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A man refreshes himself in a fountain on Dundas Square during a heat wave in Toronto.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

It is much more difficult to sell people a cold one when it's cold outside.

Beer companies have known this for some time. But in Canada, where weather is embedded in the national psyche, Molson Coors Brewing Co. has begun experimenting with allocating its advertising dollars in response to weather trends.

In the advertising world, "data" and "real time" are among the biggest buzzwords – for good reason. The amount of time people now spend on mobile devices means that companies have to reconsider how they reach consumers, in a medium that is inhospitable to traditional ads.

Molson's experiment is part of a growing use of data to make advertising work – especially among the audiences who tap into social media multiple times a day from their phones. (Researcher eMarketer has predicted that social network ad spending will grow 35.3 per cent this year to $267.1-million.)

The project went like this: Working with the digital agency AdParlor, Molson built a digital advertising tool for two of its brands marketed heavily in the summer: Coors Light and Molson Canadian Cider.

The tool was built into the programming interface of the online forecasting service Weather Underground. Using the service's coding, it checked into the weather of eight Canadian cities every 15 minutes. When the weather was above 23 degrees and sunny, it triggered delivery of Facebook mobile ads for the products that mentioned the weather – for example, "Summer heat? Simply say 'Cider.'"

The experiment, which ran from the August long weekend through the Labour Day holiday this year, tested those weather-targeted ads against generic ads.

Engagement with its weather-related ads was higher, as were the click-through rates on those ads. That matters: The way Facebook ads work, higher engagement leads to a lower cost-per-click for the advertiser. The cost-per-click rate for Molson's weather specific ads was 67 per cent lower than the generic ads.

And the weather-relevant advertising also did a better job persuading people to spread the brand's message: For the cider, people were 93 per cent more likely to share a brand's post when it spoke to how hot it was outside.

"There's a strong correlation between weather and beer sales," said Tonia Hammer, social media manager at Molson Coors. For example, the brand had already noticed that during heat waves, people were more inclined to share its content on Facebook. The use of data allowed them to carry that further.

"We can now drill down to, 'I'm outside, it's really hot, I'm on my mobile phone looking at Facebook and this beautiful photo shows up in my feed,'" she said. "This just made a lot of sense."

More than half of Molson's audience on social media is looking at content through mobile devices, she noted, making this type of targeting more important than ever.

And that means more services are working on offering that targeting to advertisers. AdParlor envisages offering weather-relevant ads to a number of brands. For a painkiller like Tylenol for example, it could track weather changes that often trigger migraines. It is also talking to Molson about tracking other data around drinking occasions – scanning Ticketmaster, for example, to better target people who might be having a drink before heading to a concert.

"We're always looking for smarter ways to target users," said AdParlor CEO Hussein Fazal. "The good part is, it often works. And in this case we proved that."

And advertisers ignore it at their peril. Kimberly-Clark Corp. learned that lesson in the Britain. In 2011, it launched its cold and flu season campaign for its Kleenex Balsam product, kicking off advertising in the usual start to the sniffle season, in October. But record-high temperatures during that month put a massive damper on sales.

In 2012, along with its media agency Mindshare, the company used data to ensure that did not happen again. They analyzed Google search terms from past years to see which terms correlated to government data on flu trends. Mindshare then built a tool that would use keywords to predict where outbreaks were occurring. It bid on Google keywords – not to buy ads, but so that it could see the most detailed information on where those searches were coming from.

It worked – 96 per cent of the company's spending went to areas where a flu outbreak was happening right there and then. In the first two months of that campaign, sales rose 40 per cent. The campaign won gold in the media category at the Cannes advertising festival this summer.

While weather has always affected the way marketers run their campaigns, greater access to data – as well as the ability to speak to people based on their location through mobile devices – is allowing savvy marketers to do more with it.

Atlanta-based Weather Co., which owns The Weather Channel in the U.S. as well as weather applications for smartphones and other devices, has begun to invest heavily in analytics for this reason. It is pitching advertisers on its wealth of data. According to The Wall Street Journal, that includes such information as how the dew point in a given city interacts with bug spray sales.

Much has been made of the need to better analyze customer data to speak to people where they are, based on their personal needs. But it can backfire as overly-personal advertising starts to seem creepy.

Generalized data such as weather, by contrast, do not carry that danger.

"It's not sensitive data – it's easy to access and it's not seen as private," said Matt Thornton, head of media platforms at Google Canada, which also works with advertisers to develop campaigns based on analytics. "Some data driven-campaigns might be seen as kind of Big Brother, but weather is not that way."

The other problem with customer data is that there is so much of it – companies are spending more time gathering it in some cases than they are analyzing it meaningfully. That was the point McKinsey & Co. director Tim McGuire made this week at an event in Toronto hosted by McKinsey and the Institute of Communications Agencies.

"Data is of no value whatsoever," he said. "It's the insights we get out of that data, that matters."

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