The Weather Channel seeks scale on Facebook, eyes vertical video

The Weather Channel might have returned to its core focus on TV, but on digital, it’s still chasing scale.

Facebook, in particular, is a huge area of growth for The Weather Channel, which did 204 million video views on the platform in March, up 158 percent from the previous month. The growth is credited to the publisher tripling the amount of Facebook content — text-on-videos, in particular — it makes every month.

“Clearly, video is having its moment inside Facebook. We’re focused on taking advantage of that,” said Neil Katz, editor-in-chief and svp of global content for The Weather Company, which is now owned by IBM.

Except, for The Weather Channel, that doesn’t mean pushing out more breaking news and weather content. Instead, the company is starting to expand into “weather-adjacent” verticals that make sense for the platform. For instance, it launched a science vertical called Rockets Are Cool in mid-March, run by Will Goodman, a former senior viral editor at The Huffington Post. Since then, the page has accumulated 125,000 fans and nearly 40 million video views. It’s growing faster than any other Facebook page The Weather Channel owns, according to Katz.

And the company wants to do more. In the coming year, Weather Channel will launch more verticals on Facebook, potentially in areas like outdoors, nature and lifestyle. “We’re going to experiment at the video level and, based on those tests, launch new channels,” said Katz.

This is in contrast to what The Weather Channel is doing on TV. Last fall, The Weather Company’s digital businesses — everything but the TV network — were acquired by IBM for $2 billion. Soon after, the TV network made the decision to cut back on non-weather content like reality TV series “American Super/Natural” and “Fat Guys in the Woods.”

But with Facebook promising unparalleled audiences, it’s hard for publishers to not play ball. “Facebook has great scale and great data that enables you to take advantage of it quickly,” said Katz. “Some other platforms just aren’t that data rich yet. Snapchat, unless you’re in the Discover program, your ability to growth-hack a channel is not as great.”

Weather Channel Mobile Studio 2
The Weather Channel’s mobile TV studio in Atlanta.

This doesn’t mean weather and breaking news is not a core focus of its digital strategy — it is, but on mobile, not Facebook. The Weather Channel did 1.7 billion video views in 2015, up 42 percent over the previous year. Mobile accounts for 70 percent of viewership, while a staggering 90 percent of mobile video views are happening inside its apps, the company said.

To take advantage of the mobile consumption, Weather Channel has built a mobile TV studio in Atlanta. It is equipped with multiple cameras and touch-screen monitors, allows the company to track hundreds of storm chasers and is capable of putting out new video content every 10 minutes when a breaking-news event occurs.

Intended for mobile, all cameras and monitors are also rigged so that the content can be shot for both horizontal and vertical video formats.

“The beating heart of our company is breaking news. On our platforms, that reigns supreme,” said Katz. In partnership with Weather Channel’s TV business, the mobile studio is able to get footage from the field quickly by using iPhones and platforms like WeChat.

All of Weather Channel’s video efforts are handled by a team of 37 people. Roughly two-thirds of the team is dedicated to breaking-news content, while the rest are focused on social video, with plenty of overlap between the two sides. The goal is to grow the team to 50 people this year as Weather Channel pushes more into social and mobile.

“On our own platforms and apps, we’re focused on personalization and using the Watson technology with IBM to get a greater sense of the kind of people want, and not just by location,” said Katz. “But the greatest growth and scale opportunities are on social and distributed platforms. Monetization clearly lacks behind the audience; that’s no secret. We are focused on building big audiences there over the next 18 months.”

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