be, commercially speaking. The evidence I’ve seen has suggested this is a mistake, if only because not effectively working with media has lost them huge levels of visibility.
In an attempt to keep this editorial piece balanced I want to express a common sentiments shared by a number of professionals at watch brands when defending their position to not work with press or specific members of the press commercially. It is true that most individuals in the watch industry highly appreciate quality media – but the irony is they don’t entirely feel it is their responsibility to support it.
The idea of support is an interesting sentiment when you consider a statement like “it is your job to cover watch stories whether we advertise with you or not.” This again goes back to one of the cultural problems. People who are in watch media today are not merely doing jobs that pay, whether or not they receive advertising dollars. No mandates exist which compel casual or even professional wrist watch writers/publications to cover anything. The implication for me is that the people at the brands in Switzerland are in more traditional, stable-style jobs, whereas most of watch media is far more entrepreneurial by design. This disconnect means that each side can easily fundamentally misunderstand the day-to-day lifestyle and decisions making issues which exists in the life of the other. Overcoming these cultural barriers can lead to a much more prosperous relationship between watch media and the brands they would naturally help promote. Much is to be gained, and so much has already been lost.
Try to think of any industry that sells products (of any value) to men that get by exclusively with marketing and pseudo-editorial (no independent media with free voices and opinions). That means the industry does not support an unbiased media network to communicate with consumers and get people excited about news. It means that everything a consumer sees about that brand is either an advertisement or some form of marketing experience. I can’t think of any serious industry (that needs enthusiastic consumers) at all that gets by without loads of professional independent media. When I think about automobiles, cameras, real estate, boats, planes, tools, gear, computers, music, etc., I think of industries that all have extremely well-developed and highly penetrating media companies that develop relationships with consumers over years.
Are those strong media titles supported by revenues they make by selling trinkets to their audiences? No. They are supported by motivated advertisers who understand two things. First, that the value of having advertising messages alongside natural editorial content as a working model for getting people to be aware and take notice of brands and their messages. Second, they understand that media publications have always been far better (and cheaper) at getting consumers interested in and excited about products and services than brand marketing itself. In other words, paying to support media, collectively, does a much better job of getting your message to consumers than paying to reach them all directly yourselves. As a related tangent, I encourage marketing professionals to consider how these established rules apply in the context of social media, where similar principles about media motivation and consumer relationship success should be applied.
To summarize, the most important and strongest industries that sell products to consumers succeed because of very strong media companies that are supported directly by advertising revenue. In fact, subscriptions (mostly still entirely absent from digital media outside of the absolute biggest companies) and advertising revenues are pretty much the only factors that have consistently been responsible for media having the incentive to grow, give valuable feedback to the industry it covers, develop healthy relationships with audiences, and to keep reaching out to more and more audiences as they do so. The takeaway message here is that a wrongly motivated watch media landscape might have the appearance of watch media, but if the economic incentives are incorrect, then they will not provide the same value back to the industry as actual authentic and opinionated media.
Here is an example of poorly motivated incentives that hurt, rather than help, the collective industry. How can you run a store and a real magazine at the same time? You can’t. When you become a store as a former media company, you do so with all the new headaches, pulls, and stresses that come from running that type of business. Your goal is to maximize sales interest, profits from selling items, and funneling as much of your audience’s attention as possible to engaging in a transaction. When you run a store, the natural behavior that happens all the time is that the majority of company efforts go to these above activities. This is exactly what consumers do not want when reading media designed to educate or inform them. Reading independent media is an entirely different experience from sitting down with a product catalog. From a psychological standpoint, a consumer is not doing the same thing when reading what is supposed to be someone’s opinion, and when they are trying to make a purchase decision.
My main point is that watch media companies who become stores head in a one-way direction with no going back. Media creates relationships with consumers by making it clear what is and isn’t commercially motivated content, and by having relatable consumer-to-consumer discussions with an audience that stores will never be able to authentically have with them. I also want to reinforce the concept that the consumer experience with independent editorial content and disguised marketing content is not the same. Providing only the latter will simply lead less interested consumers.
Pundits will say, “Sure, but look at the success content marketing has had with e-commerce. So many brands have successfully eschewed traditional advertising and focused their efforts on inserting their names and messages into opinion articles. Doesn’t that prove that consumers are still happy consuming content whether or not it is marketing or opinion?” No, I don’t think so. What I do think is happening is that consumers today are being bombarded with lies and deception. There is a massive digital marketing industry of manipulation and deceiving consumers online – but you won’t see that part of the industry calling itself that. Marketing content disguised as editorial will only work for so long before consumers wake up (exit a state of ignorance) and simply avoid it. Marketers seem to care vanishingly little about the long-term trust consumers have in their brand and the experience related to learning about their products. Perhaps that is one of the problems the watch industry is facing that few marketers or managers, in general, have any incentive to think long-term. As a rule, only long-term-based ideas will have any hope to strengthen the watch industry. The plentiful examples of the power of long-term thinking in the watch would be enough to fill several books. Short-term thinking is for day-traders and scammers. Indeed, I am making a point to villainize short-term thinking of all types in the watch industry (namely quarterly results fetishization).
