You can learn a lot from a bug. While much of the content community continues to chase sponsor dollars by making ads bigger, louder, more animated, at least one provider understands the alternative Zen way: be there to deliver when the user needs you. AWS Convergence Technologies' truly brilliant WeatherBug (www.weatherbug.com) has one of the great online success stories to tell—at least of the past few years. And WeatherBug provides an object lesson in how to combine Web technology and content into an addictive substance for advertisers.
Online only since late 2000, the WeatherBug's always-on weather reporting utility, which resides in a user's Windows taskbar, boasts more unique visitors than any other weather information source, including The Weather Channel's venerable Weather.com. According to comScore Media Metrix, the site had about 15.5 uniques in September 2002. Better still, "It's operating very profitably," says CEO Bob Marshall, "and we're growing the top line [revenue] at double digits month over month." WeatherBug earned $3.5 million in 2001, over $8 million in 2002, and is on track to make more than $16 million this year. In fact, Web revenues have become the largest stream for this company, which began in 1993 as a network of school-based weather stations providing local weather to TV stations around the country.
In 2000, the company decided to leverage the 6,000 weather feeds online by giving users a fully customizable pop-up console that reports local weather. As an advertising vehicle, this platform has turned into an amazing cash cow during a period of outright ad depressions, and in that success lay several important lessons for content's future online.
Rather that clutter desktops with a zillion ad buttons and banners, the WeatherBug is fully sponsored by a single advertiser who "owns" the pop-up console for the day, More than that, the AWS design crew helps advertisers create a "brand wrap," an identity for each day's Bug console that can integrate the sponsor's logo, brand colors, and style both in the console background as well as its buttons and weather gauges. One day a pink Benadryl flower may take the place of the wind compass, or on another day Scholastic's Clifford might turn the buttons into fuzzy, toy buttons.
Far from intrusive or cloying, the effect of this playful ad integration can be compelling. Some users say they look forward to popping up their Bug every morning just to see the design innovation AWS concocted today. It reminds us that ads can be entertaining, especially when the publisher and client work together. Moreover, it points to an inevitability on the Web—cleaner page designs that contain fewer, more integrated ads and are, simply, more effective. WeatherBug brand wraps have produced up to seventy percent brand recall in post-campaign studies, says Marshall.
Forget streaming media, the killer app of broadband is that the medium is always on. "The desktop relationship itself is unique," says Marshall. Indeed, broadband can turn a publisher from a destination people visit regularly into a trusted service, a utility, a persistent conduit of necessary information that it feeds to the desktop. A daily sponsor at WeatherBug knows that users will see its brand, and only its brand, three, four or more times a day, whenever the user pops it up. And since each pop-up of the Bug results in another page view, Marshall and Company can make a mint off of relatively modest CPMs ($5.50 for the wrap).
Other publishers can approximate this kind of always-on relationship by other means: regularly scheduled headline feeds via email or just letting users choose to be alerted only when specific authors, columns, or types of news are updated at a site.
Don't laugh, but WeatherBug lets new members choose which of its sponsors will run on the Bug for the first week. Among ad clients, this "Self Select" product "has been phenomenally successful," says Marshall, because "it's self-targeting." Imagine letting your incoming visitors choose at the home page who will sponsor the site for them on any given section for that visit, that day, that week? What do you think advertisers would pay for that sort of exclusivity among users who said they wanted to see the client's ads? "Giving the user the choice and the power to control what he sees is the direction we are going," says Marshall.
WeatherBug itself, not just its users, seems to be in a position to pick its advertisers, too. These programs net the company recurring contracts with Verizon, Sprint, and AMEX, and many other big spending brands who are in love with a product line that moves way, way beyond the banner. You don't need an always-on console to learn from this Bug. Content as a service, integrated sponsorships, and user self-targeting are the direction the Web is headed.