In case you’ve been in suspended animation, Apple finally announced the details of its new wearable computer — known simply as the Apple Watch — at a recent event (if you call it the iWatch by mistake, you will be haunted by the ghost of Steve Jobs). Much of the attention focused on the luxury options, such as the gold-plated one that sells for $15,000. But assuming Apple can also reach a fairly broad consumer base with its lower-priced models, how should news and media outlets be thinking about delivering their content to a watch? Or should they even bother?
Some media companies have already answered that question by rushing to have their news features ready for the launch: CNN has a news-alert service for the watch — which Apple CEO Tim Cook mentioned in his announcement — that shows the same kind of notifications iPhone users can get on their devices, and other companies have either come out with similar alert features or said they are working on them, including the New York Times and National Public Radio.
According to CNN’s description of the Watch app, users can tap on a news alert to see the full story, or click and have the story appear on their iPhone — or they can tap on a news alert about a video, and have the video start playing on their phone. The apps from the New York Times, NPR and Breaking News apps appear to follow a similar model, with a short alert users can click on.
These first few iterations of news apps suggest that what many news organizations have chosen to do is to take their existing news alerts for the iPhone and reproduce them on the Watch. But is this really the best approach? Does anyone really want to tap on a news alert and see the story appear on their Watch? For that matter, given the sheer amount of apps that users might get notifications from — such as Twitter or Facebook or simple text messaging — are users even going to want news alerts?
Don’t alert me, bro
Even if news alerts are part of the mix for Apple Watch users, it’s not clear that simply duplicating existing iPhone alerts is going to work. Not only are many phone users (including me) already irritated by notifications, but a watch is even less conducive to interruptions because of its size. Many have started talking about the “glance” as the new atomic unit of attention when it comes to a watch — but how much information can a news organization convey in a single glance at a tiny screen?
Jack Riley, head of audience development at The Huffington Post UK, spent a month looking at exactly those kinds of questions as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard — not just as they pertain to the Apple Watch, but the whole new class of “wearables” of which the watch is a part. His report appeared at the Nieman Journalism Lab, and made some interesting points about how media companies should be looking at these devices and the kinds of things they need to consider.
One of the first points Riley makes is that a user’s attention and behavior when wearing or looking at a watch are much more fragile than when they have their smartphone out and are busy looking at it. Since the main benefit of smart-watches for many users is the ability to get rid of both their phone and its annoying distractions, news companies are going to have to tread very carefully through this minefield. Riley describes what Joey Marburger of the Washington Post digital team said about his Pebble:
“My logic was like: I can silence my phone and I’ll tailor notifications that come to my watch. I don’t have to use my phone in a meeting, or pull out my phone and be rude — I’ll just check my watch. What I learned very quickly is I was being more rude, because it looked like I was constantly checking the time.”
Circa co-founder Matt Galligan and editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa have both talked many times about how sensitive they are when it comes to alerts on their app, which notifies users whenever a new piece of information comes in about a developing story that they have decided to “follow.” There is a definite psychological impact, however small, every time a user gets an update — and if there are too many, or they aren’t properly targeted or relevant, then a user will ignore them or turn the feature off.
A giant noisy ocean of content
What something like the Apple Watch makes abundantly clear, with its incredibly limited screen real estate, is the central conceit of almost every news organization — from CNN all the way down — which is that users will only ever need their app or service or alerts, and therefore it doesn’t matter how they treat them. In reality, those alerts and apps are just a tiny piece of flotsam in a giant, roiling sea of content that is streaming at people from a thousand different sources.
So the first thing news entities will have to come to terms with is the idea that their news alerts are just going to be adding to the noise for many users, and so they will need to be a) hugely relevant and b) very infrequent. As Riley points out, news isn’t — and never will be — the driving force behind the adoption of a new technology like the watch. He quotes the Washington Post’s Marburger again on this point, who says “No one’s going to buy a smartwatch because they get better headlines.”
Another big challenge for news companies, which Riley also discusses, is the monetization issue. That might seem like a big enough struggle when it comes to smartphones, and the way that content consumption occurs on them, but that pales in comparison to the difficulty of monetizing content that appears on a screen the size of a watch. There aren’t going to be any banners or pre-roll video ads here. That means the Apple Watch has to be seen as an extension of an existing brand-awareness program.
The bottom line is that while the Apple Watch might be seen as attractive by news companies — like any high-end technological device that is going to sell millions of units and be used by a fairly wealthy customer base — there are a number of factors that make it unwise to rush into the space without thinking through some of the challenges ahead. Some media companies will undoubtedly do so anyway, of course, and so we will be able to learn from their inevitable failures as well.