With New Self-Serve Product, Weather Channel Eyes SMB Spend

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weather_channelWith 80% of its 58 million unique monthly visitors consuming content locally, The Weather Company is a quiet giant in the local space. Traditionally, the weather.com publisher has focused on helping national advertisers leverage its local inventory through partnerships with location analytics firms like PlaceIQ. But late last week the company began piloting a new self-serve interface in a move to open its ad platform to small and medium-sized businesses — a new market for the company.

Built on top of PaperG’s white-label interface, the product is still in its early days. The trademark features that one would expect from a weather publisher — namely, targeting ads against weather — are not available yet. The idea, according to Denise Chudy, VP of local platform sales strategy, is to simply create a platform that the company can use to convert potential advertisers whose smaller budgets make direct sales efforts from dedicated staffers inefficient. It’s a decision that reflects the company’s approach to self-serve and the SMB segment as a whole.

“It would be very easy to make [the self-serve product] very exciting for us by adding in the technology [from our main advertising product],” Chudy told Street Fight earlier this week. “The number one thing to make this platform successful is a good user interface. It’s critical for us to understand when you drive traffic to landing page, how do you get them from point A to point B as quickly as possible,” she added.

Chudy’s faith in the power of an effective user experience stems from an eight-year stint at Google where she launched the company’s first automotive vertical and later headed display. It’s a belief that explains the company’s big bet on self-serve in going after the SMB segment — a strategy that struggled to show results for even the biggest firms.

“We think we have the brand and the user engagement to go after those hand-raisers, who are in-market and already looking to advertise with us,” said Chudy. “Once we bring in those folks — it’s always a matter of prioritization — then how do we build the market?”

“Our gut is that more and more local advertisers are getting more sophisticated, and understanding their choices and their options” — Denise Chudy, Weather Channel

Chudy says the company has been fielding 50 to 100 requests per month from small businesses that want to advertise, and believes that there’s enough latent demand to drive early adoption. The company also plans to market the new ad product across its own properties over the next few months.

But, for now, that’s the extent of its demand-generation strategy. Chudy said the company would “look at all options for the next phase of the project,” but declined to say whether the company planned to leverage resellers — an increasingly popular strategy among technology companies. “Our gut is that more and more local advertisers are getting more sophisticated, and understanding their choices and their options,” she added.

The efficiencies of self-serve digital ad platforms have long been tempting for hyperlocals who want to reach SMBs without putting costly feet on the street  — but spurring adoption from a group of  advertisers that often require hand-holding has proven difficult in the past. Yes, as small businesses become more technologically proficient, the concerns about a merchant’s ability to execute fade. But as markets open up — as the hyperlocal space has — competition increases and demand decreases.

The underlying issue here is that self-service is not a go-to-market strategy; it’s a conversion tool. It’s great in grocery stores where there’s abundant demand (i.e. people in line) and not enough clerks to complete the transactions. But in a market where supply is high and demand is relatively low (e.g. media advertising for small businesses) the real problem, which needs to be solved, may ultimately be in generating demand from advertisers — not in making it more efficient to convert them.

Steven Jacobs is deputy editor at Street Fight.