Within the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to the birth of a new phrase that’s leaving marketing pundits everywhere breathless: real time marketing. It’s a branch of the equally as hyped “content marketing,” and we can thank Oreo for doing such a tremendous job at the Super Bowl with their infamous “dunk in the dark” tweet in response to the power outage, along with the likes of Tide, Audi and others. In the last week or so, we’ve seen commentary saying that brands need to adjust to the new 24/7 marketing model.

Of course, this isn’t new, as Oreo demonstrated its prowess last year with its 100 days of content as part of the Oreo Daily Twist campaign last year, and as we fondly recall with the video responses of the Old Spice Guy in 2010, and going even farther back with Burger King’s groundbreaking Subservient Chicken. But the thing with every one of those campaigns is that while they surprised and delighted us with the responsive content, ultimately they were campaigns that were asking for some input from fans and consumers.

Why did the Super Bowl activity stand out? The power outage was unexpected, and the brands that pivoted and embraced the opportunity before them were the brands that were celebrated by the public for truly understanding the nature of real-time engagement. Why? Because they related to us, not because they forced us to relate to them.

someecards.com - But enough about me. Let's hear what you have to say about me.
Think of it this way: the Oscars, the Super Bowl or any other major public event is like a party that we’re all attending. The real time engagement around them is like so many pockets of conversation at a party. In that kind of social situation, it’s the witty repartee from the individual that is in touch with world events and cultural touchpoints that wins every time, not the hack comedian who brought a pocketful of scripted jokes from his lame writing staff.

We were certainly treated to a number of clumsy real time marketing in action during the Oscars. There as even a Tumblr created to chronicle what some considered ill-advised attempts at marketing. Jay Baer on his Convince and Convert site takes a look at a number of brand tweets as well, providing commentary along the way. He outlined a number of categories, from “missed opportunities,” to “planned in advance, just okay,” to “trying too hard.” The one that stood out for me was the tweet from @VictoriasSecret that Jay called “organic and interesting”:

WOW: Jennifer Hudson just KILLED it at the #oscars
— Victoria’s Secret (@VictoriasSecret) February 25, 2013

But some optimism managed to shine through. Steve Hall, writing for HubSpot, found 10 examples of brands that got it right (although some of these are the same that Jay criticized). David Armano said while “the marketing community lost last night,” he also indicated great hope that brands can figure it out and that we need to take risks in order to see rewards. While I agree that there is plenty of room for growth, I’d say let’s also keep this in perspective. If anyone lost last night, it was consumers, for being the recipients of marketers’ sloppy efforts.

Back to the party analogy. So it goes in this nascent world of real time marketing. This is about grasping opportunities as they happen and having the sensibility to know when and how to say something to inspire, not having a bunch of pre-planned content against a series of expected outcomes. The latter practice isn’t really that new either; years ago, agencies would have creative prepared for either team in the World Series and submit both to the newspapers, so the correct one could be run when the game finished.

This new practice though is much more intensive. It requires a great deal of resources, a high level of trust between agency and brand, the ability to monitor – and process – a lot of information quickly, and the ability to put it into context in a way that suits the audience rather than the brand. There’s an art to making a witty comment in a meeting or at a cocktail party; it requires the commenter to have:


  • A sense of timing
  • The ability to read the audience
  • Broad knowledge of universally understood concepts and cultural touchpoints
  • Good judgment

So it goes for real time opportunities for your content. Sometimes, the best approach is to simply say nothing. Just keep your attention-seeking thoughts to yourself and let the conversation go on. That’s where good judgment comes in.

We’ve barely even begun to scratch the surface of this art within the practice of marketing, let alone master it. But that hasn’t stopped some from already declaring real time marketing over. It’s kind of tough to argue that the practice has jumped the shark when we haven’t even learned how to drive the motorcycle yet (much less don water skis).

The Newsroom Mentality

We keep hearing commentary debating whether or not brands should have newsrooms. The measured approach, rather than to chase the latest craze, is to determine whether or not the effort is worth the cost. Shiv Singh, head of digital marketing at Pepsi, advocates that kind of approach in his comments in the article, and he’s someone who has a great deal of experience in digital and social media and strategy development.

The Harvard Business Review suggests that if advertisers wish to think more like newsrooms, they need to embrace agile content development (also advocated by Fast Company), be prolific in their scale, and put the audience at the center of everything they do. It’s clear that there are some brands that are trying to attempt this, as we saw during the Oscars, but the reality is: it’s hard. And very expensive.

It’s one thing to staff up for a special event, announcement or media integration for a limited period of time. Sporting events, entertainment and short(ish) campaigns lend themselves to that. Oreo’s Daily Twist was an example of an extended campaign at 100+ days, and the Old Spice videos stretched over a couple of weeks. The staffing and monitoring systems to support those would be quite costly for a limited period of time. Extending beyond that would be even more intensive. It’s going to require a new way of thinking to be able to support those models. And it’s not only limited to advertising; PR is on the hook as well.

And the size and spend on the event may make a difference in how advertisers decide to deploy resources. To those who claim #FAIL on the real time engagement around the Oscars, I say let’s look at the cost of advertising. Only $1.8 million per 30-second spot, compared with the $4 million for 30 seconds of airtime during the Super Bowl. And let’s face it: the hype of the ads for the Academy Awards is almost nonexistent when one compares the weeks and days leading up to the Big Game and the scrutiny with which consumers and the media give those ads.

Catching a Wave

Just last week, we bore witness to the hacking of two major Twitter accounts: @BurgerKing and then @Jeep. But what we immediately saw in the aftermath, we’re more clumsy examples of brands just jumping on the real time bandwagon, trying to harness the zeitgeist of the day. MTV hacked its own account to make it look like it was a victim (and later admitted it); ditto with BET. And then in a bizarre turn of events, Donald Trump claimed his account was hacked – although it was only for one tweet, and then he somehow miraculously regained control of the account within an hour. Imagine that.

All of this goes to show that it’s not enough to be a “me-too” brand. Look at how quickly the Harlem Shake craze fizzled, to the point where people on social networks were posting things like, “if I have to see another Harlem Shake parody…” The reason the good stuff works is because it takes us by surprise and is original.

Photo Credit: pepe50

While the real time newsroom may not be a widely dispersed practice any time soon, we do need to give it due consideration and experiment in limited places where it allows us to learn. Rather than assembling the teams and resources to make a full time commitment – or dismissing it as having been played out (over what, a month?) – let’s start by thinking about consumers and what they might be looking for when brands invade their living room. If done right, it really works.

Are we satisfied being thought of as hacks or would we prefer to be known for our wit?

Photo Credit (top image): rwhitesi37