Real-time marketing spans industries as brands pitching everything from ice cream to airlines pop up in consumers’ timelines and newsfeeds during major events and when topics start trending. What the consumer sees on social media is, in most cases, for better or worse, the end result of predetermined protocols hammered out by a brand and its agency partners before anyone can hit send.
Matt Wurst, VP and GM of social media at digital agency 360i, says different pieces need to be in place to move forward with engagement. The first is people, to find and flag the right opportunities for brands to get involved. Next, there’s escalation protocol, or knowing who to consult – whether it’s a legal department, client, or creative team. The third is "a quick turnaround process," he says.
"When we present an opportunity to a client," Wurst adds, "the ability to evaluate and either approve, provide feedback, reject it outright, or provide some pre-approved messaging is critical."
Brands can get tripped up by just the first step in the process because "they’re not necessarily thinking about what is the right opportunity for their audience for the platform," he explains.
Wurst advises looking at engagement a bit differently, not swayed by real time’s celebrity, and having another method in place to prepare and get involved in a conversation.
"Our approach is more right-time marketing, where you can plan, you can plan to react, and then you can respond," he notes.
For instance, in the case of Oreo – a 360i client, which made a huge splash during the 2013 Super Bowl with its "you can still dunk in the dark" moment – Wurst says a year’s worth of preparation went into determining "very strong strategic guidelines" of what the brand could and could not touch during the big game.
Following the hugely successful Oreo ad, "the pendulum swung a bit too far in staffing for real-time direction," adds Wurst, but he doesn’t think that should preclude brands from taking on that kind of challenge. "If the time is right, then do it, but it has really to be right. That’s the difference."
Fitting into the conversation
Joe McCaffrey, planning director and head of social at digital firm Huge, says while there’s not going to be a strict set of rules that predetermines whether a brand should get involved, a methodology in place will hasten the decision as to whether a brand fits into the conversation and makes sense to the consumer.
The foundations of brands are in promises, he says. Consumers have expectations that need to be weighed up, lest they result in "cringeworthy" moments where nobody understands why the brand got involved.
"You can’t just blindly walk into a real-time opportunity and try to do something on the fly," he says. "You could, but you would really just be rolling the dice."
Last fall, McDonald’s launched an initiative without promoting a single item on the menu. The company has made an effort to interact with customers online for years, says the fast-food chain’s VP of communications Ben Stringfellow. Its Our Food, Your Questions platform answers questions, shares multimedia content, and engages consumers in open conversations, which strays from the traditional marketing route to find out what customers are thinking.
"It’s not always about pushing a product. It’s about starting a conversation and understanding what’s important to consumers and being able to engage with other aspects of the brand," adds Stringfellow. "We’ve published information about our food for decades. The concept is not new, but the way we’re going about it is, meeting customers where they are."
As of December, Stringfellow says McDonald’s has answered more than 16,000 questions online across the brand’s social pages.
Know when to stay away
Sometimes, brands need to just stay away. Topics such as politics could alienate consumers and "very personal topics" are often best avoided, as it could make a brand look like an "ambulance chaser," says Jeff Beringer, global digital marketing lead at Golin.
Golin’s network – The Bridge – is in 20 locations, working for 175 brands, adds Beringer, its creator. In times where news or the conversation online is serious or tragic, teams leveraging the system can be advised anywhere, anytime, to temporarily halt ad buys, content promotion, and media pitches. Insights and real-time data offer support, "so we know when to put the breaks on," he says.
Unfortunately, some brands end up getting roasted by users because nobody stops content that was already scheduled to go live.
"You still need smart people who think, ‘Will a human think this is great or really bad,’" explains Beringer.
Top 10 real-time marketing tips
1. Know your audience.
Matt Wurst, 360i, says the agency only gets involved in an online conversation if it can "definitely check off all of the required boxes" before entering a debate.
2. Use precedent when planning ahead.
Huge’s Joe McCaffrey says, "For companies who are new, a wise course of action is to look at your competitors and how they have approached real time, and then look at the data – did it work? Especially if you’re talking about real time at large events, such as the Super Bowl where there will be a lot of people talking about it."
3. Make sure the plan goes through the right people.
McCaffrey notes more highly regulated industries need the OK from compliance or legal, whereas a CPG brand with a "trusting client team" and "a social lead who can communicate directly with the client," will be easier and faster.
4. Know you are not alone.
Chris Kerns, director of analytics and research at Spredfast, says when he researched how many of the 100 most valuable brands were getting into real time for the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowls, year-over-year "social media participation was up by 11%, but real time was up by 270%."
5. There’s a saturation level.
Kerns also noticed "an overall decline" in consumer involvement when brands are "jumping in multiple times on the same topic."
6. Don’t be afraid to spend money.
"The way we cut through all the content and this clutter is really targeted and efficient paid media spending," says 360i’s Wurst. "That was a dirty term as recently as a year ago, but now we are seeing that as brands spend a little bit of money, their return on investment is proving to be significant."
7. Target your audience.
Wurst says some brands see success when they focus on niche groups to promote certain products. Targeting allows a brand to "reach a much more engaged audience that sacrifices a bit of reach for greater relevance."
8. Flex work hours to increase engagement.
For many clients, consumption moments or when key stakeholders are looking for information have been outside typical business hours.
9. Make real time a key focus, not an afterthought.
"The Bridge was initially an add-on for clients," says Golin’s Jeff Beringer. "Now we build virtually every new client’s entire support content around it."
10. Don’t aim for viral.
"Creating content solely for the purpose of going viral should not be the objective of any brand marketer today," says Wurst. "Platforms are too crowded, content is so diverse, and the amount of information that any one person can consume is difficult."