The term real-time is often used in marketing to describe having marketing strategies that are updated in real-time or ‘near’ real-time, where a business can adjust their marketing efforts as events unfold. While this may seem like a nice goal, it can be difficult to achieve consistently without having the right tools and team in place.

Smart Insights’ research found most companies—76%—claim that real-time brings increased audience engagement. But many may not have a formal process in place to deliver real-time marketing intelligence.

In another study, more than half of respondents say they need to interact with customers more quickly, and the vast majority—85%—say “it is fundamental, significant or important to their future business success to provide experiences that are responsive to customers based on real-time, in-the-moment behaviors”. 

Real-time success relies on having data that can be analyzed—and used—as it happens, instead of waiting days or more for the results to come in. In many teams, once getting that data, it can take even longer to review and approve social strategy. 

Nowadays, as social media and content aggregation platforms become more mature, companies are looking for ways to create and execute real-time marketing campaigns to get better ROI and stay relatable to their customer base.

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What is real-time marketing? Is it actually in real time?

Real-time marketing allows businesses to stay ahead of the competition by creating personalized or more timely messaging and delivering it to their customers where they are, be it their website, email, or social media.

Trying to use real-time marketing in your organization will certainly need a much faster flow of data and insights than marketing teams have used in the past, but how real-time does that data need to be?

Effective retargeting efforts, for example, rely on data that’s up to date and seeing when a visitor to your website looked at something or added it to their cart. A tool like Criteo, which works with retailers to display personalized online display advertisements, is usually delayed by 2 to 8 hours. Similar considerations exist for social media.

Pro tip: Looking at your feed and seeing endless tweets fly in by the minute, many marketers may not realize that not every platform offers instant analytics.

Supermetrics, for example, aggregates data from numerous different social media and marketing platforms. In reality, Supermetrics offers ‘near’ real-time analytics in most cases, only limited by the freshness of the data offered by each source’s API.

Data from most sources updates every 12 hours in your marketing dashboards, but Twitter Ads, for example, has a two-day API delay which everyone has to work around.

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So let’s look at examples of great real-time social media marketing, some key benefits your brand and business can take advantage of, and a few practical tips on how to set a real-time strategy to get you started on your journey to deliver more timely messaging to your customers.

How three brands benefitted from real-time marketing

What real-time marketing looks like in 2022 is, firstly, automated marketing—emails, messaging, or creatives —set up to react to a potential customer’s behavior, and secondly, putting in place the right tools, processes, and team to react and put out new campaigns based on trends and feedback from your audience.

For simplicity, let’s stick to real-time, meaning any strategy that relies on taking action in a period of time under a day or two and isn’t dependent on full automation.

This may be ‘near’ real-time in terms of the tech required, but ultimately for marketers, there isn’t a need for that split-second turn-around when it still relies on a human to put it into action.

While real-time marketing isn’t limited to social media, the most public and successful examples do tend to take place where the virality of the content can result in endless free reach. This doesn’t negate the value of other real-time marketing—email or other channels—but for these examples, we’ll draw from the most public successes.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral. In fact, it was so widespread that we still all know the concept a decade later.

The challenge was simple: dump a bucket of ice water on your head, post it on social media, and tag three friends to do the same within 24 hours. It didn’t take long for companies to start getting involved. Brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, Samsung, and Virgin Mobile, to name a few, all followed.

While viral challenges had been done before, it was the perfect storm of awareness, charity, and social media that made it take off the way it did. The challenge generated $115 million for ALS in 2014 alone. This makes it a perfect example of the type of opportunities real-time marketing holds for those ready to jump on a trend.

Wendy’s edgy social media

If you’re a marketer and have been on Twitter for any length of time, you’ll have noticed the fantastic and uber-popular voice that Wendy’s official brand account has for snapping back at competitors and customers alike.

The truth is, their strategy only works so perfectly for them because they were true pioneers in this tactic. Back when classic-brand Twitter was reaching its natural oversaturation of tired marketing messages and perfect content calendars in the mid-2010s, Wendy’s was one of the first to break away.

