It was 1758 when Samuel Johnston wrote: “When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.” Fast forward 250 years or so and he’s still pretty much spot on.
The only difference now is that digital technology enables us to talk about it even more.
For the Met Office – the UK’s national weather service – shifting to a digital-first approach hasn’t just meant reacting to this change in consumer behaviour.
Digital now spans across the entire organisation, impacting everything from research to content marketing and internal culture. I recently spoke with Simon Swan –working in digital strategy and transformation at the Met Office – to gain more of an understanding about the organisation’s ongoing journey.
Growing reach and revenue through a digital team
Despite being in the public sector, it’s important to first remember that the Met Office is also a trading fund (within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), operating on a commercial basis under set targets, meaning that it needs to generate revenue.
When Simon first started at the organisation, it mainly did this through B2B partnerships – working with multiple business areas across the UK and globally. At this time, the company had no real digital marketing team to speak of, however – identifying the opportunity to monetise the reach of the Met Office through sponsorship programs and advertising – this soon became a priority.
Simon started in the role of head of digital marketing at the Met Office with a focus on building out the digital team and identifying ways to grow reach and further revenue. This also fell in line with the organisation’s central remit – to increase awareness of the Met Office as an organisation that delivers socioeconomic benefits, as well as provides weather warning information to the public at large.
Creating a point of difference through content strategy
One of the biggest challenges the Met Office has always faced is differentiating itself in a competitive market. Recent growth in new technology – an explosion of mobile apps, APIs, and even voice search – means data around weather has become much more accessible.
In the face of stiff competition, the Met Office set out to achieve a point of difference, focusing much more heavily on its content marketing efforts through storytelling.
One of the first steps was to determine exactly what everyday consumers want from the Met Office. Turning to analytics, it soon found that the answer is not simply data, but as Simon describes it, the ‘what, the why, the where, the when’ that surrounds it.
In other words, users want content that brings weather data to life – information that impacts decision making, event planning, or aids learning about particular weather phenomenon, for example, the answer to questions like ‘what is a weather bomb’?
Drawing on the huge vertical knowledge of scientists working within the organisation, the Met Office has set out to separate itself by creating and distributing this kind of content. Using the pillars of trust, authority and relevancy, it has been able to build on its social strategy over the past few years in particular, growing to a combined audience of around 1.75 million. In turn, this has also led to the creation and optimisation of new channels to better interact with the public.
Excerpt from a Met Office infographic about the pollen forecast – an product of the organisation’s content strategy
Optimising digital formats and content
Since discovering that users desire contextual information about the weather, the Met Office has also focused efforts on determining the specific kinds of content that drives the most engagement.
Video in particular continues to be an effective tool, also helping to differentiate the organisation’s mobile app from competitors. It provides users with an updated weather forecast four times a day, and includes other innovative features like an interactive rain fall map and pollen push notifications.
The Met Office also optimises content based on different audience demographics, pushing out tailored infographics, videos, and blogs geared to people interested in seasonal or timely events, such as Glastonbury festival or the pollen season.
Again, it is this kind of contextual information that really drives engagement across all channels.
Whether it’s video vs. infographics, how we use YouTube compared to Instagram, or how we use Twitter for customer service – it’s all about how we can use these channels to help us differentiate our proposition around weather and climate and pass that information directly back to the public.
Collaboration and digital education across the organisation
So, what does it take to produce this type of content?
In order to properly serve digital users, the Met Office realised that collaboration was going to be key, with the digital marketing team working closely with everyone from scientists and forecasters to the observation and graphics departments.
The solution has been working with various departments to explore and find areas of real value, educating internal teams on how collaborating horizontally can benefit all.
For example, if the core digital team is able to determine that a specific area of content works well on social – let’s say satellite imagery, for instance – it is able to feed this back to the satellite team to help them better understand the type of information they should be sharing.
Latest satellite image shows UK between weather systems as swirling low pressure moves into North Sea. Make the most of the sunshine pic.twitter.com/S8dVmlUs89
— Met Office (@metoffice) June 7, 2017
Another example could be discovering any gaps or opportunities for content. For instance, if a user asks a question on social media about rain formation, the team can directly liaise with scientists and forecasters to establish how best to answer it.
In order to facilitate and further this approach, the Met Office has recently set up the Digital Academy – an initiative designed to help educate and up-skill internal teams. It involves fortnightly workshops and webinars on different digital principles, with talks often held by external organisations.
The end goal is to expand digital knowledge internally, encourage and foster a culture of knowledge sharing, as well as give clients a better understanding of how they can work with the Met Office.
Commercial partnerships and new opportunities (search and voice)
Alongside internal and user-facing activity, the Met Office also provides industry-specific weather and climate services.
The organisation has been working with a number of companies in the retail space, with this market particularly interested in how weather data can be used to better understand and optimise product sales. One specific example is an affiliate network that worked with the Met Office to optimise product feeds, enabling the network to recognise what products to promote and when, in accordance with weather changes.
Another area of interest for the Met Office is voice technology – unsurprising considering that weather is the second-most popular search activity enabled through voice devices.
The Met Office’s Informatics Lab recently designed an Amazon Alexa Skill which helps users to make decisions by talking to the device. Instead of merely responding to a request for the weather, the technology also recommends recreational activity based on the forecast, including contextual detail such as location and time.
Establishing the right culture
While other areas of technology such as voice and machine learning undoubtedly offer exciting opportunities for the Met Office, Simon suggests that its main focus will be consolidating its position in the market. It is through internal initiatives like the Digital Academy that it aims to do this.
As well as sharing knowledge, Simon also sees the Digital Academy as a vital way of establishing a digital culture throughout the organisation – extending to employee values and attitudes, not just technical expertise.
“Culture is the hard bit,” he says, “you can spend money on finding people with the specific tactical skills, but it is the attitude that drives real innovation.”