When I was a teen, back in the 80’s – yes, I’m old – there was this bakery just off my local high street.
It was a family-owned bakery, and had a mix of fancies, pastries, bread and sweets (candy in North America). While the goods being sold were a great mix, and kept the bakery successful, it was what the owner did to keep it that way that interested me (and probably instilled the first concept of marketing to my subconscious).
If there was a sports match on, he’d make small cakes in both team colours. Nothing new there. Except when a team took the lead, he’d quickly put little sad faces on the cakes of the losing team, and sell those at a discount to cheer the losers up.
It didn’t hurt that the bakery was two doors down from a pub, and he’d send his help into the bar to sell the new cakes, with the challenge to make the other team wear the sad faces.
When the game finished, he’d invariably give the remaining cakes away to the losers, and he’d have baked a bigger cake in the shape of the winning team’s mascot for them to eat for free when leaving the bar (for afternoon games).
This is just one example of some of the cool things he’d do on the fly. Royal weddings? Check. Huge charity events like Live Aid? Check.
For every major event, as well as local sporting ones, he and his bakers would be on the ball, making something essentially on the fly to take advantage of the occasion. Sound familiar?
Real-Time Marketing or Old School Initiative?
In February of 2013, the lights went out at the Super Bowl. Oreo Cookie famously took advantage of it with a quick creative that they posted on Twitter.
As you can see from the image, it received almost 16,000 retweets, and was favourited 6,400 times. It received praise from various publications, and was used by many social media consultants as the dawn of real-time marketing.
Except, it wasn’t really real-time.
While there’s no doubt it was a masterful stroke of quick thinking and marketing on the day, it was more than just that. The Oreo team and their social media agency had been strategizing for the previous 18 months on how to effectively use the medium, in order to celebrate the brand’s 100th birthday.
Cue the power outage, cue the result of being ready to act and the ensuing praise.
Yet as deserving as Oreo and their team was of the praise, it wasn’t the start of real-time marketing, despite the best efforts of those consultants trying to capitalize on the new darling phrase and charge clients more for the benefit.
Real-Time Marketing, Before Social Media
The funny thing with social media is it often makes marketers – or at least, digital marketers – forget there was ever a time before 2006, when the words “social media” and “marketing” were beginning to be used together.
Yet for those purporting real-time marketing as the latest new child in the social media-led school of business firsts, they might want to look a little bit further back.
Over at the evergage blog, Rob Carpenter shared his thoughts on where real-time marketing first became more visible, based on search terms and traffic spikes on Google Trends.
The blue line relates to “real time marketing” while the red line relates to “web personalization”, or the ability to personalize your business website based on traffic, demographic, cultural offers, seasonal specials and more.
As digital marketing via e-commerce and landing pages was growing (personalization), so was the need to be able to quickly put together offers that would initiate your desired call to action (CTA).
This speed to create was the same as today’s real-time marketing, except today we have better tools to do it with.
As the blue line shows, there was a huge initial spike back in 2005, then a steady rise since 2007 (as social media filtered its way to the mass market).
Real-Time or Data Driven Marketing?
You only need to look at the clamour by brands to offer the coolest celebration of the Royal birth when Prince William and Duchess Kate had their first baby to see how big the “business of real-time marketing” had become.
Yet the problem with real-time marketing – or at least, the version brands are trying to emulate but often failing at – is it’s too fast for its own good, and is simply trying to take advantage of a major news story without thinking through how that brand fits.
The beauty of the original Oreo tweet at the Super Bowl is it had been planned meticulously. Perhaps not the tweet itself, but certainly the message, the way it appeals to Oreo aficionados, and the execution.
Because it was based on data the brand knew about its audience.
And this is where the real value of real-time marketing comes into play, and has been used for as long as the first business owner thought on their feet on ways to beat their competition, and bring customers to their store versus a competitor’s.
It’s exactly the point David Meerman Scott makes in his book, Real-Time Marketing and PR, published in 2010. In both the book and on his blog, Scott shares examples of the best types of real-time marketing that don’t hype themselves by using the phrase.
Just look at how airlines adapt to ensure there are rarely empty flights, and how they can change pricing on the fly to sell unsold seats.
Or look at the way Amazon has redefined the customer experience to ensure every visit is optimized to offer products and services that truly interest the visitor.
This isn’t the result of some buzzword – instead, it’s taking years of data and research about customers, their buying patterns, their purchase life cycles, and their value to a brand, and utilizing it into offers and timely promotions that make sense.
It’s like my hometown baker with his winning cakes, regardless of the victor on the sports field that day.
There’s no doubt that real-time marketing, when done well, can provide a mix of viral buzz and sales success. But let’s not be mistaken that it’s a new tactic, nor is it the saviour of marketing today.
The saviour of marketing today, much like the saviour of any business strategy, is and will remain simple – know your customer, understand what makes them tick, use the data you have on top of the data you’re continuously gathering, and integrate all of that into something called “marketing strategy”.
You might be surprised at the results, real-time or otherwise.