Wendy's tweet replying to a customer: "Name a scam: Some people use frozen beef in their hamburgers"

With their well-timed and edgy comments, the McDonald’s rival was able to carve out an oversized Twitter following with their use of real-time marketing tactics to insert themselves into customer and competitor conversations.

Just as much as Wendy’s is the textbook example of real-time social media done well, it’s also a cautionary tale. Those who practice real-time social media without proper thought, planning, and perhaps a little help from the right tools are more than likely to end up looking foolish when a competitor exploits an opening.

Wendy's tweet replying to a competitor: "Yea, for one, if we were going to diss another restaurant, we'd have more than zero likes and RTs after 13 hours."

Innocent Drinks pandemic updates

In May 2020, forgetting what day it is was all the rage. A few months into a pandemic that turned everyone into hermits, it was easy to lose track of time. The weekdays all started to blend together, and many had started to spend all their time stuck on the couch on endless Zoom calls.

Innocent Drinks seized on the moment with a series of daily tweets with a friendly reminder that we’re not alone in our stay-at-home struggles. These humorous updates fit well into the brand’s voice and let them stay in the hearts and minds of their customers at a time when they needed it.

Innocent Drinks tweet quote of the day: "Daily reminder of what day it is today. It's a Tuesday. We know it might look like a Monday. We know it might feel like a Monday. We know it might smell like a Monday. But trust us, it's a Tuesday."
Innocent Drinks tweet quote of the day: "Daily reminder of what day it is today. It's a Friday. Pinch yourself. It really is Friday. Please note: pinching yourself is entirely at your own risk. innocent drinks LTD will not be held responsible for any pinch-related injuries."

Adding to the concept’s success, the social team extended the friendly updates into a friendly contest. Customers were encouraged to record and share their best “useless sofa activities” in exchange for free smoothies and for the benefit of Age UK charity.

Innocent Drinks tweet: "Win free smoothies and do some good."

How you can benefit from real-time marketing

Here are some tips that can help you take advantage and gain real benefits from real-time marketing.

1. Diversify your content

Take an honest look at the content on your social pages. Does your marketing team have enough creative minds and social media editors to continuously publish interesting and engaging content? Depending on your brand goals, this may be unrealistic, but giving teams the right autonomy to focus on publishing great content is a good place to start.

2. Continuously refine your messaging

There’s a reason why startups and smaller teams are seen as the true innovators—because it’s simply easier and faster to test new ideas. Do you have a culture that encourages people to test concepts as soon as they can, or are the best ideas being left untested?

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If you feel you’re unable to quickly adjust your messaging in the face of feedback or when something new emerges, then social media is a great place to start freeing your comms strategy.

3. Tie your brand to positive messages

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a fantastic example of how hopping on the right trends can work for everybody involved.

Not only did it raise $220 million for charity, but it also gave brands a natural way to interact on social and make real people in the company—up to and including the CEO—more visible. Truly viral trends aren’t going to pop up every day, but it only takes one look at how companies are using TikTok to see the great and repeatable potential of the concept.

4. Take advantage of customer feedback loops

Right back to TikTok. We see the true potential that companies have with continuous customer feedback loops. As marketing professionals, we don’t only need to consider our own point of view when coming up with new campaigns—we also need to make sure that we’re taking an active interest in our customers’ interests.

TikTok makes it really easy to ‘Reply’ to comments with its own new post, which gives you an amazing opportunity to make highly reactive content that’s more likely to get reshared.

5. Embrace the unexpected

The downfall of real-time marketing is that once you commit to constant communication, any misstep becomes magnified. Nonetheless, you’re seeing more and more of the biggest brands in the world trying out new concepts and ideas in public—so the odds are good that your company—which is likely not dealing with the same kind of scrutiny—can still have some pretty wild success.

In the modern era of PPC and social media, all marketers benefit in some way from real-time marketing, almost as a default. The feedback loop in which we work and live is only getting faster compared to 10 years ago. We’re all living more connected to the data points that inform good marketing.

What the 90s can teach us about real-time marketing

Real-time marketing, in a social media context, relies on reacting to the zeitgeist in a quick and relatable way. Zeitgeist is just a fancy way to describe the spirit or mood of culture at a particular point in time—the 60s, the 1800s, or even March 2020.

