Like Mother Goose's girl with the curl on her forehead, real-time marketing can be very, very good—but when it is bad, it is horrid.
"Just because you can doesn't mean you should," Bryan Specht, president of Olson Engage, says of brands that join trending consumer conversations while having little or nothing to do with the topic at hand.
Case in point: the birth of England's royal baby. Every marketer and its Anglophile mother jumped on that bandwagon, many embarrassingly so, leading to something of a diem horribilem for RTM.
And yet, the promise of the practice remains potent. Brands are building up giant audiences in social channels, and those beasts must be fed. Engaging fans with shareable content around the things they love is becoming a practical as well as a strategic necessity. Doing so skillfully and quickly (you can look dated in a news feed faster than almost anywhere else) is worth its weight in Oreos.
"What you have to do, as a brand and an organization, is be able to produce content on a regular basis and make it timely and relevant," says David Armano, managing director of Edelman Digital, Chicago, which has done RTM for clients including Adobe, Volkswagen and ConAgra's Slim Jim. "If you have millions of followers across social networks and at any given moment you put up the right content and promote it the right way, you can get in front of a lot of them. And that becomes a mass channel that's direct to your brand."
Clearly, RTM isn't going anywhere. In fact, despite its relative youth as a marketing tactic, a set of standard RTM genres has emerged, along with a suite of best practices. How do you do it well? You need sophisticated monitoring tools, inspired creative ideas and speedy yet polished execution. But perhaps most of all, you need "a culture where people are wired to recognize these opportunities when they arise and empowered to act on them," says Specht.
Also, you know it when you see it. Here's a look at recent real-time efforts tied to eight types of events—everything from holidays to TV broadcasts—and the brands that handled each of these opportunities with skill, grace and dexterity.
Real-Time Marketing: Holidays (1 of 2)
It's become standard procedure for large brands to celebrate major holidays in social. To stand out requires a clever or surprising execution, which Lowe's and BBDO New York delivered this Fourth of July with a stop-motion Vine showing tools exploding into fireworks—a nice companion to their ongoing Vine series of DIY demos.
Real-Time Marketing: Holidays (2 of 2)
—Advertiser: General Electric
Lesser known holidays can also be good for RTM, if your brand aligns. Another BBDO client, General Electric, celebrated National Inventors' Day on Feb. 11 (Thomas Edison's birthday) by asking its Twitter followers for offbeat invention ideas—then whipping up illustrations of the best ones.
Real-Time Marketing: TV Events (1 of 2)
—Advertiser: Nintendo of America
Oreo's Super Bowl blackout tweet pumped up brands to put on a realtime show at the Oscars three weeks later. Unfortunately—but perhaps predictably—most of their efforts were B-list or worst.
The best offered a wry, sardonic take that contrasted nicely with the high gloss of the evening. That's why Nintendo's tweets—including a diss of Pixar's Brave by Super Mario Bros. bad guy Bowser, who had a cameo in rival nominee Wreck-It Ralph—got more love than classier executions from American Express and Stella Artois.
Real-Time Marketing: TV Events (2 of 2)
—Advertiser: Beats by Dre
This year's MTV Video Music Awards was a much trashier affair, and few brands reacted with as much amused indignation as Beats by Dre, which nicely animated its Beats Pill speakers for real-time photo and video reactions—one of which earned a "lmao" shout-out from Miley Cyrus to her 13 million Twitter followers.
Real-Time Marketing: Celebrities
—Advertiser: The Sun
Congratulatory messaging around the birth of Prince George was a royal mess, particularly disappointing since it didn't exactly come as a surprise. Amid a pile of weak Photoshop jokes, Britain's Sun newspaper stood out with a fun, flashy ad from Grey London showing the infant partying with other celebrity babies.
"When it's good, [RTM] represents our industry at its powerful, populist best," says Grey London CCO Nils Leonard. "Doing it well is about being prepared and tooled up for fame. It's a way of looking at the brands you work with and colliding them ahead of time with the cultural calendar. Political campaigns get this. It's about media, genius, craft and energy all being together, all the time."
Real-Time Marketing: Milestones (1 of 2)
Posting inspirational or amusing quotes from famous people might seem like social bottom-feeding, but it can be surprisingly well received, particularly from brands that are themselves inspirational or amusing. Timing them to the birthdays of the quotees gives the posts at least a hint of real-time relevance—as Chobani showed with a Julia Child tribute.
Real-Time Marketing: Milestones (2 of 2)
Anniversaries can also be propitious moments for messaging, whether celebrating key dates in a brand's history or general historical milestones. A particularly delicate example of the latter is Sept. 11—a day that many brands feel obliged to solemnly recognize, though few do so imaginatively. Among the better efforts last year was AT&T's quietly patriotic Facebook photo showing an image of the new One World Trade Center on a smartphone, held up in front of the rising tower.
