Apple Watch Creates Wrist-y Business for Publishers, Advertisers

Not Enough Scale to Sell Ads Yet, but Marketers May Find Other roles

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A Los Angeles Times headline as it would be seen on the Apple Watch
A Los Angeles Times headline as it would be seen on the Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is officially out today, but the so-called wearable has already sparked an arms race among media companies vying for attention on your wrist.

(Does that make it a wrist race?)

Newspapers, TV news networks, magazine publishers and radio stations have introduced apps for the Watch. They all offer a version of the same thing -- news stories at a glance -- even though they're positioning themselves differently.

As publishers jockey for space on this smaller screen, though, advertisers say they're content to sit out the initial push, which has seen about a million Apple Watches sold in the lead-up to today's rollout, according to estimates from Slice Intelligence, which tracks U.S. consumer spending.

"This isn't a scale play for our clients today," Shenan Reed, president-digital at MEC North America, said in an email. "However, many key publishers have apps on the watch ... We will be very interested to see how we can continue to partner with them on this new platform."

The latest media company to join the fray is Tribune Publishing, which is rolling out an app today for eight of its newspapers, from the big ones like The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune to the relatively small Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

"What makes us different is all of our markets are going to get this app on day one," Bill Adee, exec-VP of digital at Tribune Publishing, told Ad Age. The appeal, he added, is that Apple Watch owners in the cities that Tribune covers will receive breaking news alerts for their hometowns.

Tribune is also trying to set itself apart with a "listen" feature, where users can tap a specific story on the Watch and have Siri read it aloud from the iPhone. "If you're on the go and have your headphones plugged into your phone, you can have Siri interrupt whatever music you have on and read you the story," said Scott Oltrogge, the company's senior product director of mobile.

Tribune Publishing isn't the first media company to lean on audio for its Apple Watch app. Subscribers to The Economist can have a British-accented man read you its stories by tapping on a story from its Apple Watch app. The Tribune app is open to anyone who has downloaded one of its newspapers' mobile apps, not just paying subscribers. The company has a paywall, but Watch stories won't fall behind it at the onset.

Tribune also joins several other large newspapers with Watch apps. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have all teased their own, with the Times saying it will publish "one-sentence stories" (which sound a lot like headlines).

Among the other media companies with Apple Watch apps are CNN, NPR, Bloomberg and magazine publisher Conde Nast, which created an app for its culinary site Epicurious. Its big selling point is a timer that syncs up with Epicurious recipes.

While publishers are touting their Apple Watch apps, they are relatively quiet on how these apps might generate revenue. The last time Apple rolled out a new device on which to consume media -- the iPad -- publishers, especially those that sold magazines, eyed it as a way to sell subscriptions and advertising. That enthusiasm has cooled, but some publishers do sell tens of thousands of copies of their magazines each week or month on the iPad and other tablets.

Marketers' role
So far with the Watch, media companies are putting the focus on the user experience and not really talking about advertising opportunities. "You could see over time how we would get to ads, but for now it's about the consumer," Mr. Adee at the Tribune said.

Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade group for publishers that includes Conde Nast and the Times, said Apple Watch creates an opportunity for well-known media brands. "Everywhere and every minute, people are starving for access to reliable information, entertainment and news," he said. "Business models will follow."

Selling ads for Apple Watch apps would be a challenge not only due to the screen size, but also because of the relatively small number of people who will own the device, not to mention download a certain publisher's app. To that end, don't expect brands to start steering money toward the Apple Watch, although media buyers and advertising execs said they do plan to monitor apps.

"As consumers adopt devices they will find ways to leverage it that we may not have previously thought of," said Whitney Fishman Zember, senior director of innovation and consumer technology at MEC North America. "Forward-thinking marketers will embed themselves in understanding these shifting behaviors in real time, adjusting their stories and assets as needed."

For now, marketers will likely eye Apple Watch as a vehicle for sharing offers, coupons and loyalty rewards, according to Melvin Wilson, a consultant with IPG Mediabrands.

"As you walk through a supermarket you might get a notification on your Apple Watch for a loyalty program or special offer," he said. "Later, you might see Apple Watch specific ads, but brands will need to see scale before they do more than just experiment."

Adam Shlachter, chief investment officer at DigitasLBi, echoed that. "The screen size may not offer ideal real-estate for advertising in its current form, but it should push brands to find a way to provide a service or add value to their customers' lives in a unique way using technology like NFC or Bluetooth with iOS," he said.

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