Eye of the storm

Not surprisingly, bad weather is often the cause of traffic jams, both real and virtual. When there's a major storm system approaching, Weather. com-more than any other weather-related site-sees a significant boost in its traffic.

Not that Weather.com needs hurricanes and tornadoes to succeed. The site receives 300 million hits per month, consistently ranking it among the top 25 Internet portals. What's more, Weather.com hails as the No. 1 weather site and No. 1 cable site, even surpassing such popular portals as ESPN.com and CNN.com. Media Metrix consistently rates Weather.com in the top five for news, entertainment and information. So how does Weather.com do so well?

"When you look at franchises that are doing well, there are few examples of those successfully translating that brand to the Internet," says Todd Walrath, chief operations officer of Weather.com, a spin-off of the equally successful 24-hour cable network, the Weather Channel. "There are some pretty powerful brands that don't have as much traffic as Weather.com."

The popularity of the site has a lot to do with consumer fascination with the weather. Ever since El Niño dramatically changed weather patterns, unpredictable forecasts have tended to pique interest in weather information. More important, says Walrath, weather affects so many aspects of our lives. Today, people plan their days around weather forecasts, whether for commuting, vacation and business travel, leisure, health (pollen reports for allergies) or even gardening. Many sign on to weather portals to avoid their own natural disasters: commuting and air-travel delays.

For all these reasons, Weather.com has evolved into a lifestyle site, which separates it from other weather portals and keeps it out of the commodity category, says Walrath. Weather.com has become a habit for users, and its strategy undoubtedly contributes to Weather.com's beating its competitors: Accuweather.com and Nationalweather.com, the official portal of the National Weather Service.

"People want to know if they are likely to sit in traffic for two hours or one hour," he says. "This makes a big difference in people's lives. And free time is so precious today that, if you know the weather in advance, you can ensure your time traveling, golfing or vacationing with family is a much better experience.

"One of the advantages of Weather.com is that it's on demand. You can get it right now instead of waiting for your local forecast. No other site really focuses on how weather affects your life like this site does."

Like the Weather Channel, Weather.com is a privately owned company and declined to divulge its financials. However, Walrath says, Weather.com's 2000 revenues are up more than 100% over 1999.

Weather.com is run as an independent Internet company with its own resources, management and operating budget, separate from the Weather Channel. However, since the portal's launch in April 1995, the Weather Channel has been Weather.com's chief booster, using on-air cross-promotions and "meteorological intelligence"-content, graphics, forecasts and audio/video-for broadband and multimedia initiatives.

Considering that the Weather Channel reaches 76 million U.S. households and covers more than 95% of cable homes, that on-air promotion has a long arm. The exposure also goes beyond U.S. shores. The Weather Channel hits 8 million households in Latin America under the name Canal del Tiempo.

"Some cable networks are afraid to mention their Web site on-air because they think it may negatively impact their ratings," says Walrath. "But if the Internet is going to be a competitive threat to traditional business, we want to be the ones to compete with ourselves."

As one of the earliest cable-network spin-offs to embrace the Internet, Weather.com secured one of the most coveted and ideal URLs in cyberspace. Weather.com's URL is intuitive, even for the most clueless Internet browsers. It gives Weather.com a leadership position, says Walrath.

Weather.com also exchanges content for traffic via a 500,000-plus affiliate program that boomerangs users back to its portal. This includes full-fledged partnerships with Netscape, AOL, Yahoo, ABC, USAir, SwissAir and the New York Daily News among others. Walrath says airline, health and gardening portals are natural partners for Weather.com because weather has an impact on all of them.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research analyst Dan O'Brien says Weather. com is capitalizing on a subject everyone cares about and is effectively leveraging its Weather Channel franchise on the Internet. The analyst says he's "amazed" that there is enough interest to sustain a 24-hour weather network.

"Weather.com has done a good job of distributing through affiliate links with weather buttons everywhere," says O'Brien. "Within a few seconds, anyone who has a homemade site can add this weather button to their site. Weather.com's [500,000-plus affiliates] is on the level of Amazon.com."

Weather.com's demographic is about 60% male and highly educated. Approximately 75% of its users have a four-year college degree. Fifty percent of its users are professional managers, which is a slightly higher percentage than the Weather Channel audience. Mostly, Weather.com is viewed from the workplace.

Utilities such as a photo gallery, "Photo of the Week" contest, message boards and online chats are popular features on Weather.com. The photo gallery alone gets 10 million page hits per month. Then there are the die-hard weather enthusiasts who obsess over weather as a science. For example, one scheduled chat with on-air Weather Channel meteorologist Kristina Abernathy drew 800 weather fanatics, a stunning figure for a non-Britney Spears chat.

Atmospheres, a recently launched Weather Channel news magazine about weather phenomena, has already drawn heavy traffic since being incorporated into Weather.com site, according to Walrath. That aside, volatile weather months August, September, December and January are Weather.com's peak periods, often catapulting it into the Internet's overall top 10.

Originally, Weather.com was simple maps and forecasts, says Walrath. After a 1998 user survey, Weather.com repackaged content around people's lifestyles, with constantly updated local forecasts for 1,700 cities worldwide using local and regional radar. This includes the Weather Channel's Weather Star technology, which transmits thousands of real-time relays of customized weather forecasts simultaneously.

Weather.com has ventured into portable wireless platforms with the help of program partners Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. Now weather forecasts can be automatically sent to Weather.com users via cellular phones, pagers and palm technology as well as e-mail.

Weather.com is relaunching its site in October with a new navigation scheme, more planning and calendar functions for users, and better-quality maps and graphics. More international expansion is also on the way. Not content to rest on its laurels, Weather.com is poised to remain in the eye of this weather storm.