How The Weather Channel hunts for innovation

The Weather Channel has found an unlikely new application for its weather data — fitness.

OutSider, the company’s new “biometeorological” app, lets runners measure and track how the weather affects their outdoor workouts, and it uses that data to predict what kinds of runs they will have in the future. 

The app is a product of the Weather Channel Labs, a future-minded division focused on developing products that extend its core competency of weather data to new experiences and audiences. The division’s previous product was a Weather Channel app for the Leap Motion controller,which let users check the weather on a 3D model of the Earth.

Weather Channel Labs, however, isn’t a discrete unit in the company. Instead, the operation creates product teams on demand, cobbling members from other divisions depending on the needs of the project at hand. Nikki Santoro, Weather Channel’s mobile vp,  said that the thinking behind this strategy is to give everyone in the company the ability to work on innovative new products while also working on the core product offering.

“This is the kind of stuff we do to try new things without impacting our overall larger product,” said Santoro. “It’s all about seeing what kinds of side avenues we can go down.”

OutSider, the 13th app from the Weather Channel, is a reflection of an understanding of broader trends in mobile traffic affecting the rest of the industry. In June, 58 percent of its overall traffic came from mobile devices, up from 54.4 at the same point last year mobile. Because OutSider’s functionality is separate from The Weather Channel’s core apps, Santoro said it lets the company capture users even when they aren’t just checking the weather.

In other words, the Weather Channel has seen the writing on the wall: innovate or die. In a recent internal report,  The New York Times explained the logic behind the shaky state of innovation at traditional publishers: “Incumbents treat innovation as a series of incremental improvements. They focus on improving the quality of their premium products to sustain their current business model,” the report reads.

The Times’ own partial solution to this concern is the The New York Times Research & Development group, which has developed a variety of often-oddball products that don’t have any direct immediate applications to the company’s existing business. Weather Channel Labs is in that same tradition.

“We want to make sure that innovation happens for us,” Santoro said. “We have a core asset within our business that people rely on, so we’re always thinking of how to go beyond that without stretching what users are expecting and wanting.”

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