Advertising on Apple Watch: Absurd or Inspired?

An early mock-up from TapSense – is this how ads will look on the Apple Watch?
An early mock-up from TapSense – is this how ads will look on the Apple Watch?

The Apple Watch could represent a whole new frontier for digital marketers, similar to the way that the iPhone opened up the mobile channel. However, with the watchs launch rapidly approaching, there is still a lack of certainty about how exactly the device will work, and what it will be capable of.

This confusion seems to extend to Apple itself, which announced earlier this month that it was dropping some of the previously announced health monitoring features. While the WatchKit SDK is available, Apple hasnt released its developer guidelines, making it difficult for third-party companies to make the first move onto Apple Watch.

TapSense was the first to announce tools for advertising on the Apple Watch, promising an API and SDK that would enable advertisers to tap into the devices glance notifications and even its watch face. A day later, following a minor backlash online, it clarified that the SDK and API were “subject to change”, that there would be no direct integration with Apple Pay, and that it would not in fact be possible to advertise on the watch face.

Another company told us that it had delayed the announcement of its own Apple Watch platform due to requests from Apple – there has been no sign of the platform since.

Is your wrist the place for advertising?
In short, we still dont know whether advertising on the Apple Watch will actually be possible. Last month, an iOS developer was quoted by Business Insider as saying that the idea was “absurd”. According to JR Little, global head of innovation at media agency Carat, the Apple Watch is likely to be an ad-free zone, at least in the early days.

“Apple is very smart, and has looked at Facebook, at Instagram, at Snapchat, all these services that dont even allow advertising to happen until they get into the billions of users,” Little says. “Apple knows to be very protective of that environment until it reaches mass scale.”

This seems sensible enough. With wearable technology still very much on the fringes of the mainstream, the success of the Apple Watch will very much depend on the brands reputation, and word of mouth from early adopters. If a users first experience with the device is marred by an intrusive ad, the public could be put off the idea altogether.

“Theres clearly a level of controversy around the subject, and I think thats born out of peoples perceptions that wearable devices, even more than smartphones, are a source of private interaction,” says Nader Alaghband, CEO and founder of mobile agency Ampersand. “Mobile isnt a channel where you can switch off or tune out as you can with other sources of media, and that yields a different set of rules. This is going to be even more true of wearables.”

“Its a very intimate setting, the wrist,” agrees Carats Little. “Any approach thats akin to what weve been doing in social media over the past two years just is not going to fly, and people will be turned off very quickly.”

From mobile to smartwatch
Even once ads are introduced to the Apple Watch – as seems inevitable, eventually – marketers need to exercise caution. Just as the early days of mobile advertising were plagued by attempts to squeeze desktop-friendly banners onto the smaller screen, applying mobile ad formats to a smartwatch seems to be a recipe for disaster.

“If the adverts are simply in the form that we have them now, just on a watch screen, that wont be successful at all,” says Charlotte Golunski, co-founder of Sense, a company developing audio and visual search technology for wearables.

“We need to rethink what advertising means on wearables in general. Because when people talk about digital advertising, they often think of push notification or banners, which can just be really annoying – and theyre going to be especially annoying on a small screen on someones wrist.”

This neednt be all doom and gloom, however. Just like the early days of mobile, this new channel offers as many opportunities as it does obstacles.

“Theres a chance here for a completely new form of advertising,” says Golunski.

Apples example of a third-party app built with WatchKit
Apples example of a third-party app built with WatchKit

New formats
So what shape might these new ads take?

“I definitely think that if there is to be advertising on wearables, it wont be on screen or the device itself,” says Alaghband. He foresees these devices working to augment outdoor ads, in a situation akin to the infamous advertising scene in Steven Spielbergs 2002 film Minority Report.

Senses Golunski agrees: “I think advertising on the Apple Watch will be much more to do with things like outside advertising and proximity using GPS data, alerting you to things nearby that might interest you.”

Golunski uses the example of a retail pushing an offer to a customer as they walk past the store, customised based on their web browsing history to inform them that the shoes they looked at online are now available for 10 per cent off if they buy them in-store.

“If we can tie together the online experience with an actual out-in-the-world experience, thats going beyond traditional forms of advertising, and it creates something thats so much more interesting to me as a consumer,” she says. “And it really takes advantage of the fact that my wearable device knows where I am, it knows what Im interacting with.”

Small screen, big data
This is a common thread when you speak to people about wearable advertising – that its not so much about pushing messages to their screen as it is about the data that can be drawn from the device.

“The Apple Watch is going to know what points in the day people are most active, when theyre walking down certain streets past certain stores at certain times,” says Carats Little. “The device will be able to recommend more activity, to intervene when the heart rates low and the users not burning any calories.

“Thats a huge opportunity for any brand related to health – or even if theyre not. Even a brand like Coca Cola, which has been having a lot of trouble in US around the fat and sugar content in its main product, will be able to add more value to its stay active, stay fit, keep moving efforts.”

With all this data, though, comes a huge potential privacy risk. “Realistically speaking, this is a unique data set, because it knows about your personal activity,” says Ampersands Alaghband. “That just isnt the same as a company knowing what you spend and where, or how much council tax you pay – its a very unusual data set, and if used incorrectly, it could be very problematic.”

This is another factor that could stand in the way of widespread public adoption of smartwatches, but Little believes that “consumers have learned to trust Apple a lot”, and doesnt think that data privacy concerns will put most people off buying an Apple Watch.

On the cusp
As it currently stands, the broad approach to advertising on the Apple Watch doesnt look too dissimilar to mobile. Ad formats need to fit the specific device, rather than borrowing from its digital ancestors. Innovation is vital, particularly around the wealth of user data produced by these devices, but its even more important to be careful about maintaining the privacy of those users.

That should all sound familiar to anyone whos attended a mobile advertising conference in the past couple of years. But its worth remembering that all this could still change. Once the Apple Watch arrives, well see exactly what ad opportunities exist, and how much of an appetite there is for the device.

However, even once we have the watch strapped to our wrist, that first iteration of the device may not be more than a vague signpost to the future of wearable marketing. Remember that the first iPhone launched without a facility to download new apps.

“Were at the very cusp of acceptance for wearables,” says Ampersands Alaghband. “Im not sure where we are today, or even in a year, is a marker for where well be in five or 10 years time.”