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The 7 do’s and don’ts of real-time marketing

Misguided tweets offering a scone recipe in the wake of a bombing. A Twitter gambit linking painful political upheaval in Egypt to a new clothing line. A social-media blunder connecting Hurricane Sandy with an online store. If you follow the intertwining orbits of marketing and social media, you may know about these episodes of real-time marketing gone awry. Is this really what we are to expect from what once appeared to be a revolutionary concept?


Certainly, to be fair, the rush to real-time marketing is driving innovative disruption—in agency-client relationships, process, creative development, and costs. But as with any newly introduced way of doing things, there are unforeseen bumps in the road. More and more brand executives are awakening the next morning with a real-time-marketing hangover—foggy, unsure of what exactly happened, and, sometimes, full of regret. This has some wondering: “Is real-time marketing worth the effort?”

The answer is a qualified yes.

The key is to know what will move your cause forward and what will run you off the rails. These rules of the road can help you unlock the appeal of real-time response, reap the benefits of disruptive change, and avoid the common pitfalls of the practice.


Tip #1: Timing is everything

Most brands are drawn to real-time marketing because they want to achieve “witty friend” status—they want to be thought of as the guy everyone invites to the party because he knows how to toss a bit of fairy dust over a banal event and transform it into something lively and fun. He surprises us, makes us see things differently. But more than anything, he’s socially savvy and possesses smart timing.

Good timing is equally critical in the world of real-time marketing. But having good timing is not the same as doing things quickly. Where speed is fast and arbitrary, timing is about being patient and discriminating. It can mean acting quickly, but only if you’re thoughtful enough to wait until you identify the right moment—so you’re reacting because it makes sense, not just because you can. Social savvy, whether at a cocktail party or on Twitter, requires a basic understanding of intrinsic social graces, including attentiveness and restraint. When brands rush breathlessly to try to manufacture their own Oreo Super Bowl moment (more on that later), they often run into trouble.

Tip #2: Be witty, not awkward

Don’t be self-involved. Finding ways to inject self-promotional speak into conversations other people are having is not conversing. It’s crashing a party you were never invited to. Instead, practice engaged listening. Identify in advance what cues align to your brand—whether thematic, linguistic, or behavioral—then listen intently for these natural openings into the conversation.


Tip #3: Don’t force it

This is true in marketing just as it is in life: Don’t act desperate. People notice. Don’t force a connection to an event where there isn’t one simply because it’s popular. Rather, successful spontaneous marketing requires seeking the right kind of attention. By aligning with events that are specifically relevant to your target audiences, and providing value—not gimmicks—that enhance their experience in real time, you will earn the right kind of attention. You don’t have to engineer your own football power outage. In fact, waiting for the ideal moment might mean overlooking a wealth of other opportunities. Start simply, by taking a fresh look at your customer experience—offline and online. Where are there moments of tension—areas in the user experience where things break down, are needlessly difficult, or don’t deliver as promised? These are the opportunities to spark delight and relief by providing an unanticipated instant fix or a customized real-time response.

Tip #4: Think before you speak

Don’t ever exploit the tragic or controversial. These are not marketing opportunities, even though recent debacles such as the now-infamous Boston bombing scone-and-breakfast-food tweets suggest some brands still haven’t learned this lesson.

Tip #5: Know your audience

Make sure you have a grasp on whom you’re talking to and what they care about most before undertaking any real-time marketing. You can then focus on events you know your target audience will be paying attention to. From there, figure out where your brand is most credible in the discussion and engineer a logical path to your brand. Where the two interests meet is your real-time sweet spot.


Tip #6: Remember why you’re there

-Don’t lose sight of your business objectives. Oreo did not innovate to be cute, but rather to drive sales. In a moment-driven economy, where brands now flaunt “open relationships,” real-time marketing is like Snapchat, ephemeral and one-off in nature. If there’s no chance the idea will provoke some sort of emotional resonance in viewers, it’s probably not worth the effort.

Tip #7: Don’t be afraid to bring cookies to a cocktail party

Bringing cookies when everyone else is drinking cocktails may seem unsophisticated. But guess what? People like cookies. And after they’ve had a few drinks, they’re more than happy to eat cookies. The same goes for real-time marketing: don’t get distracted with trying to be trendy or impress the wrong people (for example, other marketers). Instead, focus on what matters and what’s real: your customers.

What does that mean? For one thing, don’t focus on being likeable if your real priority is to achieve the emotional impact that drives business results. Likeability is a subtle art form that’s difficult to measure. In fact, the best way to attain it is to not focus on achieving it at all.


Instead, focus your real-time marketing on delivering tangible benefits—whether it’s providing creative inspiration, surprising product hacks, free expert guidance, or a tool to help in a crisis. Practical utility delivered in real time provides instant value—the currency necessary to forge 21st-century customer relationships.

In the end, the promise and disruption of real-time marketing will likely continue to evolve along with platforms, digital behaviors, and consumer expectations. But underneath the real-time jargon are authentic social interactions. The grace, timing, wit and savvy they require have remained largely unchanged. To keep getting invited to the real-time party, plan to bring some cleverness, some creativity, and—sometimes—even a few cookies.

Cheryl Metzger is Associate Director of Marketing Strategy for OgilvyOne.