AccuWeather President Steven Smith On How The Pandemic Changed The Weather Business

AccuWeather President Steven Smith

The pandemic changed how people checked the weather – but the usefulness of a weather forecast never ceased.

“Weather is still a part of our users’ lives, but it’s different,” said AccuWeather President Steven Smith. “We had to adapt, learn from what we’re seeing, and then adapt again.”

Instead of checking a forecast before a morning commute, people were looking for the best time to take a break from working from home to walk their dog or go for a run. Since mid-March, use went up 30% across AccuWeather’s site and mobile app.

And AccuWeather found new ways to be helpful. It created a class, which has since become a summer camp, called AccuWeather School, to enrich kids’ remote learning. And it built a coronavirus tracker, to providing free severe weather updates to outdoor COVID-19 testing sites.

“We are a trusted source for weather and data, but also a trusted source for maps,” said Smith. “And we saw a lot of bad data and bad maps out there. Our tracker was getting over 2 million daily views at its height.”

In the midst of all this, AccuWeather forged ahead with key long-term projects, including a newly redesigned mobile app coming out this month.

Smith talked to AdExchanger about how the pandemic changed the weather business.

AdExchanger: How did AccuWeather School come about?

STEVEN SMITH: A lot of these ideas came from the core of the organization. They were not top-down initiatives. We all knew we had to adapt. We had people put up their hand and say they wanted to contribute to these ideas, and made cross-functional teams of people that had the interest to pursue them.

Most publishers have said that April was the low point in advertising so far. Was that the case for you – and how much advertising is back now? 

We would fall in line with that. April was the bottom so far, and I hope that remains the case for the industry as a whole, including us. The difference for us is that we made all these tech releases during that time period. We saw viewability go up 34% across the AccuWeather domain. That’s a jump that’s going to be significant to revenue as the programmatic world recognizes that higher viewability.

 What has your B2B weather data business done to respond to the pandemic?

When COVID started, we offered our service for free to hospitals and testing sites, especially with many being outdoors. We ended up with over 500 different hospitals in 42 states. We’ve sent over 11,000 severe weather watches and warnings for these exact GPS locations, in an effort to contribute and give back.

Apple is tightening the use of IDFA. What’s your early read on how that will affect your business?

None of that surprised us. This has been a drumbeat in the industry for multiple years – from GDPR to [blocking] third-party cookies. We’re building a product where we know the intent of users based on what they’re looking at without a reliance on third-party data.

What kind of intent data do you get from weather?

We have an allergy index, a dog-walking index, a barbecue index. We rely on making inferences based on what you’re looking at and what you’re consuming to better understand why you’re checking the weather so we can help you prepare for whatever you’re planning. First-party profile and login data is not a core component of our consumer-facing products.

Location data is becoming a more challenging data point to use. How are you looking at privacy issues around location?

Location and weather will always go hand in hand. We have a MinuteCast feature that’s absolutely predicated on knowing where you are. We have a large global audience, and when the first GDPR initiatives were rolled out, we did not take the path of rolling out a solution just for Europe. We took the path that this is our global privacy for users.

In our new app, there are multiple screens and options asking “Would you like to be tracked? We can tell you severe travel as you’re driving and moving around.” We’re trying to be clear about the value and the benefit, and the slides and buttons to turn things on and off along the way. It’s not lost on us that there is a big trust component. We want to be as upfront and open as possible because we know how important privacy is to individuals.

Has the pandemic changed your leadership approach?

Zoom calls are a part of our life now, and think I’ve been more in touch with more team members this way than I would have been without a COVID world. I normally spend half my time in airplanes and in hotel rooms. I now have the ability to connect and have conversations with people. And they’re not always business. They’re personal. Occasionally one or two of my daughters will walk into the room. The ability to be invited into peoples’ homes has made for a more human experience.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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