Watch Websites’ Mediocrity – Pt. Two

Watch websites - Hodinkee Shop

In Watch Website – Why They’re So Boring, we revealed the not-entirely-hidden truth: watch websites are closerthanthis with watchmakers. So every watch they “review” is awesome. They either ignore Coronageddon or treat it like a sick Aunt’s unspeakable illness (that will surely get better on its own). The smartwatch is a “stepping stone” to “real” watches.” Etc. It was not always thus, but it’s getting worse, not better. As Deep Throat advised (link safe for work), follow the money . . .

Advertising Revenue

1948 Hamilton Ad

Once upon a time, long before quartz watches were a thing, watch ads ran in national newspapers and magazines. Horological publications relied entirely on subscribers to survive. Like most of the low volume “specialist” press, they were written by nerds for nerds. As the cost of printing and distribution went down, glossy watch publications appeared, attracting commercial advertisers.

As the watch press ascended to the next level, advertisers’ money bought off the publishers, editors and writers. The new paradigm stifled any hint of negativity towards a product and any objective industry analysis (even during the depths of the quartz crisis). The publications spiked or spun bad news to maintain product access, junkets, trinkets and cash.

When watch journalism went online, the song remained the same. But the watch industry gained the ability to measure the number of readers and pages read per month, which pages they read and their “dwell time.” An even more critical data point: how many readers clicked on an ad and whether or not they bought a watch once they did.

The tenuous connection between a watch ad and a watch sale was refashioned into an umbilical cord made of piano wire. To the point where it gave birth to The Mother of All Revenue Streams . . .

Affiliate Links (a.k.a., “Partners”)

Watch websites - Quill & Pad partners watch brands

In retrospect, it took some time for the online watch press and watchmakers to realize “click through sales” were both precisely quantifiable and hugely profitable. Watch sales made online bypassed retail dealers’ 40 percent markup, putting serious cash in both the manufacturers’ and the online sites’ pockets.

Once both sides understood and tapped into the power of “affiliate links,” online watch publications were transformed from servile handmaidens to out-and-out pimps. The writers for these sites – I hesitate to call them journalists – tuned their stuff to reward this “buy it now” click behavior.

Some are more obvious than others. The Best Seiko Watches For Men 2020 esquire.com‘s headline proclaims – with a SHOP button prominently displayed. Get Your Summer Vibe on with These Affordable Dive Watches gearpatrol.com urges; LEARN MORE HERE links straight to Hamilton’s product page, and GP’s profits.

How objective are these sites? As objective as maximizing their bottom line permits (i.e., not at all). How gullible do you have to be to believe these watch “journalists” give a damn about your satisfaction?

Direct Sales

Watch websites - W&W Windup Shop

Imagine The Truth About Cars selling cars. Or Mac World selling Apple computers. That’s the depth to which Hodinkee has sunk.

Hodinkee may not have been the first watch website to realize they could pocket a larger slice of the affiliate link pie by linking to themselves (i.e., selling watches), but they are far and away the kings of that capitalist castle. Hodinkee’s online store makes millions as an authorized dealer for 27 major watch brands, now including the Apple Watch.

Obviously, this means Hodinkee’s “editorial” is worse than useless. It’s “well informed” and erudite enough. But look past the obscure references, big words, historical context and technical wonkery and the text is all ad copy all the time.

Hodinkee shop brands for sale

Hodinkee’s hoovered-up all the major authorized dealerships, but it’s still game on for other top sites. Worn & Wound’s Windup Shop sells Oris, Hamilton and 16 other less known brands. Fratello’s shop sells a “selection of discontinued Omega Speedmaster (Limited Edition) watches.” Monochrome’s shop makes do with selling accessories. And so on.

At the same, websites actually in the business of selling watches (e.g., Bob’s Watches) have added editorial. Editorial websites making big bucks turning readers into buyers. Retail websites making big bucks luring buyers with SEO-friendly editorial. If there was a line between editorial and sales, online watch retail has blurred it to the point of invisibility.

The Future of Watch Websites?

Retail journalism? Advertorial? Whatever you call it, the status quo is deeply corrupt, denying horolphiles reliable or even interesting intel. It’s got to the point where online watch writers like Quill & Pad’s Ian Skellern feel free to complain that it takes too much work to rewrite manufacturers’ press releases.

There’s no sign that the current crop of popular watch websites will suddenly “get religion “(i.e., ethics) and provide independent watch news, reviews or editorials. There’s simply too much money at stake. But there are rumblings . . .

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Click here to read Part One of this series: Watch Websites – Why They’re So Boring

3 thoughts on “Watch Websites’ Mediocrity – Pt. Two”

  1. The impact that Whore-dinkee has made on the world of watches can’t be overstated. Ben launched that site with a perfect combination of enthusiasm, history and unsubtle “here’s how to be a grown-up” fashion and lifestyle content that was laser-targeted at Millenials and younger Gen X’ers with enough spare dollars to get into watches. He also either re-birthed or reinforced the idea of “watches as important things” in the mindset of that demographic. In other words, he made watches into signifiers of taste, knowledge and a certain understanding of the world for a lot of younger men.

    It all worked so well that it had to have been executed per a series of precise, detailed 2-3 year business plans. After they generated a frenzy over vintage Subs and Heuer chronos, the website started selling them at market-busting prices. As traditional retail started dying he pushed the website into that and provided a one-stop shop (with easy financing!) to entice impulsive buyers into paying full retail.

    It’s a tremendous business, good for him. But your points are absolutely correct and indicative of a larger problem – no one knows when they are being sold. The lines are so intentionally blurred between editorial and commerce in just about every facet of “journalism” now.

    No one can tell the difference between a sensationalistic news article that’s only trying to get you to click or scroll to more content and real news. No one can tell that Hodinkee is generating content specifically to get you to click into their store and make an impulsive decision. Maybe it was always this way, but e-commerce and smart phones have knocked down the final barriers that slowed us down and forced us to think and consider our reaction.

    Impulse-buying a watch isn’t going to kill anyone, but I don’t like it. It’s ugly and feels manipulative. Or maybe I’m just jealous that I didn’t think of it first.

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