These days, we can see the effects of the zeitgeist almost immediately. Thanks to smartphones, social media, and meme culture, the definition of real-time marketing has shifted to reflect this.

Since we’re not able to look at something like the 2020s, and COVID, or even the Johnny Depp trial with the massive benefit of hindsight, let’s have a bit of fun and go back to the 90s for a quick example and thought experiment.

How would savvy 1990s marketers benefit from real-time marketing, given the tools we have available today?

The 90s were a time of major change, so the cultural zeitgeist was always in flux. This made it a very exciting time to be in the marketing industry, as marketers reacted to the latest trends to get their brand message across—but nowhere close to the speed and data marketers operate with today.

Now, if you could’ve theoretically monitored social media trends of the 90s, you can start to guess the things that would be trending: OJ Simpson Trial, Monica Lewinsky, Spice Girls, and towards the end of the decade, Y2K. The largest and fastest growing brands included GAP, Ecko Unlimited, Nike, and Coca-Cola.

You probably wouldn’t have wanted to be marketing your up-and-coming Blockbuster competitor around the OJ trial if you were active on the company profiles in the 90s. Maybe you could’ve gotten a solid lift from a well-timed reference on 90s Twitter, but chances are, you’d be running face-first into the controversy you wouldn’t necessarily want to associate your brand with. And what if the whole audience wasn’t on board with that joke, sparking real backlash?

Now the Spice Girls however—that’s the ticket. They existed in a space in the zeitgeist that wasn’t too niche but, at the same time, appealed most to a certain target demographic. You could’ve looked to a social listening tool, organized your organic Twitter and Facebook audiences to inform you of trends, shopped around for content ideas that would appeal to young women, and fueled your own brand profile with the rise of the girl group.

Spice Girls movie in VHS

What does this teach us? Identify interests that are trending but not oversaturated. Use clever storytelling to tie these trends back into your brand. For example, you could explore what toys the kids bought during the 90s and what that means for the videos they—or their parents—would likely rent on VHS.

Now back to the 2020s’.

How to set a real-time marketing strategy

There’s no easy, one-sized-fits-all playbook for getting your team up and running with a real-time marketing strategy, but there are a few key steps you can take to get started.

Define your goals

What are you hoping to achieve with your real-time marketing strategy? Since most potential benefits are hard to know in advance, it’s helpful to have at least some specific goals in mind.

Are you interested in boosting social media engagement across the board? Focusing on getting more eyes on particular products or promotions? Or is your goal simply to connect better with your audience and figure out the type of content that resonates with them?

Ultimately, depending on the size of your business, these can be more or less defined depending if you’re new to social or not and the resources you have. Whatever the goal, try to have a specific metric in mind to measure success against.

Always be listening

Even the most ‘online’ people exist in their own niche, which isn’t necessarily aligned with the business goals. Having social listening in place is an important step to enabling your real-time marketing efforts.

Just understanding your brand and industry is important for any marketing team. It becomes all the more crucial when living on the cutting edge of crafting messages for social media on the fly.

You can start off by getting a good idea of what your competitors might be posting or reacting to, but there are a couple of other places that social media tool Sprout Social recommends for keeping up with and monitoring trends:

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Get the power of big data, even for smaller insights

Advanced solutions to empower real-time recommendations in emails—like Amazon’s Personalize—are great for larger businesses and those built from the ground up to capitalize on the power of machine learning and real-time insights, delivered via your online store, targetted ads, or email marketing.

A first step you can take to start empowering your team with data is to look to a data warehouse for your marketing data. That itself might feel like a daunting step for many small and medium-sized businesses, but when you feel the need to better understand the return on marketing investment across different campaigns, including real-time, the benefits start to become very clear.

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Wrapping up

With the rise of social media at the forefront of the marketing industry, it’s also never been more important or easy to make real-time marketing at the center of your online strategy. While the term can really encompass a large range of execution, the ultimate goal is the same: deliver excellent messaging to customers.

About the author

Community Manager at Supermetrics, William looks to find new ways for our users to connect, learn, and build successful marketing analytics solutions. Before joining Supermetrics, he spent years growing online fanbases, followings, and communities for gaming, travel, and tech brands.

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