Whither Watch Websites? The Future Of Online Watch Journalism (You Read It Here First)
Several months ago, my Quill & Pad colleague Ian Skellern published a provocative article taking issue with the current state of online watch journalism. Specifically, he criticized what in his view is the low quality and repetitive nature of what we see online, driven to a large extent by often-obscure financial incentives that make brands – not consumers – the true customers for watch websites.
As generally happens, Ian’s comments got me thinking. Are things really uniform and uniformly bad, or are there distinct types of online sources and content? How can we think about the different business models and value propositions of watch sites, and what does that tell us about how the future may unfold?
Starting with the consumer
To understand the future of online watch engagement, let’s start not with brands or even with the sites themselves, but with consumers. A non-exhaustive list of the benefits that watch enthusiasts are seeking from information and purchase channels might look something like the following.
- Being informed about recent happenings
- Learning more about watches and the industry
- Becoming aware of purchase options
Buying, owning, and selling
- Evaluating alternative purchases
- Acquiring new and pre-owned pieces and accompanying accessories
- Dealing with servicing and, ultimately, outbound resale
- Relating with others, sharing, and engaging
- Building personal reputation and credentials
In times gone by, there were at least moderately clear distinctions across outbound information channels, sales outlets, and online communities as ways to address consumers’ information, transaction, and interaction needs. As in most categories, though, the evolution of media capabilities and consumer preferences has led to a blurring of roles and the emergence of new online models.
I’m going to name names in this discussion, but I’ll do so simply to provide clear examples and will make no attempt to cover everyone out there. Please be assured that I love you all and intend no offense through either omission or inclusion!
One name that has to be included is Hodinkee. You can love this publication or not (and, for the record, founder Ben Clymer and his team have been nothing but extremely kind to me), but if you’re a businessperson like I am you absolutely have to respect not only Hodinkee’s sustained success, but also the way in which the site’s owners have adapted their business model over a relatively short period of time to shape the way that we think about watches online today.
From a starting point as a personal blog, Hodinkee made the shift around 2010 to being a “digital magazine” featuring original storytelling and (very importantly) expressing the interests and passions of its writers rather than serving primarily as a news outlet for brands – a formula, by the way, that Quill & Pad follows to this day and that for me is one of the greatest appeals of being a contributor here.
In 2012, Hodinkee broadened into the commerce realm; at first with straps and other watch accessories, then into items such as ties and sunglasses and finally into watches, including acting as an authorized dealer for selected items from major brands and ultimately offering co-branded limited editions.
By late 2017, Hodinkee had migrated from 100 percent advertising revenue to 65 percent commerce/35 percent advertising; and it predicts that the balance will shift even further toward commerce in the coming years. In a recent interview, Clymer agreed that Hodinkee is “a brand that does media, not a media brand.”
One clear result of this focus on brand identity is that it has allowed Hodinkee to build strong affinity ties with a community of young, engaged readers who are in Clymer’s words “granted knowledge credentials” by being able to comment on and quote the site’s content and (very importantly for the business model) buy and show off a variety of Hodinkee-branded and co-branded items.
As an old-school purist (and Purist), am I wary of the ability of a single outlet to be credible as an authoritative source of opinion and commentary while selling many of the brands on which it comments and openly acknowledging that “we know what we do editorially sells things”?
Sure I am – but all of those thirty-something, affluent, male Hodinkee readers snapping up limited-edition watches and lining up to attend pop-up events don’t seem to share my concerns.
What, and who, else is there?
There are other participants out there who seem to be trying to cover considerable swaths of the information-commerce-community trifecta. Revolution has taken several passes at this and at one time even had a moderately active watch forum.
A few years ago Revolution re-launched its online presence with a structure that included opportunities for active user participation; the publication now seems to be focusing more tightly on the “stories meets commerce” axis, with commerce activities including resale of select vintage watches and new watch limited-edition brand collaborations.
With its new destination website, The Hour Glass is moving actively from its strong foundation as a retailer, and what I’ll call a “collectors’ brand” based on the loyal clientele and visibility of the group’s managing director Michael Tay as a leading collector, into front-end media.