Knowingly deceiving consumers and depriving them of enough authentic experiences with the brand leads to long-term problems, such as a lack of trust as well as a lack of support from the most educated and sophisticated consumers. That might work if your consumers lack education, but it doesn’t work in the luxury watch industry space. I’ve never met a more intelligent and savvier group of consumers than the people who enjoy buying expensive watches. Sure, there is ignorance everywhere, but as a group, watch consumers with their likely corresponding higher-education are better able to identify lies from the truth as compared with most consumers. This is an important lesson for watch brand marketers who feel that adopting a marketing model for a $20 fashion items meant for 17 year-old consumers will work just as well for a $20,000 timepiece meant for mature adults. Having said that, I will admit that slowly (ever so slowly), watch industry marketing professionals are starting to take notice of what modern marketing and advertising should really look like.
Let’s get back to talking about watch media and its death. My primary message is that watch magazines and publications that are supported by traditional advertising relationships (our clearly labeled ad sits next to your clearly labeled piece of editorial) are part of a severely endangered species. Do you want to hear something really ironic? The primary reason the luxury watch media gives to traditional watch publications about why it will not advertise is two-fold (and rather egregiously wrong). First, they fear that consumers seeing clearly labeled advertising will distrust the editorial content in the rest of that publication about the advertiser.
This logic is problematic because editorial naturally takes its own tone distinct from any advertising when allowed to. Editorial only starts to echo advertising when pressure has been implemented on an editorial team to present an opinion that an advertiser would not take offense to. The result of following the (express or implied) wishes of an advertiser is relatively anemic opinions which may end up sounding a bit like marketing. Watch media outlets are also loathe to defy advertisers given behavior many of them observed in the past. Numerous examples of watch brands punitively withholding advertising budgets from uncooperative media (from small publications to massive news outlets) has spooked watch media from potentially offending brand egos. This isn’t a recipe for a healthy conversation with consumers, nor does it allow media to deliver useful opinions and feedback to an industry that should be eager to improve its offerings the next time they wish to bring something to market.
The second argument watch brands fallback on when concerned about marketing spending is that advertising doesn’t seem to work very well in the first place. My interpretation is that marketing clearly does have important on consumers, but a lot of brand marketing teams are not well-equipped to measure such impact. For example, many brands consider advertising a failure if consumers don’t see the ads and immediately take action to purchase something.
People don’t stop their cars on the road to investigate a phone number or website they saw adverted on a billboard. Why then would consumers looking through a magazine or website stop what they are doing to go purchase something immediately? That’s unnatural behavior, but it is seemingly all that many brand people feel equates to success. My studies (backed up by several others I have seen by third parties) have determined that it takes on average six to 12 months before a consumer later purchases something they first learned about and eventually ended up liking and wanting. In other words, the arguments about why advertising in watch media doesn’t work are more often than not based upon ineffective executions and expectations, not the power of media to communicate ideas with consumers. Sure campaigns, messages, and strategies should always be tweaked and improved (investment in the message as well as the distribution of that message), but the watch industry has actually punished watch media for failures that have nothing at all to do with the media’s job or responsibilities if their ads don’t deliver unrealistic fantasy results.
The problem for watch media and the industry isn’t one of strategy, it is simply a problem of money. The watch industry does its best to be polite about not choosing to spend money, but as a result it just ends up being disingenuous to itself and others. Watch media isn’t dying because advertising in them isn’t effective, it is dying because brands have simply stopped spending money on enough advertising without effective alternative strategies or sufficient rationale as to why it is a good idea. Now let’s get to the heart of why that is so very much a bad thing for the watch industry.
As I’ve been graced with your attention for this long, I will save the more academic discussion on this latter topic of why weak media makes for a weak overall watch industry for another article. I’ll jump to my assumption based on experience and data that watch brand marketing efforts are much more expensive if they attempt to “go direct” to the consumer. This is as opposed to the less expensive route of riding their advertising message in contextually relevant media, which is already reaching the customer. Social media can (but isn’t always) one form of contextually relevant media if the right message is targeted to the right audience. I bring up social media because it is where most watch brand marketing spending it happening right now – but most are underinvesting there as well, at least when it comes to message strategy (again, another topic).
