Weather Company’s Webster Touts the Power of Forecast Data in Local Marketing

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Lightning over field

Many of the recent advancements in marketing technology are predicated on the promise of an increasingly sophisticated ability to anticipate consumers’ actions and movements. But what kind of information can be depended upon to formulate the educated guesses that result in actual transactions? Of all the data that can be gathered and utilized, what works best to heighten the accuracy of these predictions? Some would argue it’s that most local of information that is all around us: the weather.

People have been checking forecasts via The Weather Company for more than three decades, and most of the company was acquired earlier this year by IBM, which saw the potential for its Watson Internet of Things division. Street Fight recently caught up with the firm’s EMEA Managing Director, Ross Webster (who will be a speaker at our upcoming LOCALCON conference in London next week), to talk about what makes weather data so valuable to businesses. 

Obviously there’s no information that’s more local than the weather. How can it be leveraged to help businesses connect and engage with consumers?
We call ourselves a location company that’s driven by weather. We map 2.2 billion locations globally for weather forecasts and provide information to allow people to plan their lives — to make decisions about what they’re going to do, where they’re going to go, what they’re going to wear. And we work with a lot of companies on a B2B basis: aviation companies, energy companies, retailers, anything where business performance would be affected by the weather.

Over the last four or five years, as data has become much easier to leverage and manipulate, we’ve started seeing ourselves as a product and technology company as well as a media company. From that, we’re starting to have conversations about how we can take data and predict consumer behavior based on weather conditions. We’re not just looking at the weather as absolute — “It’s sunny outside, so let’s have some ice cream.” It’s much more about the different layers of weather data, around relativity and seasonality.

For example, 60 degrees in Austin and 60 degrees in New York may be the same temperature, but people in Austin would react very differently [from people in New York]. We’ve started putting together algorithms that can basically predict consumers’ propensity to buy or behave in a certain way.

This weekend in London, we had the first sunny, warm-ish day. It wasn’t that warm, but it was sunny, and suddenly everyone was in shorts, buying ice cream. But we’re still in the beginning of April, so no one was leveraging that behavior change. Humans act like a swarm, and when the weather changes, we all change our behavior on the back of that. The clever advertisers would be the ones advertising ice cream and summer activities even though it’s April. We divide the seasons into six, and the most important ones are those transitional seasons between spring and summer and autumn and winter.

How does a long-established organization like the Weather Company build innovation into its DNA?
I think a lot of it comes down to talent. We started pivoting from being a media company that was behaving like a media company to one that’s behaving like a product technology company when the leadership changed. [Weather Company CEO] David Kenny came in from Digitas, very much from the technology side, and he brought people behind him like Curt Hecht from VivaKi Nerve Center. We’ve always known that weather has an influence on people, but Curt and David realized that if we started providing solutions that were much more in line with what was happening with the data explosion, we would be ahead of the game.

Obviously we’ve been bought by IBM, and one of the reasons they were interested in us is that our forecast platform is so involved they wanted to [incorporate it into] their Internet of Things platform. We were already doing the B2B side, and it took a mindset change for us to also start innovating the media business and innovating for consumer engagement using the same tools.

How does the company’s strategy vary from country to country?
We’ve been much more of a B2B offering outside of the U.S. In the U.K. and some other countries we operate on a similar scale as we do in the U.S., but there are areas where we don’t have any sort of real footprint. In those countries, our offering is quite different — we’re operating much more as a product and technology company. We provide a solution to advertisers within their technology stack that can empower them to leverage weather insights. That’s where the business is going outside the U.S. We have an ambition to expand our media platforms as well, but I think the opportunity at the moment is very much around working with advertisers and their ad stack.

How is brands’ adoption of marketing technology different outside of the U.S.?
I think there are parts of the U.K. that might be more advanced than the U.S., as far as adopting and adapting to new technology. Every market has its own personality. There are some in Europe that aren’t as quick as other places, and how we’ve gotten around that is by starting a strategy of partnering with local media. We have a deal in Germany with a company called Burda, a big online content producer. We go into a market and learn with a partner about how to integrate into that market. We’re not just going in with a U.S. or a U.K. perspective. We’re learning how exactly to approach a market, and how to define our products within it.

What do you think will emerge as the main issues in local in the next year or so?
I would look at some of the issues around mobile. I think we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to measurement. Intuitively we know the importance of hyperlocal as far as marketing opportunities, and I think the companies that can really get their hands around proving that, proving impact and deliverability, will be the ones to succeed. We’re working really hard to ensure that we can prove the effectiveness of location marketing. We need to shake out the wheat from the chaff, as with any sort of innovation market. There needs to be a bit of a shakeout to ensure that every single vendor is doing everything absolutely correctly. And the proof is in the pudding.

Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.

Hear more from Ross Webster at our upcoming conference on April 20-22 at the Chelsea Football Stadium in London. Click below for tickets!