Others such as Monochrome complement news reporting and original articles with shops featuring straps, watch rolls, and other accessories. And WatchAnish has built a “lifestyle” brand positioning to complement its content, but so far features a relatively limited set of products including bracelets, shoes, and hats for sale.
All the news that’s fit to print
The bulk of media participants, though, still very much sit in the “inform” space. And while some do include original reporting and opinion pieces as well as hands-on reviews in their publishing mixes, there are many who seem to serve primarily as extensions of brand PR departments, including those of whom I suspect Ian particularly disapproves as the line between editorial and advertorial is often fuzzy or completely absent.
I’ll leave it to you to check out a variety of websites to judge where they fall on this continuum, but by way of example I’m thinking that sites like Watches by SJX and ABlogToWatch might fit within this fairly broad sector of the online bell curve.
And finally, the content specialists
It’s not an entirely clear line (none of them are), but at some point we hit a frontier past which the proportion of personal reporting and opinion is higher than for the bulk of sites and the topics covered go far beyond (or simply don’t include) the rote repetition of today’s latest product launches.
Your opinion may differ, but I’d put Deployant and Watchonista somewhere in this set, and perhaps not too surprisingly Quill & Pad as a prime example. I’ve long been proud that Elizabeth and Ian simply refuse to take advertorial placements (or for that matter, other brand payments beyond banner ad compensation).
As a business proposition this sort of sober-sided emphasis on content with its tightly circumscribed options for revenue has its obvious limitations, but as a participant and enthusiast (and I hope for you as a reader as well) it has its clear benefits.
Crystal ball time
So, what does the future hold? A few fearless predictions.
Based on performance to date, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Hodinkee continue to extend its franchise with its customer base (for instance, an entry into the auction market seems entirely plausible as does possibly even the development of house-branded watches), and it may yet morph the fundamental business model a few more times to maintain leadership.
That said, a highly integrated model that reaches across much of the consumer value chain (in this case, information-transaction-affiliation) is vulnerable to disruption from specialists who decouple the chain and focus on one element. If I were at Hodinkee I’d be keeping a careful eye on affiliation specialists like RedBar and assured-quality transaction facilitators like WatchBox, for instance.
There is also always the risk that core elements of the existing business model won’t endure; key brand partners could decide to focus on going direct-to-consumer, for instance, or the “cool factor” that Hodinkee enjoys with its audience could prove ephemeral in the rapidly shifting world of online style or diminish in importance as its community members form their own independent tastes.
For the others attempting to cover a decent portion of the customer value chain, things will be tougher: fighting the same battle as the industry leader with fewer resources, smaller scale, and lower influence is rarely the road to untold riches. I’d expect one, or perhaps two, of these other integration plays to survive, likely with a regional or other specialized focus.
The news gets worse for the news/PR-based publishers. We’re already hearing the predictable complaints from some of the smaller bloggers that they are no longer included in launch events and brand travel opportunities; and it seems inevitable that brands will seek more direct-to-consumer contact, re-allocate their awareness spending portfolio to reduce the percentage allocated to me-too publications whose impact on purchase behavior is unclear and continue to concentrate the dollars that they do spend on a smaller number of outlets they believe to be somewhat influential.
For the content specialists, it may be a matter of making virtue of necessity. For now, it seems that brand sponsors are convinced that the high engagement levels of desirable potential buyers at places such as Quill & Pad merit continued advertising spending: long may it last!
Over the longer term, potential paths may include the use of freemium models to monetize the very content that is the lifeblood of these sites, including both in-depth editorial content and high-resolution images – or at the extreme perhaps even offering something like personal shopping services providing subscribers with unbiased advice on pieces they should consider.
I’m afraid that I disagree with my colleague and friend Ian that the solution is based on a charter of journalism best practices, an association of watch journalists, or industry-funded scholarships for in-depth writing. The market will judge quality and value, and it’s up to the providers to figure out the best ways to create, deliver, and capture value within the demands of the marketplace and the shifting business landscape.
If there’s one thing of which I am sure, it’s that I’ve missed something in my thinking about the future of watch-related media. Please feel free to pitch in with your own thoughts in the comments section below and stay tuned for further developments!