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July-August 2012

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Social Media: A New Horizon for Forecasting

Weather B.C. (Before Computers)

Like many meteorologists and weather enthusiasts who are reading this article, I have been fascinated with the weather for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, in the “B.C.” (Before Computers) years, if you had an interest in weather, the only way to further that interest was to watch the weatherman on the six o'clock news or subscribe to Weatherwise magazine.

Oh, how the times have changed.

A Change in the Weather

One could argue that weather-related social media have existed at least since the dawn of the Internet, though not in the same forms as today. In the 1990s, weather enthusiasts shared weather stories and photos via e-mail lists and newsgroups; even earlier, members of the Association of American Weather Observers communicated with each other on paper, and storm chasers swapped stories via StormTrack, both through print publications.

But these early efforts to create a meteorologist community lacked the exponential growth potential of the social media phenomenon. Today, social media offer a quick and easy way for the public to interact with meteorologists and other weather enthusiasts, providing observations, discussion, images, and video in near real-time from their own locations. With nearly one billion people on Facebook and hundreds of millions on other networks such as Twitter and Google+, social media's strengths are in numbers and in reach.

Having led AccuWeather's online community for 16 years, when I first started, I couldn't have imagined being able to interact with millions of “weather weenies” in real time. And yet here we are.

Caption: imapweather.com displays a radar image and amateur weather stations.

Caption: imapweather.com displays a radar image and amateur weather stations.

Colliding Fronts: Social Media and Weather Forecasting

Why does weather lend itself to social media? In order to be useful, weather forecasts need to be both timely and local. Social media offer unbeatable immediacy.

Citizens worldwide can obtain critical, breaking weather information through mobile devices and transmit photos or videos of severe weather events to the Internet in real-time to platforms such as Facebook. By leveraging groups such as AccuWeather.com on Facebook, users can not only share their own experiences but can also engage with meteorologists and one another to share ideas and resources—not just reporting the situation but helping them to examine and better understand it.

In terms of localization, social media have the advantage of being nearly ubiquitous. Wherever high speed Internet access is available, there is a preponderance of Facebook users, and other platforms like Twitter and Google+ are quickly gaining momentum.

Caption: The AccuWeather.com Facebook Page, with user-contributed content.

Caption: The AccuWeather.com Facebook Page, with user-contributed content.

Forecasting Made Faster

Social media make weather news faster and more relevant than ever by giving the public access to weather news, tips, and comments. Direct access to weather talent (local meteorologists, weather bloggers, and national weather celebrities) is available 24/7, making the weather experience more personal and more open to two-way communication and feedback between the audience and the forecasting agency.

Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ offer excellent ways to access weather news immediately. Severe weather reports, photos, and videos are transmitted to the National Weather Service offices via its local Facebook pages, or with the #wxreport “hash tag” on Twitter. Private weather companies such as AccuWeather and The Weather Channel put out information and statistics in real time on those social channels as news comes in.

Storm chasers post photos, radar shots, and storm descriptions through these social media tools, sometimes before giving them to local or national private media. Live “chase cams” show their locations and live streaming video through SevereStudios.com and ChaserTV.com. IMapWeather.com puts ChaserTV live feeds on a map and broadcasts the data that NOAA compiles from thousands of amateur weather stations, including the one I installed on the roof here at AccuWeather Headquarters in State College, Pennsylvania. Now anyone can do a “virtual storm chase” by following social media.

AccuWeather uses social media to distribute stories faster than we could through our traditional Web site. For example, within seconds of observing the “Miracle on the Hudson” story break on Twitter, our meteorologists were sending out weather-related facts, such as the water temperature and wind speed, which could affect the survivors.

But we also use social media in the other direction—to get better and faster input from our audience.

A New Dawn for Meteorologists and Their Audiences

Social media democratizes weather news by giving weather consumers a “voice.” Now, our audience can absorb weather stories, tips, and forecasts and respond immediately with their “take” on the story.

Weather is deeply personal after all—many of our biggest fans don't just want to hear the weather, they want to be part of the information and to choose the stories that are important to them.

Social media allow weather news bloggers and meteorologists to reach out to their fans to get inside local information or opinions. In November 2009, a historic flood in Atlanta, Georgia, shut down the only manufacturing plant for Eggo waffles. A quick post to our AccuWeather.com Facebook fans yielded crucial information about which areas were seeing waffle shortages (and even blueberry versus plain flavors!) as our fans ran out to their local grocery stores to check availability.

James Spann, a television meteorologist in the 40th biggest TV market (Birmingham, Alabama) became an Internet sensation and lightning rod (pun intended) for local reports and photos during the deadly tornado outbreak in his city on April 15, 2011. Armed with a laptop and his green screen, he retransmitted local reports live, on the air. When the TV station radar went down, he rebroadcast the radar from the Internet. On April 27th, the day after more tornadoes ripped through Arkansas, a Facebook fan page helped to connect lost photographs with their owners.

Arturo Salinas, an AccuWeather.com Facebook fan, made our news team aware of the dire flooding situation in Monterrey, Mexico, during Hurricane Alex in July 2010. Because of the language barrier, the United States media were having trouble getting local news reports into the United States from Mexico (unlike Europe, where they have news organizations that translate and circulate news frequently). Salinas provided first-hand accounts, photos, and video of the flooding that AccuWeather.com integrated into news stories and videos for the local AccuWeather whannel.

