When and how real-time marketing really works

Real-time marketing has become one of the buzzwords of the last 12 months and there are many brands and clients who are looking to get in on the action. There is a risk however that it could easily fall into the “trough of deflated expectations” – I for one want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

‘Real-time’ means different things to different people. Often it doesn’t mean ‘real-time’ at all, just ‘quicker than things used to be’ and it is something that the industry has been doing for decades. For that reason it’s pretty much impossible to write hard and fast rules for how to do real-time marketing, but here are some thoughts about principles that will hold in good stead anyone who wants to try their arm at this stuff.

The first thing to understand is that real-time marketing requires more planning, not less. It has been said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, but this isn’t an excuse not to plan; quite the opposite, we need to be meticulous in our preparations. It was Sun Tsu who said: “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought”. Planners aren’t crystal ball readers, we can never know what will definitely happen in the future, so we should prepare for a range of the most likely scenarios. The benefit of real-time data is that it allows us to select and execute the most appropriate Plan B before it is too late, but you have to have a Plan B in the first place.

Unfortunately, if you are going to be able to quickly and effectively execute Plan B then you have to make more creative assets than you eventually use. This might seem wasteful and expensive, but it is a lot less wasteful than continuing to run a TV ad that is failing to deliver. Also, when alternative scenarios do present themselves you will have ready-made assets raring to go.

This makes a real virtue of patience. The opportunity for effective real-time marketing cannot be supplied on-demand to fit around brands’ marketing schedules. If you want to maximise effectiveness, you need to have the patience to wait until your message is truly relevant to consumers. David Schneider, the comedy writer, recently spoke at length about writing topical jokes, but waiting until they have the maximum opportunity to be funny before delivering them. This is often the hardest thing. If you have a social team, with a newsroom approach to real-time marketing, then the inclination becomes to quickly force a brand fit where one doesn’t really exist. It is this attitude that (I assume) led brands such as epicurious to post its horribly inappropriate messages in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Epicurious made a couple of cardinal sins here. The first is that it completely misunderstood its permission level. It made the mistake of presuming that just because a few thousand people had followed its Twitter feed that those people were happy to hear from them on any and every topic that it felt like talking about. Followers of brands expect them to talk ONLY about topics that the brand is an expert in or can significantly add value to. The other big mistake that epicurious made is that the follow-up apology was slow and insincere. The nature of real-time is that you do need to allow yourself to make mistakes. Sometimes you will get it wrong, but when you do, you need to use those same real-time principles to correct your mistake as quickly as possible. My final piece of advice for now on real-time is that the industry should be thinking a bit bigger. Much of the real-time discussion focuses around social media marketing as the output. That’s all great, but it sometimes feels small and not worth the effort. If we can use real-time planning to double the effectiveness of our Twitter strategy then we might increase the effectiveness of our total marketing efforts by a few per cent. If however we can use real-time data to make our TV advertising 30 per cent more relevant, then the potential payback to our overall marketing campaign can be huge. To that end we need to think differently about how we create and deploy our creative assets in our biggest most expensive media, not just the nice low cost peripheral stuff.Ultimately, successful real time marketing is not about spontaneous, off the cuff, tactical reaction. It is about well anticipated, thoughtful and most of all patient execution of a great strategy and should apply to everything we do.Dan Plant is group strategy director and real-time planning director at MEC

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