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4 Weather Channel lessons to improve your digital forecast

22 January 2013 · By Otto Sjöberg

By embracing new technology, maintaining laser-like brand focus, and facing down the naysayers, the Weather Company was able to take its place in the digital vanguard.

Looking at the “Nielsen Tops of 2012: Digital,” I think even Mark Twain would have to reconsider his famous words: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Among the Top 10 Apps of 2012 – on Android and iPhone – is The Weather Channel (see graph below). Making both top 10 lists is quite an impressive feat for a company born and bred in traditional media.

The company was launched as a cable channel back in 1982, amongst much skepticism that anyone would watch 24-hour coverage of rain and sun, wind and temperature.

Today more than 100 million U.S. households have the cable channel; more than 90 million have downloaded the apps on tablets and smartphones; and 60 million to 90 million each month visit the Web properties of The Weather Company, which is the new corporate name since October last year.

There are lessons to be learned — for newsmedia companies — from dissecting the Weather Channel’s approach to mobile.

At the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco, Alex Linde, responsible for all aspects of mobile strategy at the Weather Channel, was pretty blunt: “Growth is going to come from mobile regardless of what we do. Our TV guys don’t always want to hear it.”

To prove his point, Linde mentioned that on October 28, 2012, during Superstorm Sandy on the northeastern coast of the United States, The Weather Channel’s mobile apps drew 110 million page views, more than the nearly 100 million page views on the Web. “Interestingly, mobile is now bigger than Web,” he commented.

Linde stressed that many companies haven’t received the message: “Growth comes from mobile. Get over it.” 

As an example, he pointed to his former employer, Yahoo: “At Yahoo, I have to say, (there was) a lot of talk of what we wanted to do in mobile, but not necessarily the level of investment. And I think we’ve seen that play out with the management changes.”

Lesson 1: Do you walk the walk, or just talk the talk? Are your mobile investments on par with what you’re talking about?

Did you know The Weather Company — formerly known as the Weather Channel Companies — holds 54 patents for technology processes and software enhancements to improve weather forecasting, as well as to develop innovative weather solutions?

That’s more patents than many technology companies hold.

I may have been sloppy with my research, but to me that’s unheard of among traditional media companies.

Another interesting insight: The Global Forecast Center oversees all of The Weather Company’s content. Each forecast starts with a computer simulation, which is then analysed by trained forecasters (humans, that is, still) for relevance and context, and transmitted simultaneously to all of the Weather Channel’s partners to ensure similar content across platforms.

Lesson 2: Embrace new technology. I’ve seen too many media companies do the opposite — and thus miss opportunities.

So what is the Weather Company up to right now?

The latest project, in partnership with Subaru of America, is the new Driving Difficulty Index, a new map layer, which shows potentially dangerous weather conditions and helps users plan best driving routes.

The Driving Difficulty Index rates road conditions on six parameters: ice, snow, wet, ponding, high winds, and low visibility. The map layer then can be applied to show where there are difficult driving conditions.

Getting into connected cars — the next big mobile industry — is, of course, essential for a company that wants to be at the forefront.

The Weather Channel has always been early to adopt new technology:

  • Weather.com was launched in 1995.

  • First mobile content premiered in 1998 on the Palm Pilot (remember that?), thus being one of the first with ubiquitous availability on TV, online, and mobile.

  • In 2002, the Weather Channel offered a paid application for feature phones, which was the first customised weather information for mobile services.

Lesson 3: Be early. Try, fail, learn — and excel. There are always a ton of perfectly reasonable arguments for not exploring new paths. But if you sit back and look where everyone else is going, you are bound for mediocrity.

Remember, back in 1982, The Weather Channel did something completely new — and proved everyone wrong.

“The staff prevailed over a chorus from skeptics in the press and trade to build one of the most loyal consumer audiences in television,” as Frank Batten, the late founding chairman, said at the time.

Lesson 4: Focus.

INMA Mobile & Tablets blogger Dirk Barmscheidt touched on the subject in his December post “Could less traffic be what your news site needs?” As he concluded, this is not an easy thing to do for traditional media companies.

When Steve Jobs returned to save Apple in 1997 — after being ousted in the 1980s — his managerial mantra was “focus.”

“It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are,” he explained at an Apple developers conference in 1997.

The Weather Channel has been good at focusing from the beginning, just as the brand promises. A lot of traditional media companies will need to do the same to carve out their niche in the digital space.

Author Dan Spencer once ironically described The Weather Channel:

“On cable TV they have a weather channel — 24 hours of weather.  We had something like that where I grew up.  We called it a window.”

Window of opportunity, you might say, looking at it from an entrepreneurial viewpoint.


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