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Q&A: Vikram Somaya, GM Weather FX, The Weather Company on Putting Data to Work

April 1, 2014 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN@michellemanafy

This Q&A is part of OPA’s “Three on Three” series where we ask three industry executives the same three questions on a topic to uncover actionable insights… If you want to learn more, keep an eye out on our site for more interviews. Today’s Three on Three is with Vikram Somaya, GM Weather FX, The Weather Company on Putting Data to Work.

Vikram Somaya HeadshotQ: Please describe the value of data to your editorial and sales efforts:
A: I think we’ve been in a unique position given that the weather itself is such a unique data set. Weather is real. It isn’t household income, it isn’t level of education or other standard demographic information. It exists as a tangible thing. That helped us envision how data can work for us, as a publisher.

At The Weather Company, data has two particular areas of impact:

For marketers, we combine weather and messaging with our data engine, which is integrated with our media delivery platform. In the retail world, for example, a company with 4,000 stores might let us know when a product is selling well—or not—and other information. We take this data and line it up against varying weather conditions for two to three years and effectively create predictive sales models. We can tell them that, in Miami, on a January morning, this is what people are likely to buy.

On the content side, which is well-run by Neil Katz, our VP/editor-in-chief, what has been interesting is not only the weather itself, but other information around it, which we are integrating into the experience. Certainly, people interested in weather are interested in other types of content as well, such as science and nature. We’ve begun to look at what content people look at based upon weather in their area.

An interesting piece here has been that their actions are based not only on what the weather is, but also on how it makes them feel. Weather has not only a direct impact on sales, but also on sentiment. If, after many days of bad weather, there are a few days of sunshine, it affects how people feel, which in turn affects what they are interested in.

Q: Please describe a recent content or advertising initiative that leveraged data, how it did so, and how that generated a better end result:

A: Okay, I have an example that combines both data and weather information that underlays, from a project we did with Pantene, a P&G hair care brand. Behind the weather information for any city there is a canvas that might show raindrops or bright sun and have a special type of ad format for our mobile application that can replace that canvas with weather-specific brand creative for our clients. We can match the ad to the specific weather condition.

Weather.com Pantene ScreenSo, for Pantene, we created an index that mapped a range of hair conditions to weather conditions—which we called “the fizziness index” internally. Depending on which city you checked, we would analyze the weather for that location, then pull up the corresponding ad with the appropriate Pantene product.

The results were measureable in actual sales. In towns where the ad appeared, retailers saw spikes in product sales. This is an ad unit that actually worked in the real world for sales—not just engagement and other click-through metrics. Our goal is to actually move sales. We can’t think of a more compelling argument for our marketers.

Q: The notion of “data” raises concerns with some. Please describe your take on the issues around publishers’ use of data and how you address some of the common concerns/issues:

A: So I have something I frequently do at conferences where I speak that illustrates the data position we are in at The Weather Company:

I ask everyone at the conference to stand up, introduce themselves to the person next to them, and then ask that person five questions. That person does not need to answer. Instead, they should think about how uneasy each question makes them. The questions are:

  1. Social: How old are you?
  2. Third party data: How much money do you make?
  3. Search: What are the last three things you searched online while alone?
  4. Purchase: What are the last three things you purchased online while alone?
  5. What is the weather today?

For that fifth one: No privacy concerns.

The Weather Channel is in a different position than many content companies. We have been, for 30 years, the brand people come to know how to behave around weather. We don’t ask your name or personal information. We collect business data around weather data. And weather information is 100 percent opt in—you have to ask for it.

I think we’re in a strange and unusual time where it is not clear who owns the information. Though I’d say that every time a publisher or marketer has cause to question “Am I doing the right thing?” the answer is probably no. With data, erring on the side of caution is the way to go. The right, fair thing to do is to protect the consumer.

Another thing to keep in mind is that what we are doing with data is natural and organic to the brand itself. There are certainly other publishers for which this is true. Some are trying to put a square peg in a round hole with data. We should use data to bring value to the experience, not to shoehorn data because it is the hot thing. If there is a fundamentally organic way to build value for the user, it is worth doing.

As general manager of The Weather Company’s WeatherFX division, Vikram Somaya leads the team that creates localized ad targeting solutions using Weather’s access to location data and the best, most comprehensive weather data in the world. Vikram joined The Weather Company from Thomson Reuters, where he served as vice president of global operations and audience. Previously, Vikram helped build out data-driven marketing company Bluekai as managing director of business development and channel sales. He served as executive vice president of sales and marketing at Milabra, consulting an early-stage company in machine-learning-derived technologies. He also served as vice president of strategic alliances at Phorm, an online behavioral targeting technology company, and as vice president of strategy management at Operative Media, an advertising business management company.

Note: This Q&A is part of OPA’s “Three on Three” series where we ask three industry executives the same three questions on a topic to uncover actionable insights.

Also in this series:

Q&A: Colin Decker, Group Operating Officer, Discovery Digital Networks on Putting Data to Work

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