Call it the way the Oreo crumbles. Ever since the popular cookie brand hijacked the Super Bowl conversation with a timely tweet that rocketed around the internet, digital has had a serious crush on real-time marketing. (For different reasons, some have also had a serious crush on real-time bidding, but that's a different topic with a confusingly similar name.)
But this isn't an article about Oreo. We long ago exhausted the usefulness of writing lengthy articles about a single tweet. Instead, this article is about a new(ish) reality in marketing. After all, real-time marketing (RTM) isn't really new, and it didn't come out of left field.
"Over the past 50 years, marketing has approached RTM since production time of print, radio, and television has dwindled down," says Hyperactivate CEO and founder Marc Fischman. "What took months to produce in the '60s now takes only days to produce. With the advent of social media, marketing can now be focused at the moment with efforts targeting what is currently relevant to the brand."
OK, so it's a continuum. But RTM is also a big part of consumer expectations these days.
"[Consumers] expect brands to be aware of the world around them and to know their audience and what they care about," says Teresa Caro, SVP of social and content marketing at Engauge. "They expect brands to be aware of and acknowledge that instance when their ad had a presence in a controversial Rolling Stone issue -- and they expect brands to know why. People expect a brand to know why (a hypothetical) 'What's in the bag?' post scheduled in mid-April, while completely unrelated, is now entirely unsuitable. And, people fully appreciate when a brand connects itself in a smart way to an event that they care about."
Clearly, expectations are high, and rightly so. But those expectations are determined, in large part, by context, and that's where RTM gets really interesting -- which is why we're looking at five different contexts for RTM.
You've seen countless examples of this, and maybe you've even been a participant. A brand delivers a bad customer experience, so the customer turns to social media to vent (hopefully going easy on the outrage and profanity). You can find plenty of articles talking about the recent intersection of customer service and social media. But for all the ink and pixels spent on that topic, I still hear a lot of agency staffers looking to delineate the practice of responding to comments in real time as either a PR or marketing function. Frankly, it's both. Although I'm not sure the debate matters much beyond assigning workload and allocating budgets, because the consumers don't make that distinction at all.
"Consumer-facing brands have used social media as an opportunity to turn consumer complaints into marketing opportunities," says Fischman. "Next time your American Airlines flight is delayed, try tweeting a message about it. Within minutes you will get a response from one of the many AA operators that man the AA war room around the clock. AA does an amazing job at turning consumer complaints into RTM experiences."
Writing about a recent travel mishap, Alan W. Silberberg detailed exactly what Fischman is talking about.
But it's not just American Airlines. A lot of commercial carriers work the customer service RTM continuum particularly well (perhaps because with so many flights in the air at any given moment, there's always going to be some issue somewhere).
A while back, I flew Virgin America from Los Angeles to New York. Around midnight, we had to divert to Chicago because the bathrooms had become inoperable. We spent about two hours on the ground in Chicago before we eventually made it to New York. None of the passengers were in a good mood when we landed. In fact, we were a tired and cranky lot, even though the airline had acted quickly to remedy the issue and the pilot had been diligent about keeping us informed.
Now, I know what you're thinking. I tweeted something about the experience, and Virgin America stepped up with an apology. But that didn't happen. The fact of the matter is, a smart brand with a capable social team doesn't always need a social media prompt to get in the game.
Just after landing in New York, all of the passengers turned on their phones and saw an email from Virgin America apologizing for what had happened. The company even tossed in a $50 credit because of the hassle. So what began as a potential customer service problem ultimately ended up as a marketing win because Virgin America leveraged a potential PR problem into an opportunity to build brand loyalty. And yes, I liked Virgin America before that trip, but it's safe to say that I'm now officially a huge fan.
These days, it's just not a media event if a slew of brands haven't geared up for an RTM blitz. And why not? Events like the Super Bowl, The Academy Awards, and even Shark Week are huge media opportunities. But successful RTM campaigns vary wildly.
"The degree of success the brand has is dependent on the resonance they can create between themselves, the event, and the consumer," says Ming Linsley, senior partner and practice lead of social at MEC.
But don't mistake that as a simple equation. Resonance is very subjective, and RTM isn't as simple as hooking your brand to the coattails of a big-deal media event. In fact, the event doesn't even have to be all that big to be a win. According to Linsley, what really counts here is thoughtful planning.
"The most common misunderstanding about real-time marketing is that it is serendipitous," says Linsley. "While there is a certain degree of luck involved, there is a much higher degree of discipline. Brands need to establish a team empowered to make decisions and act in real time; this involves clear guidelines and processes. Brands need to give prior thought to what events or topics are relevant and appropriate for them to engage with in real time, and what communities and influencers are the most important."
Consider how GE handled the anniversary of Thomas Edison's birthday, which just so happens to be a global holiday known as Inventor's Day.
Last Inventor's Day, GE asked its Twitter followers to share their ideas for inventions using the #IWantToInvent hashtag. But that was just the beginning. GE selected the most interesting ideas and turned them over to a design studio it had hired for the event. By the end of the day, GE had produced 70 original blue prints and tweeted them back at the amateur inventors.
But while the campaign came off as spontaneous, nothing about it was accidental.
"For all brands...the imperative is to find ways to act with more agility, which, ironically, would require a lot of practice and planning," Giselle Abramovich wrote in Digiday. "At General Electric, that means coming up with a long-term editorial calendar of events to focus its content strategy around. Then, GE brainstorms a production schedule and gathers the right resources: a strategist, producer, designer, and a lawyer. These four people are in the same room during the event to make it easy to make fast decisions on both content and distribution."