Let’s look at this issue as presented by some numbers. A typical watch media publication doesn’t need more than a few million dollars per year to be functioning. Actually running a media publication that reaches millions of people a year is far less expensive than, say, trying to reach those same people via advertising in more traditional places. So, from a sheer economic standpoint, if you want to reach media consumers out in the world, it costs less if you are traditional independent watch media as opposed to advertisers trying to reach them via marketing. And again, it doesn’t count if a brand prints a magazine and calls it editorial. It actually has to be relatable “content by consumers for consumers” for it to have an actual media versus marketing impact.
The entire watch industry doesn’t need more than a dozen or so watch media publications around the world. They need to be decently funded, but a moderately sized publication can reach a very large consumer base, these days. Let’s say (a broad estimate for argument’s sake) the total cost to maintain enough watch media publications for the world (so at least a dozen companies) is $75 million dollars – and that is a pretty high number. It isn’t, however, nearly as expensive as it would be to reach those same consumers all those times with traditional advertising. Reaching that many people that many times could cost billions of dollars via mixed advertising.
Watch brands today seem to have it in their minds to “go direct” in as many ways as possible. They are galvanized by the “own the customer relationship and experience” mantra that TED-style talks advocate for all the time. When this guidance is misapplied, it creates the false impression that media isn’t necessary to help consumers make decisions. Watch media, after all, is designed for people who can’t easily make decisions on their own. Knowing that it can take years and years for a consumer to make a decision on a luxury purchase, shouldn’t the watch industry want to support anything that helps consumers make more immediate decisions?
Watch marketing doesn’t help people make decisions either. It simply creates awareness and informs consumers about how a brand thinks. Consumers are too savvy for that these days and want to hear a few external opinions. Does a watch brand want those opinions to come from professionally trained watch media experts? Or perhaps they would like to take their chances with the unqualified masses on social media who are sure to represent their lexicon and brand values perfectly. My point is that the ability for watch media to connect with consumers and act as a voice of the watch industry is both unrivaled and not possible to replicate by the brands themselves.
Fixing the watch industry’s watch media problem is a lot like climate change. No one brand or sector alone can fix it – nor should they. Two or three brands cannot pool their marketing dollars to support a dozen independent watch media publications. Dozens of brands that will benefit from reaching consumers and from having watch media publications that create watch consumers should collectively invest enough for the total amount to support a modestly sized and funded independent watch media landscape.
A lot of my colleagues feel justifiably enraged that the established watch industry “allowed” for watch media die. It is easy to see their point. The old guard of professional writers and experts is mostly all gone – the publications that paid them are gone or no longer cover watches as much. The remaining stragglers and new kids who make up wristwatch media are a rather puny force compared to what is needed (with that said, the available advertising space and editorial attention out there is a potential boom for smaller brands who have traditionally been outspent by larger companies). More so, the watch industry has intentionally set watch media against one another by rewarding not numbers and performance with audiences, but rather by merely rewarding watch media’s willingness to do their bidding and give them favor. In other words, a lot of business is being done (or impeded) politically through relationships as opposed to fairly based on professionalism and performance.
Broken systems have a natural tendency to correct themselves overtime, or just die. Which will be the case for professional independent watch media? At this point, most all watch media has departed or shifted away from something that, over the long-term, can be properly identified as “independent watch media.” What will happen next? The decision rests entirely with the money-holders (a relatively small group) in Europe (mostly) who can easily pull from vast fortunes and agree that, “As a company, we pledge $5 million per year [for example] to independent watch media advertising. If enough of our colleague brands do the same, that media industry will take our advertising messages much further than we can do ourselves. Let’s focus on making compelling watches.” There are a number of conversations brands can have which logically lead to them collectively decided that marketing dollars spend with professional watch media is a good idea. They do however need to focus on rewarding the right type of performance at watch media publications, and not falling into the back-channel dealing and other political traps brands involve themselves with today.
In 2007, when I first started writing about watches, I was just a kid writing about a lot of stuff I could not afford. The industry made it clear to me back then that if I was to be something, I’d have to grow up, sit up straight, look people in the eye, and care as much about what I am doing for others as I am about what I want them to for me. I did not think that back then that in 2019, that same watch industry would be entirely complicit with watch media mostly being “kids” just as I used to do, who still can’t mostly afford or speak credibly about the wrist watch topic. Like so many things, if the watch industry wants better and more effective representation by wristwatch media, brands need to seriously invest in making sure that people like me don’t entirely disappear. The cost to do so is quite affordable when compared with the alternatives to making timepieces desirable.