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Taking a hands-off approach: Why marketers should be wary of advertising on the Apple Watch

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about the potential of advertising on the Apple Watch. The more I hear about these ads, the more I’m wary of the idea and this is coming from a dyed-in-the-wool advertising enthusiast.

Seeing ads on digital devices has been a natural progression for consumers, but I don’t think advertising on the Apple Watch will be accepted in the same way as previous screens. I can't help but think of how annoyed I would be when I walk past a Starbucks – whose sign I can read perfectly well – only to be told by a message on my wrist that there's a special offer.

I’ve been wearing another smartwatch for a while now, and I’ve found it to be even more personal than my phone – which of course is more personal than my computer, which again is more personal than my TV. The more personal device, the more valuable it is to an advertiser, but ironically, the more personal device, the more the owner doesn’t want to see advertising.

Whether you are looking at your watch to see your pulse rate, get directions, see who is calling, or just to tell the time, it is very unlikely that you’ll be happy when one of these messages becomes obscured with an ad. Or just as bad, if your phone 'taps' you on the wrist to get your attention and rather than seeing something you want such as being told your next meeting is in five minutes, you get an advertising message. I know that would annoy me – imagine that happening in a meeting!

My guess is that Apple will tightly control any ad inventory on the watch and limit it only to inventory on downloaded apps (as opposed to the native apps it comes installed with). However, if I'm wrong and Apple allows greater access to advertisers, I’m sure that there will be someone out there who goes too far and suffers the consequences.

Although consumers are more familiar with apps and the way in which marketers reach them across screens than ever before, their reactions to more advertising is still likely to be negative unless it comes with an obvious value add – pun intended.

Consumers won't want to use apps that allow ads to disrupt their use of the watch and it will take some time for marketers to develop Apple Watch-specific strategies that provide true value to the end user.

On mobile, ads are mainly delivered on the web or in apps. With the Apple Watch, we can expect that most time will be spent in-app and marketing will be served through in-app notifications.

The first instinct for marketers may be to transfer the experience of the smartphone onto the smaller screen of the Apple Watch, but that won’t suffice. Some apps on the watch are obvious. For example, Nike can integrate a variety of their wearables so that the output is shown on my watch. Similarly, if Starbucks wants to let me know about offers, then I can download the rewards app, which has other uses for me, such as remembering my order and pre-ordering my coffee as I walk in the store. However, no consumer is going to be happy to glance down at his or her watch only to see an advertisement. If notifications are going to be the way of the Apple Watch, marketers will have to adjust. Every screen must be treated differently.

Advertisers can approach advertising on the Apple Watch one of two ways: first, no marketer needs a smart watch strategy. At least not right away. Being a fast, second mover is almost always a good idea for large brands. Wait and see what works, see what mistakes others have made and then do what worked well.

The second choice is for the brave: be a fast mover. In this case, the only thing that matters is utility to the watch-wearer. Brands should not look to do overt advertising; brand awareness will come from PR opportunities and people talking about how great the app is – people will find out what brand brought it to them. But explicit advertising, as seen on TV, the web or elsewhere, has a huge chance to fail from the start. As yet another screen enters the advertising world, marketers will have to place the customer first, not the device.

James Green is chief executive at Magnetic

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