“Half of the world’s retailers are active digitally, the other half must adapt or find themselves on the sidelines,” says Watchonista co-founder and head of business development Alexander Friedman.
It is not an entirely controversial view, although it has been stated for well over a decade and there are still a large number of non-digital savvy retailers out there.
Mr Friedman speaks as a passionate watch collector, entrepreneur, and media commentator.
His online magazine has been reporting on the watch industry since 2009 when Friedman and his business partner Marco Gabella launched Watchonista as what he describes as a “watch collectors’ Facebook,” linking enthusiasts together in a more stylish way than the online forums that have proved remarkably resilient over the years.
He admits it was not quite a Zuckerberg-esque success, and Watchonista soon pivoted towards creating its own content. Like Hodinkee in its early days, which launched around the same time, the site was fueled by a passion for watches rather than a grand vision for commercial success.
“At the start, it was just a little blog; more of a guerrilla operation,” Mr Friedman recalls. “At the time, many of the best writers were starting their own blogs and social media channels,” he adds.
Today’s online watch media platforms have a valuable audience but watch brands have been slow to shift their advertising towards digital. Bizarrely, while understanding the need to adopt digital marketing, the brands seem to have leap-frogged over the best online magazines straight to social media, Google AdWords, YouTube, Influencers, and other seemingly buzzy marketing techniques.
Early on, Hodinkee took the view that if the brands would not provide sufficient advertising support, it would compete with them; or at least their authorised dealers. So, the New York-based business threw itself into retailing. First, it was just selling accessories like watch straps, but within a few years, it became an authorized dealer for 14 watchmakers, including the likes of Omega and TAG Heuer.
Watchonista went in the opposite direction. If brands wanted to adopt the most modern marketing techniques, Mr Friedman and Mr Gabella, would help them.
“We will never be a selling platform. That is not our business. We do quality content, linking brands and top retailers to clients,” Mr Friedman describes.
Watchonista launched a creative studio in 2013, which improved its own content, and then offered the expertise of that studio to watch retailers and brands.
It is an intelligent model.
Clients of Watchonista get fantastic, engaging content that can be used on their own digital channels and fed out to their retail partners. In addition, Watchonista can use the content on its own website, which means it reaches a large community of watch customers who appreciate its independent approach.
Early customers were TAG Heuer and Tudor, and more recently Panerai Switzerland, who have effectively used Watchonista as their digital agency. “They appreciated our young, expert eyes,” says Mr Friedman.
Before long, the Watchonista team was helping brands penetrate the online horological community, Watchonista and their clients learned as they progressed together. “Brands work by numbers. They need the support of experts like us, then they can measure the results based on their own KPIs (key performance indicators),” explains Mr Friedman.
With their head office in Switzerland and a sizable second team in the United States led by Josh Shanks, Watchonista helps both brands and, more recently, brick and mortar retailers. “We found that retailers weren’t getting the support they needed from brands. They are on the front line, and they needed help. We asked ourselves what we could do to assist them,” Mr Friedman says.
Watchonista’s first significant retail project was with Bucherer, which worked with Watchonista and Tudor on the global launch of its Bucherer Blue Editions watches (not yet available in the United States).
Other multinationals have since followed suit. WEMPE and The Watches of Switzerland Group currently work with Watchonista on a multitude of projects, including providing exclusive support for Watches of Switzerland‘s US store openings in New York, Las Vegas, and Boston.
Watchonista Studio produces picture galleries, video walk-throughs, interviews and feature articles for its retail clients, such as this piece for WEMPE.
Independent retail groups in the United States have also sought out their expertise, with Westime on the West Coast and Reis-Nichols in Indianapolis are among Watchonista 7-8 retail clients, according to Mr Friedman.
These retailers select from a portfolio of Watchonista services that includes social media management, custom newsletters, events, white label content, and performance marketing across platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Much of this is paid for through Co-Op marketing budgets agreed to with brands, so it can be highly cost-effective and ROI-generative for the retailers.
However, with improved engagement, it is then the retailer’s responsibility to convert relationships into sales. “Digital awareness campaigns don’t always lead directly to sales,” Mr Friedman cautions. “This has to be understood. But good quality content, distributed digitally, in the right way is vital for survival,” he concludes.