Weather Channel’s Neil Katz: Platforms ‘have the power’ — for now

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It’s become impossible for a digital media company today to ignore Facebook. With 1.7 billion users worldwide, the potential scale is intoxicating.

It’s why The Weather Company — the digital business behind The Weather Channel brand that was scooped up by IBM for $2 billion — is all-in on Facebook, The Weather Company’s editor-in-chief Neil Katz said on this week’s episode of the Digiday Podcast. After having virtually zero views on Facebook last year, The Weather Company is on track to hit 2.5 billion video views in 2016. That’s half of the 5 billion video views the company will generate across all platforms.

“We recognize that Facebook is not interested in sending traffic our way or anyone else’s way,” Katz said.

While The Weather Channel brand is still the flagship, The Weather Company has been launching “weather-adjacent” verticals on Facebook. Take, for instance, Rockets Are Cool, a science-focused outlet that just hit 1 million Facebook fans and 250 million video views. There’s also Crazimals, an animal-focused vertical with 900,000 fans and 300 million video views. Soon, it’ll launch Be Right Back, a vertical focused on women and travel.

These might seem odd for a company best known for giving you weather information, but it’s a decision based on data, said Katz. Half of The Weather Company’s video views are now happening on non-weather-related videos.

“The fundamentals of why you open our app on a daily basis is to figure out: ‘Do I need a jacket? Or do I need an umbrella tomorrow?’ But once you’re there, we’ve found a great percentage of our audience is sticking around for either weather news or this adjacent content in science, nature and outdoor adventure,” Katz said.

Below are other highlights from the episode, lightly edited for clarity.

It’s a good time to be a major social media platform.
The rise of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat as video distribution platforms with a ton of viewers means many digital media companies are willing to play ball. In some ways, the relationship between Facebook and publishers is similar to the relationship between pay-TV companies like Comcast and TV networks.

“[The relationship between pay-TV companies and TV networks] has seesawed back and forth over the years as to who actually has the power,” said Katz. “Clearly today and for the next 18, 24 months, the platforms have the power. Will that eventually seesaw back to the content creators that have the stuff that people ultimately want to spend time with? We sure hope so and that’s why we’re building brands that we think can last through that stretch.”

Social distributed media companies face a lot of risk
By going all-in on various social platforms, many publishers are putting their fates in companies and platforms that they have very little control over. The Weather Company still has 30 million people coming every day to its sites and apps. While scale on social media is alluring, other media companies need to be careful how they approach these different platforms.

“When I look at a pure social-play business, I think they have X amount of time — and it depends on how much money they have in the bank — to build a brand that is strong enough that they can do more than rely simply on Facebook,” Katz said. “If you’re not building a brand, if you’re just doing growth-hack tactics to get views, you’re going to have a very risky business.”

Instagram versus Snapchat
While Facebook has become a major part of The Weather Company’s digital video operation, the publisher is now also looking at Instagram.

Specifically, Katz likes Instagram Stories, which allow users to post videos and photos that disappear within 24 hours — just like Snapchat. Publishers like Insider have already started to devote time and resources toward Instagram Stories. The Weather Company just started doing that, too.

“If you’re not in the Discover program on Snapchat, it’s a tough slog to build big audiences there today,” Katz said. “If you look at how they’re integrating [Instagram Stories] into the Instagram app, and how it has a premier position, it’s going to be a great way to growth-hack an audience.”

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