Social media can also help tell success stories. A National Weather Service weather advisory that appeared on the AccuWeather.com Mobile Web site, and that was accessed via a cell phone (an excellent example of the public/private weather partnership), saved Linda Anfuso's life during a severe thunderstorm in New York in June 2010. She heeded the warning, getting herself and others to safety before a damaging thunderstorm hit their outdoor festival. Linda told her story on the AccuWeather.com Facebook page.

Facebook allows geographical targeting, enabling AccuWeather.com to reach residents with local weather stories of particular interest to them while filtering out material based on its relevance to certain geographic areas. Dan Morrell, of LeClaire Kettle Corn, commented on Facebook regarding a story that AccuWeather.com meteorologist Alex Sosnowski wrote about corn farmers and the wet summer that harmed crops. Dan said his popcorn crop could suffer if much more rain fell. We took this information and wrote a story just about the popcorn crop in Iowa. We conducted a phone interview with Morrell and quoted him in the article, which we sent out to Iowa Facebook fans.

Today's Social Media Climate

Along with new possibilities for forecasting companies, including the ability to get stories out faster, greater audience engagement, user-contributed images and videos, and on-the-scene commentary from all over the world, come several new challenges. Like any new medium, social media have their own host of pitfalls that some of the world's most savvy media organizations step around lightly.

Caption: The “hashtag” #wxreport collects storm spotter reports for the National Weather Service

Caption: The “hashtag” #wxreport collects storm spotter reports for the National Weather Service

For example, photo and video hoaxes abound during severe weather events. During the Huntington Beach, California, tornado in January 2010, photos from a 2006 storm were circulated via Twitter and were rebroadcast by major media outlets. A photo of a shark underwater on a city street turned out to be faked, despite being passed around during several hurricanes. As a news writer and online community manager, you must have strong “crap detection” skills—a term coined by Howard Rheingold, a writer and teacher who has worked with some of the earliest online communities since before the Internet was popular. Social media managers and admini-strators must ask themselves: “Is this information too good to be true, and how can I confirm it?” Photos don't have to be altered to fool people; sometimes pictures of real weather events can be mislabeled, either by accident or on purpose to perpetrate a hoax. Fortunately, the easiest type of hoax, repurposing a photo, can be busted by using Image Recognition tools such as Google Image Search and TinyEye.com.

The same “trolls” (people who violently disrupt conversations online) who haunted the early days of the Internet are still out there, but now there are advanced tools that enable administrators and users to block them. One of the most popular tools is called a “bozo filter” and makes the offender's posts appear to be public even though only the offender can see it. This avoids the confrontation and retaliation of banning users from the product, and lets the offenders know that no one is interested in engaging them.

Transparency and honesty are key in communicating with your audience through social media, as major companies like H&M and Chapstick have found out (both took major public relations hits due to their response to customer complaints). Weather forecasting isn't perfect, so we must hear our detractors out if there is an incorrect forecast, or if they are having trouble using the mobile or online weather tools we provide.

What's on the Horizon?

Despite what their early detractors may have said, it's clear that social media are not going away any time soon. Neither will they stay a novelty separate from other forms of media. They have even changed the way traditional media operate, making even network television more of an exchange between news producer and audience.

Given the possibilities that have already been explored with social media in a 24-hour weather forecasting and news cycle, and the growing footprint of the large social media platforms, the trajectory of their role in weather forecasting and news is heading toward interaction and localization.

Social weather is going local by putting tentacles into the weather media Web sites. As of this writing, AccuWeather is testing local chat functions using Twitter and Facebook on its Web sites' local forecast pages. Going local is good for advertisers because they can better target their audiences. This movement will continue to grow.

Google+ is an up-and-comer in 2012 and will likely become a major channel for weather enthusiasts and photographers to interact, even if it doesn't become as large as Facebook. Mobile devices will continue to power more and more social media, as more people start using Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites through handheld devices. (Most major weather “apps,” including AccuWeather.com, allow users to upload screenshots of their weather conditions, radar, or forecasts to social media sites).

What Is AccuWeather Doing?

AccuWeather has been developing its social media presence for many years, so we have a head start on other weather companies in knowing how to talk with our audiences.

Our strategy is to continue to listen to our audience and grow, creating more chances for interaction. Our goal is not just to have more efficient dissemination of weather stories, but to help make the stories better by directly involving users who have a more granular and personal view of weather events because they are happening in their back yards.

In short, social media are uniquely powerful for forecasters and their audiences. We look forward to the chance to reach new audiences, connect more with our current audience, and make more timely and accurate forecasts with their input.

The sky is really the limit for the future of weather and social media, and I am always excited to see more weather geeks coming out of the woodwork.

AccuWeather

Social Media Links

Facebook.com/AccuWeather

Facebook.com/TheWeather

Channel

Facebook.com/USNOAAGov

On Twitter

@breakingweather

@weatherchannel

@usnoaagov

JESSE FERRELL has been managing online weather communities for more than 15 years and currently serves as Director of Social Media for AccuWeather, Inc., in State College, Pennsylvania. Additional information, links, and images about this story can be found on his blog at WeatherMatrix.AccuWeather.com. Jesse can be reached at Facebook.com/WeatherMatrix, @weathermatrix on Twitter, and GPlus.To/Jesse.Ferrell on Google+.

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