Are Wearables Yesterday’s Next Big Thing?

At MWC 2017, the buzz around smartwatches and other wearables felt like a thing of the past

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If you want to know what technologies are on the minds of major tech brands and mobile thought leaders, Mobile World Congress (MWC) usually provides some clues. Held by mobile trade organization GSMA, MWC brings together representatives of device manufacturers, software brands, journalists, and more than 100,000 attendees each year in Barcelona, Spain. And at this year’s event, held February 27–March 2, one of the most notable technologies was notable primarily because of its lack of buzz.

Two years ago, wearables were the toast of MWC. These devices—which include Fitbit activity trackers, Jawbone’s UP fitness tracker, and Apple’s iconic Apple Watch—received significant press coverage and led some thought leaders to suggest that they might replace the smartphone altogether. That… hasn’t happened.

During this year’s MWC, only one prominent new wearable was announced, and many brands that make wearable devices didn’t even bother to display them at their booths. And the lack of excitement around this formerly buzzed-about technology was one of the major stories from the event. So what happened? How did a potentially transformative new technology go from toast of the tech world to afterthought?

Are wearables dying? Or evolving?

According to a new report released during MWC 2017 by market intelligence firm IDC, the wearables market is at something of a crossroads. While advanced smartwatches and other high-end wearables have been in a slump—Pebble went out of business, Jawbone is considering a pivot to a different market segment, and smartwatch sales dropped 51.6% year over year in Q3 of 2016—the overall market for wearables is actually still growing. 102.4 million wearable devices were sold in 2016, a 25% increase over the year before, growth that was driven primarily by higher sales for Xiaomi and other budget wearables makers.

Wearables sales in 2016

Source: IDC

“The biggest problem is that everyone had high expectations for wearables,” Francisco Jeronimo, IDC’s research director for European mobile devices, said during MWC. “They thought smartphones [were] declining and wearable were the next big thing. But the lack of a very strong value proposition has been the biggest hindrance for wearables.”

IDC’s report argues that while high-end smartwatches like the Apple Watch received most of the attention and buzz for their ability to run third-party apps and take on more smartphone-like functions, the only wearables use cases that actually captured the popular imagination—namely health and fitness tracking—could just as easily be fulfilled by simpler, cheaper devices. That reality has driven both Apple’s watchOS and Google’s Android Wear to refocus on applications related to fitness, health, and medical needs, and complicated efforts to portray these devices as the future of mobile technology.

What does it mean for marketers?

Well, it doesn’t mean that wearables are dead, or that your brand should toss its existing watchOS app in the trash. If you’re seeing strong results with your existing smartwatch push notifications or other wearables-focused marketing, then by all means—keep doing what you’re doing.

But if you’ve been waiting on the sidelines, trying to decide if your brand should be doing something with wearables, the answer is increasingly looking like: yes, but only if your brand is focused on health and fitness.

There’s no lack of emerging technologies that marketers can use to digitally communicate with their audiences. Smart TVs. Messaging platforms. Personal digital assistants. And a lot more. Before you invest in the next marketing flavor of the month, think through what success on that device or platform would look like, and make sure you have the tools, tactics, and internal support you need to get there.

And whatever you do, make sure your approach to marketing is cross-platform. Technology just keeps evolving, and savvy marketers don’t paint themselves into a corner by focusing all their efforts on a single technology.

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