If you ask the average marketer for an example of “real-time marketing,” there’s a good chance they will reference Oreo’s infamous 2013 “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” tweet from the Super Bowl XLVII blackout. It was opportunistic, creative, quick-witted, and it came to symbolize the power of brands living in the moment in order to capitalize on cultural memes. With one burst of creativity, Oreo generated more brand awareness and positive sentiment than many of the advertisers paying millions for commercial time. It was no wonder that other brands rushed to capitalize on this “real-time marketing” thing, only to be burned by their ham-handed attempts at cultural humor.

This weekend, thousands of marketers will flock to the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference to stay on top of the latest innovations in digital and real-time marketing. Indeed, today’s marketing publications are replete with examples of brands, which in trying to hack the culture, actually created PR disasters of their own making. Most recently, after one brand posted all of its Super Bowl XLIX tweets the day before the game, noted social marketing expert Scott Monty suggested that it was time to reassess real-time marketing

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d like to take it further—it’s time we take back the definition of “real-time marketing.”

Real-time marketing has always been about far more than drafting off the cultural energy of others. It is about leveraging the forces of connectivity, mobility, social media, and big data to better serve the customer in the moment. It is about knowing who your customer is—online and off—in order to provide the most relevant content, products, and services to fuel their journey from prospect to customer to loyal advocate. Real-time marketing is about delivering on the promise of one-to-one marketing, and today we can see its nascent promise in four areas: customer service, social advertising, predictive analytics, and connected devices.

Customer Service

Customer service may seem like a strange place to begin a conversation about real-time marketing, but as a United frequent flyer, I can attest that great service sells. Case and point—during yet another winter of travel delays, I’ve spent my fair share of time calling United’s MileagePlus hotline. While the automated attendant has long recognized me by name, he did something different during my last call—he recognized that I had been searching for a new flight on United.com and asked if that was the reason for my call.

That’s real-time, predictive service and marketing—a virtual attendant recognizing me by cell phone number, mapping that to my online profile, and then using my website history to bridge the online/offline experience in ways that accelerate my path to purchase or resolution.

Social Advertising

Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks are home to the real-time conversations of billions of people around the world. As these networks continue to monetize their audiences, they have become proving grounds for real-time marketing’s promise. Instead of renting the attention of an anonymous audience to advertisers, social advertising gives brands the ability to reach individuals. Moreover, it increasingly gives the advertiser the ability to layer in their own knowledge of their customers in order to differentiate messages and target “look-alike” audiences in order to attract new customers.

In practice, this means that advertisers can now target their email subscribers who are also fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter in order to reinforce a campaign message—a practice that one leading retailer found increased intent to purchase by 22%. Such real-time targeting is already becoming more granular, allowing social advertisers to serve different creative based on both online and offline behaviors.  As viewed through the social advertising lens, real-time marketing becomes a means by which to increase advertising efficiency and response while building multi-channel relationships with customers.

Predictive Analytics 

Whereas social advertising leverages consumer insights to power customer engagement and conversion via third-party platforms, predictive analytics seeks to improve these metrics within your own ecosystem of websites, mobile apps, and stores. The goal is to generate a single, ever-evolving view of each of your customers that can be used to personalize content, offers, and experiences in order to boost response, ROI, and brand loyalty. This effort is not only real-time but also inherently adaptive—changing product recommendations based on each customer’s own changing interests and behaviors over time. Everyone thinks about Amazon.com in this regard, but it is now possible for every company to deliver the Amazon experience. Take Netflix, which employs 300 people to maintain and improve its content recommendations, and spends a total of $150 million dollar on recommending movies and TV shows to its members every year.

Connected Devices

A world with more connected devices translates into a future with untold numbers of real-time marketing opportunities. Take the recently announced Apple Watch, for instance. Wearable, connected devices present a tremendous opportunity for businesses to connect with customers, partners and employees in a whole new way. In fact, 68 percent of executives call wearables a “priority” for their companies, according to Forrester Research (1).

Marketers are no longer just thinking about mobile in terms of smartphones. Moving communications from the phone to the wrist makes them more visible, intuitive and likely to spur action. Those actions, which Apple showed off at its launch event this week, include opening a hotel door, hailing an Uber cab and making a one-tap purchase with Apple Pay. And as the Apple Watch also measures more about the user’s health and well-being (with their permission, of course) that will trigger a host of new, real-time “glance” opportunities that drive action on the wearable itself or move the person to their phone, tablet or desktop to engage in a deeper way. Is this marketing in the traditional definition of our profession? It doesn’t matter. It’s key to the customer journey, and each step of the journey defines a brand.

As social advertising, predictive analytics, and connected devices evolve, we’re certain to see event more instances of real-time marketing in action. But behind each story, there will have to be marketers willing to think differently about their roles. The best will not only sell, they will work to serve each customer throughout their journey, leveraging the power of mobile, social, connectivity, and data to deliver personalized, real-time experiences that exceed expectations for all involved.

In short, real-time marketing is about much, much more than timely tweets. It’s about transforming your business into a true customer company. I hope we can connect at SXSW to continue the conversation.

About the Author

FJeff is a recovering attorney, bacon-lover, and Diet Coke addict who heads up ExactTarget’s Marketing Insights Team – a rag-tag bunch of awesome folks specializing in content marketing, social media, and thought-leadership. His first book, AUDIENCE: Marketing In the Age of Subscribers, Fans & Followers, will be published by Wiley this December. He also co-created and produces the award-winning SUBSCRIBERS, FANS & FOLLOWERS Research Series – the world’s first and longest-running examination of consumer relationships with brands through email, mobile, and social channels. When not pondering life’s complexities, Jeff watches too much soccer and basks in his eternal underdog status as a Cleveland Browns fan.

Jeffrey K. Rohrs is VP, Marketing Insights for Salesforce and author of AUDIENCE: Marketing in the Age of Subscribers, Fans, and Followers. Follow @jkrohrs on Twitter. 


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