Slow smartwatch growth today may develop into overwhelming use tomorrow


Several months after its debut, the Apple Watch’s history is still being written. Smartwatches have been around for several years now, but with the Cupertino giant’s foray into the category, you could argue that wearable technology has firmly emerged as the new mobile darling.

Love them or hate them, it seems smartwatches – at least in ambition, if not yet in practice – are poised to become as ubiquitous as smartphones.

Apple’s been understandably cagey about the general sales figures for the watch to keep us guessing on how many actually bought in. But UBS analysts aren’t overly optimistic in forecasting its performance for 2016, halving their estimates for total sales of the watch from 41 to about 20 million units.

Still, 20 million watches is a lot – about US$10 billion of revenue for Apple to be exact – and a growing (glowing?) addition to early adopter gadgetry around the world.

That means several Apple Watches have invariably found a home at MindSea (on wrists and in the testing cabinet). After canvassing the team, the verdict is in: Whether it’s a text message, breaking news, or a calendar alert, notifications are a better experience on the watch than on the iPhone.

Still, there have been several arguments made already (and many on this blog alone) as to whether news publishers are ready to capitalise. And while there are many more compelling reasons to be on the watch than there are reasons not to be, publishers have some self-evident challenges to overcome in creating the perfect watch app.

Historically, the fastest ones to adapt will reap the greatest rewards. No surprise, then, that several of the biggest names in publishing seemed to be on the watch before it even shipped. The New York Times and The Guardian, for example, created first-edition watch apps to more or less lead the pack, and to simply be seen being there.

Being first is a powerful marketing play, so experimenting now during the watch’s nascent stages when the hype surrounding it is strong is a boon.

But are one-sentence stories the future of news? And how can watch apps position themselves to drive engagement as opposed to unbundling and redirecting audiences?

With ad revenue already a fragile variable, cannibalising traffic by offering easy-to-consume top headlines without ad impressions might leave publishers scratching their heads. Establishing the delicate balance in the interplay between devices and screens will be key.

The best newspaper watch apps thus far are delivering what they’re best at and known for – news highlights – only just giving enough to hook interest and make the hand off. Notification cadence, content length, and call to action are also playing a role.

Media companies will have to deeply consider consumer motives around content consumption to win on the watch and avoid becoming redundant on the platform – or worse, ignored. Smart feeds, and giving users the chance to opt for personalised settings, will open the door for follow-up in hand-off mode (perhaps even text and e-mail reminders for “liked” content offering the bigger picture).

It will take experimentation, but as we get better with wearable apps, notifications should become of-the-moment drivers with real-time, smart interactions encouraging deeper and more relevant engagement with content.

The watch makes notifications more important than ever. It will be worth thinking about how these are handled and the unique user experience of receiving them. They should be engineered to do more than strictly push out content, instead enticing the user with enough context and interest to persuade further investigation.

The fact remains that reviews are mixed and sales are slow, so it may seem as if the Apple Watch is an over-reaching piece of future technology that isn’t ready for its heyday just yet. But if the speed of technology has taught us anything, it’s that innovation happens at a breakneck pace.

Today’s first-generation device might be tomorrow’s most profound addition to our daily lives – and news publishers should be there.

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