Real-Time Marketing: Politics
—Advertiser: Grey Poupon
It's certainly not for everyone, but taking a stand on political issues— when they're newsworthy—can help cement brand loyalty, at least among those who agree with you on the issue. In June, dozens of brands came out in support of gay marriage when the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. Several purchased Promoted Tweets around the #gaymarriage hashtag, but Grey Poupon did the most creative job, riffing on its classic "Pardon me" ad from the '80s with a Facebook photo showing two men holding hands from adjacent Rolls Royces. "Spread good taste," read the headline.
Real-Time Marketing: Times of Crisis
—Advertiser: American Red Cross
RTM isn't just about responding to opportunities but also crises. The most celebrated example is the American Red Cross, which responds to humanitarian disasters in real time through its Digital Operations Center, offering information to victims and marshalling public support via social media. (A tweet after the 2010 Haiti earthquake raised some $33 million.)
The Red Cross is also quick, even witty, to respond to its own crises. In 2011, after a staffer accidentally posted a message about getting drunk to the official @RedCross account, the organization followed up with this note: "We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."
We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys.— American Red Cross (@RedCross) February 16, 2011
Real-Time Marketing: Newsmakers (1 of 2)
What if you're not just reacting to the news but making it? Brands are hit-and-miss at promoting their own newsworthy content, though a few have become masters of it. NASA's @MarsCuriosity Twitter account, written from the point of view of the rover itself, is a trove of witty, personable content—much of it translating, in real time, scientific data from the rover for a mass audience. (Last month, the rover made the most of its own anniversary, too, with a series of #1YearOnMars tweets.)
I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 6, 2012
Real-Time Marketing: Newsmakers (2 of 2)
—Advertiser: Seattle Police Department
Another impressive news feed is the Seattle Police Department's @SeattlePD, which is rewriting the social rules of engagement for law enforcement. The Twitter feed and accompanying blog, much of it written by former police reporter Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, is conversational, transparent, funny, serious when it has to be, responsive to readers—and as real time as it gets when reporting crimes in progress. The department has even learned some brand-like marketing techniques. Last month, it handed out bags of Doritos—with stickers outlining the do's and don'ts of marijuana use—to attendees of the Hempfest gathering, following the legalization of pot in Washington state.
"For us, the big idea isn't that we want to entertain people—we want to engage people," says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD public affairs director. "There are going to be situations where it's crucial to get public-safety information out quickly, and we believe we've built an audience where we can do that effectively. People come to us because they find us engaging. But when it starts to get real, they know that we're going to be on it."
Real-Time Marketing: Comebacks (1 of 4)
—Advertiser: AMC Theatres
Perhaps more than anything else, social media values the witty riposte. Brands with a quick sense of humor are welcome in the conversation, as they add value instead of noise. Consider AMC Theatres (210,000 Twitter followers), which posts plenty of promotional content but mixes in comedy, too—once notably tweeting "NOT COOL, COOKIE" after @Oreo wondered aloud whether its followers sneak cookies into the movies.
Real-Time Marketing: Comebacks (2 of 4)
—Advertisers: Taco Bell, Old Spice
Indeed, people find rapid-fire, brand-on-brand insults irresistible, as when Taco Bell and Old Spice mixed it up over their products' respective ingredients. "Why is it that 'fire sauce' isn't made with any real fire? Seems like false advertising," @OldSpice asked—to which @TacoBell replied: "@OldSpice Is your deodorant made with really old spices?" OldSpice had the last word: "@TacoBell Depends. Do you consider volcanos, tanks and freedom to be spices?"
@OldSpice Is your deodorant made with really old spices?— Taco Bell (@TacoBell) July 9, 2012
Real-Time Marketing: Comebacks (3 of 4)
—Advertisers: Smart Car
Comical responses to consumers can work, too, if handled expertly. @SmartCarUSA impressively replied to the snarky tweet "Saw a bird had crapped on a Smart Car. Totaled it" by amusingly debunking the science of the claim with a snarky infographic of its own, diagramming the "weight of bird crap required to damage smart's tridion safety cell."
Real-Time Marketing: Comebacks (4 of 4)
—Advertiser: Belize Tourism Board
Brands can even have fun with random unflattering mentions outside social media. The Belize Tourism Board reacted admirably last month to Breaking Bad's use of "a trip to Belize" as a euphemism for murder by offering free vacations to the Central American nation for show runner Vince Gilligan and eight members of the AMC drama's cast. "We all recognized immediately that there was an opportunity for Belize to seize a large platform here, though it didn't need to happen within minutes," says Specht from Olson Engage, which handled the effort. "We all agreed that this was a great opportunity to show off Belize's laid-back vibe and great sense of humor, which is also one of Belize's great assets."
Specht believes RTM has a bright future—for those who understand what's valuable about it. "If it's smart, timely, creative and relevant, it'll continue to work. If it's not, it'll continue to fail," he says. "It's not about forcing something that's timely and someone thinks is funny. Humor is dangerous and can be difficult. Timely, creative and, most importantly, being relevant to your audience are the key criteria. It can't be forced, just like anything else marketers do. If it's forced, and feels forced, it will fail."