Some people don't like the term RTM. Instead, they'll tell you that RTM is really just news-jacking, which is what happens when a brand exploits a news story for marketing purposes. Obviously, I'm not one of those people. For me, news-jacking is a subset of RTM, and a rather risky one at that.
"The worst mistake you can make in RTM is appearing inauthentic," says Rachel Farrell, senior content producer at Imagination. "When a brand is trying to news-jack something that doesn't make sense to their brand, or when they execute something as 'real time' but it's very clearly not, fans will call you out on it."
But high risk often means high reward, which probably explains the temptation to news-jack.
Consider the case of The Illuminati, a clothing brand that felt compelled to weigh in on the Trayvon Martin story in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal. Here's what the brand tweeted just after the verdict: "The Only Justice for Trayvon Martin is to take the Life of George Zimmerman. #EyeForanEye #ZimmermanTrial."
The brand took that tweet down, but not before The Washington Times made a screen grab.
A little later, The Illuminati had this to say on the subject: "We do not support any violence in reaction to the #ZimmermanVerdict however we do believe in #JusticeForTrayvon."
OK, so this is a clear example of overreach. It's also a clear example of stupidity. (Although arguably, the content of the message did resonate with some, even if there wasn't a clear connection to the brand's values.) But while it's easy to dismiss The Illuminati's tweet as an outlier because it's just so damn dumb, the fact of the matter is that all brands need to be prepared to respond to mistakes, which can happen often in the news-jacking context.
In a word, that reaction should always be about transparency. But if you're having trouble figuring out what that means and how to execute in the wake of a screw-up, Ed Lee, senior director of social media at Tribal Toronto, has some advice.
"Social media is simple, and we make engaging with it far more complex than we should," says Lee. "RTM humanizes brands, and humans make mistakes. Obviously, brands are held to higher standards than humans, or at least their mistakes are more obvious because they reach so many people. Nevertheless, they should act as humans do: 'fess up, apologize, and try their hardest not to do it again. Humans are a forgiving species, and we reward honesty and transparency."
But is news-jacking a bad idea? No, not always. As Steve Hall pointed out in a post at HubSpot, a lot of brands made the most of the Oscars. True, that was a planned event, which allowed those brands to prepare content in advance, but some brands like Special K were able to news-jack, adapting on the fly as events unfolded in real time.
"When 'Life of Pi' VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer's acceptance speech ran a bit long, he was played off with the 'Jaws' theme (planned by the organizers to cut off long-winded speeches)," Hall wrote. "The Special K marketers wasted no time jumping in and having some fun with a famous quote from the movie."
Of course, Special K's news-jack, while witty and topical (the brand's Twitter copy reminded consumers to keep their acceptance speeches "snack size") also underscores the risk of playing with news. The big story that came out of "Life of Pi" was actually a controversial one, because director Ang Lee came under fire for failing to acknowledge the contributions of VFX artists, who have been under enormous economic strain.
Consumers never did connect Special K's joke with the controversial aspect of the story. But in retrospect, I doubt the brand would have wanted any part of it if it had known about the controversy. Of course, that's precisely the point; the risk that comes with news-jacking is that most of the time you don't know where the story is going to go.
Not all news stories are a surprise. In fact, there are plenty of big and small planned news stories every year. But perhaps one of the biggest and most recent was the birth of the Royal baby. That momentous occasion was actually something of a jump ball for a lot of brands, as evidenced by Lee Newton's Engauge blog detailing the winners and losers in the Royal baby bonanza.
According to Newton, brands ranging from Bud Light to Hostess Twinkies might have gotten some viral mileage out of their Royal baby RTM, but the creative came off as a bit of a stretch. In the end, neither found a message that really resonated. Hostess was just weird and a little creepy. And Bud Light essentially reminded consumers to have a drink with its "Keep Calm and Drink Bud Light" message, which I suppose was meant to play off of a would-be father's anxiety around a delivery. Then again, I'm not sure there's much overlap between expecting dads who find humor in soothing their nerves with a cold beer and the people who obsess over all things Royal Family.
So which brands did better? Newtown has a list that includes Disney, Charmin, and yes, Oreo. But for my money, Mini Cooper is the best example of a brand that delivered, because it created a high-concept, polished ad that built on the brand's British roots.
But for all the brands that tried to get in on the Royal baby announcement, no one brand owned the day or came anywhere close to an Oreo moment, according to Linsley.
"Brands need to apply more rigor when determining 'what make's sense for our brand,'" says Linsley. "The birth of the Royal baby received an RTM blitz, [but] there was no one who stood out and created resonance with consumers, and ironically marketers were able to plan for that event. We as an industry need to do a better job of putting on our consumer hat when it comes to real-time content and asking ourselves, 'Would I share that?'"
Make your own fun
Long before Oreo sparked the current conversation about RTM, there was Old Spice's "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign. The campaign didn't begin in real time, but its second act, which featured 200-plus real-time reaction videos, really was an RTM coup.
But according to Caro, marketers shouldn't fixate so much on the RTM aspect of the Old Spice campaign. What really made the difference, she says, was actually integration across all platforms.
"Each successful brand starts with a channel-agnostic brand idea and surrounds that idea with a truly integrated ecosystem (online and offline)," says Caro. "Every channel maintains the same look, feel, voice, and tone. Each channel serves a distinct role and purpose. In this real-time world, every channel must be as relevant and timely as possible."
In other words, RTM is one piece of the larger picture. Social, by its very nature, happens in real time. But for brands to really break through, they need an idea that can work across an integrated network of platforms. When that happens, the brand is in a position to hold its own conversation.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.