To make a long — and very interesting — story from BusinessWeek short, the Weather Channel illustrates a metamorphosis that may become increasingly common. What started as a 24/7 television weather channel soon became a website that more often than not uses weather as click-bait.
Here’s how the piece opens:
“The writers and editors at the Weather Channel’s weather.com don’t often talk about the weather. They’re not meteorologists. They don’t mention the forecast or debate whether New York’s overcast sky means it’s going to rain. When they wheel their desk chairs together in the open-office newsroom for their morning editorial meeting, many of their ideas have nothing to do with storms or sunshine at all.”
What do they talk about? What Neil Katz, weather.com’s editor-in-chief, calls “weather adjacent” stories.
“Katz calls these types of stories “weather adjacent,” and during the last two years he’s peppered weather.com with thousands of them,” notes the story. “He’s changed the way the Weather Channel’s website presents the weather, doubling the site’s traffic even as viewers drift away from the TV network. People come to his website or mobile app looking for the local forecast; it’s Katz’s job to keep them there with headlines such as “12 Spooky Abandoned Hospitals and Asylums” and “What Does Mars Smell Like?”
It’s a monetization model that’s working for the Weather Channel, which for years “accepted that viewers ignored it on sunny days and essentially bided its time until a hurricane came along and the whole country tuned in for hours, even days.”
The move away from TV and toward streaming — as well as smartphones — killed the original model.
To wit: the channel’s fair-weather audience dropped about 20 percent in four years (Nielsen), averaging just 214,000 viewers a day, or less than half the size of other specialized cable channels such as the Food Network (SNI) or HGTV. And it was a channel that had to hope for the horrendous: hurricanes, tornados, massive floods, or worse.
“The mild storm seasons have been “fantastic for Americans but terrible for the weather news business,” Katz says. “The team we’ve assembled is trying to figure out what to do on the sunny days of the year. It’s not a new problem; it’s just one we’ve finally invested in tackling.”
However, Weather.com is booming in the two areas that really matter: web and mobile.
“This week we did 25,000 forecasts per second—that’s 2 billion in a day,” says David Kenny, Weather Co.’s chairman and chief executive officer. “It used to be that people checked our website once in the morning. Now on the phones, it’s three or four—some people check 40 times a day.”
Last year, the channel launched WeatherFX, an in-house advertising agency that combs through mounds of weather data, matching it to consumers, and sells its discoveries to advertisers.
The company persuaded advertisers such as Wal-Mart Stores and Procter & Gamble to provide their sales data for every product they sold, in every store, in every aisle, all over the country.
“I mean that literally,” says Vikram Somaya, general manager of WeatherFX. “We said, ‘Give us your data.’ Traditionally, that’s not been met with a whole lot of resounding cheer, right?” But the stores did it.”
It’s not what you might think. People don’t run out for an umbrella when it’s already raining.
“We can tell you that on a January morning in Miami, if a set of weather conditions occurs, people will buy a certain brand of raspberry,” Katz says. Not just any fruit. Raspberries. (And) there’s a particular dew point percentage that makes everyone in Dallas rush out and buy bug spray. We couldn’t figure out why, then we realized that insects’ eggs hatch at that dew point.”
One of the first brands to use WeatherFX was Pantene; since then, WeatherFX has formed partnerships with more than 200 brands.
“It figured out how to sell cold and flu medicine in the middle of the summer. It helped Michaels Stores promote rainy-day craft supplies by offering coupons and reminding parents a few days in advance,” notes Vikram Somaya, general manager of WeatherFX. “It even figured out that when Seattle has several days of rain followed by four hours of sunshine, “everybody goes crazy,” as Somaya puts it, and rushes to eat a fruit cup—again, it’s that specific—outside.”
A confluence of factors has led the Weather Channel to a brand new place. Though people may go there to find out what the temperature’s going to be, they stay to read a story about Mars or a movie star, or click on a coupon, or peruse a piece about desert reptiles.
The world is digital now — and one thing (click) leads to another thing (click) — that often has very little to do with the weather.