Talking with Trendsetters: Vikram Somaya, General Manager, WeatherFX

Article ImageWas there any brand better poised to take advantage of Big Data than The Weather Co., owner of The Weather Channel? Just think of all those data streams about pressure systems, rainfall, average temperature, and more. Vikram Somaya says that for him, it "has been one of those datasets that you want to get your hands on." So when The Weather Co. came calling, it was a no-brainer for him to jump at the chance to work with these coveted data streams as general manager of The Weather Co.'s WeatherFX division-which uses weather analytics, weather triggering, and dynamic messaging to connect businesses to consumers through weather and climate.

If knows where you live, it also knows whether it's raining outside or if you just had a foot of snow dumped in your backyard. It can serve you ads and content that are contextually relevant to you-but that's just the beginning of what Somaya and his team can do with data.

With day-over-day sales data from retailers compared to weather conditions, Somaya says, "We thought at the very least we could potentially predict if people were buying argyle sweaters." But the company found out that its ability to predict what consumers would do went well beyond that. "If it was a Friday in January, we could predict they would buy this particular brand of blueberries," he says. Imagine what a retailer can do with that kind of information!

So while you don't have to think too hard about what is doing with data on its site, there are a lot of projects going on behind the scenes. The Weather Co. has a huge B2B services arm, and it has used its enormous amount of data-and more importantly its insights-to strengthen its relationship with airlines, car companies, insurance providers, and more.

One of the challenges, Somaya says, is that in some cases, The Weather Co. has had to convince clients to fundamentally change the way they market. They prebuild stories and then determine which data points and triggers will cause a client to deploy the campaign. Say you are an insurance company, and you know a hail storm is coming in one of your coverage areas. You can start by sending a text message to customers in that area, urging them to move their cars to a covered space. You then go quiet during the storm. Afterward, you help those customers understand how to get in touch with you about any damage they may have suffered. With the help of The Weather Co.'s data, this kind of targeted customer service can be a reality.

Chances are that your data may not have the clear and varied uses that weather data does, but Somaya has some advice for companies struggling with their own data. "I've been in that spot, ... figuring out the value as well as the applicability," he says. His No. 1 piece of advice is to make sure you have the right talent. "You almost are required to have an outside perspective. A lot of publishing companies are so deep in their own dirt ... they overvalue their data and don't know what it will cost to do something with it. If the dataset is not something you own or have special knowledge or skill around, then you probably don't have a sellable dataset."

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If you work in the digital content industry, you probably rely on dozens of tools to get your job done. As the list of available tools of the trade grows, it becomes more important to differentiate between the products that get the job done and the products that are identifying the trends impacting the industry and making sure that—to paraphrase hockey player Wayne Gretzky—they skate not to where the puck is, but to where it is going. Here at EContent, we turned to our inboxes, to our coverage, and to our contributors to find out what those trendsetting products are in 2014. We looked across the spectrum, but we were especially heartened to see the number of tools aiming to help publishers deal with data, manage the total web experience, and find new ways to monetize content. We hope that you find these tools as interesting and as potentially helpful as we do! —Theresa Cramer, Editor