Seattle Forecast: Rainy ... Go Buy a New Jacket

By: Steve Outing The concept inextricably links editorial content and advertising content. Editorial data is tied to an advertiser in advance, who acts on it to promote specific merchandise offerings based on the current news.

Am I describing an ethically questionable practice by an online newspaper site? Actually, I'm describing an innovative new editorial-advertising program recently launched by the Seattle Times Web site on its month-old regional weather page. It's ethically sound, and it's just plain cool.

Here's how it works. On the main weather page is a 5-day forecast for the Seattle region, featuring a graphical panorama of the Seattle area (with each of the five days represented by a slice of the panorama, which shows the downtown skyline, nearby Mt. Rainer, Puget Sound, and a ferryboat). Below this main element of the page are links to 3-day forecasts for other cities in the region plus Alaska.

Below the individual-day forecasts is an unusual ad for REI, the Seattle-based sports equipment and clothing retailer. Each forecast day has a separate REI spot underneath it, with text and a "Click to order" button. If the forecast for a particular day is "Sunny," the ad might say, "Barefoot comfort for the city or trail: Sandals for women. Click to order." A forecast of "Cloudy" may have the ad, "Be prepared! Lightweight, packable jackets for men and women." "Rainy" days may feature this ad: "Time for a warm blanket and a good book." Clicking on one of those forecast-specific ads links to an order page for that merchandise on REI's retail mail-order Web site.

Sell according to the weather

"We tried to take a completely different approach to how a weather site looks and operates than any other on the Web," says Greg Raece, the Times' online advertising manager and the originator of the contextual ad concept represented by the new weather page. "We wanted to make it possible for an advertiser to offer specific merchandise based on the weather."

Early indications are that the idea works. Raece says clickthrough rates on the REI forecast spots are consistently three times that of the best-performing ads anywhere else on the Web site. (The weather site itself doesn't get tons of traffic, however, since the weather page is so new.) This context-sensitive advertising seems to perform, and Times managers are considering expanding the concept. (Other applications might include something like a Web traffic monitoring feature, with ads reflecting road conditions. A downtown traffic jam might generate an ad for a downtown coffee shop where commuters can cool their heels while waiting for the congestion to clear, for example.)

For now, the weather page is the exclusive advertising vehicle of REI, which has enthusiastically embraced the experiment -- and indeed is a perfect fit for this program, since it sells merchandise for use in all types of weather. Since this was the first demonstration of the concept, the Times gave the ad placement solely to REI, which has a ontract for "longer than a month," according to Raece. In the future, the contextual weather ads might go to other single advertisers or a mixture. Currently, the 3-day forecasts for other cities, including in Alaska, bring up the REI ad spots. But a hotel chain could purchase ads for certain cities, for example.

Ideally, Raece would like to find additional advertisers that can take a full forecast suite of spots, and offer enough services or merchandise appropriate to changing weather. A grocery store than can hawk hot chocolate during cold weather and frozen yogurt in warm is an ideal advertiser. But other ideas in consideration are to split up the days, with, say, an ice cream shop chain buying all the "Sunny" forecast days; Starbucks coffee shops buying "Cloudy" and "Rainy;" and a ski rental shop buying "Snow."

Of course, with Seattle weather being what it is, whoever bought the "Rainy" forecast ad spots would get a lot more placements. REI has a series of text spots in its rotation for "Rainy" days, so the same one isn't repeated too often during the region's rainy season.

The system created by the Times Web staff utilizes both the Times' and REI's Web servers. At REI, the retailer's advertising department has created a text file that contains instructions to the Times for what text blurbs to run with what forecasts, and what Web pages on its catalog site to link to. The scripts created by the Times' Matt Martin pick up the contextual-ad data each day from the REI server, so the advertiser only has to maintain a document on its own server.

The Times site uses Accuweather as its online weather provider. According to Raece, it won out over other vendors because its data feed allowed the level of customization needed to pull off the contextual ad concept. Some other Web weather vendors allow client news sites to do little more than add a logo to templated pages, and this level of advertising customization would not have been possible.

Ethically pure

Betsy Aoki, online producer for the Times Web site and the lead editorial person on the weather project team, says she loves the concept because "it's a nice win-win for everyone" and presents no ethical dilemmas even though it binds together editorial and advertising. After all, "REI can't influence the weather."

In contrast, other Web news site efforts to link editorial content and advertising can present ethical problems. For example, some newspaper Web sites have taken to including "Order this book" links, in conjunction with online book sellers like or Barnes & Noble, at the end of Web book reviews by professional journalists. While in practice this probably presents minuscule risk of a reviewer or book editor being influenced by money the news site might make from online sales of the book reviewed, in theory it presents a possible conflict of interest for the journalists involved in writing and editing the reviews. Similar ad-editorial linking in features like weather or traffic are free of such concerns.

Nice credit

From the Seattle Times weather page, look for the "Credits" link at the bottom, which names those folks involved in developing this innovative approach to weather page advertising. The map graphic with photos of those people is cute and worth a look.

Contact: Greg Raece,


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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