Welcome to the Mainstream, Real-Time Marketing

Remember the good old days? When brands, every now and then, would make headlines by jumping on a trend? That was fun.

I remember when #Bendgate spread like wildfire and Kitkat made the most of the opportunity. When the Royal Family announced that they were expecting another baby, and Nissan jumped in with some quick creative. Or even smaller events, like when Crest laid down some sick lyrical damage while jumping on a trending topic that started with Comedy Central’s @Midnight show.

Well, it seems like the good old days are officially over, and not because brands aren’t leveraging real-time marketing anymore. It’s actually quite the opposite.

Last week we saw brands jump on events – big, small, and unforeseen moments – in record numbers. As these trends spread across social networks, brands responded en masse with quick responses, making the most of relevant topics that their audience was talking about.

In fact, when I step back and look at last week as a whole, I believe that it was the week that RTM stopped being a fad and became mainstream.

Why? Here are a few reasons.

Brands Saw Trends Coming (and Were Ready)

As big, foreseeable events made their impact during the week, brands were ready to join in on the conversation with content that went beyond the typical campaign-based creative, and focused on the topical.

During the Oscars, brands of all shapes and sizes performed their versions of live-Tweeting while statues were handed out. But many brands created content before the show that could be both highly-polished and on topic. Planned RTM at its best.

The same pre-planned RTM tactics worked for many brands around the release of the Netflix phenomenon House of Cards. As the 3rd season hit Netflix on Friday, brands were ready with content that avoided spoilers but still celebrated the pop culture topic of the day.

Brands Acted Fast On Everyday Trends

If you have surveyed social media teams last Monday for how many thought they’d be creating content about llamas by the end of the week, you’d probably not see a lot of hands raised. But that’s the wonderful thing about the modern world – trends out of left field can swoop in and claim a huge share of conversation in a matter of minutes. And that’s exactly what happened with the #llamas.

When two llamas got loose in Sun City, Arizona and a news helicopter filmed the many attempts at capture, brands were quick to react to create quick social posts to join the conversation. More than 20 brands – everywhere from Dennys to Disney to CBS Sports – had fun with the llama drama and were able to see big bumps in social engagement for keeping an eye on relevant topics of the day and reacting quickly.

The Brit Awards Took RTM International

Real-time marketing didn’t only have a big week in the United States. The Brit Awards caught the attention of international audiences, and brands were there on social media to cheer, laugh, and keep up with events as they unfolded. 10 million Tweets later, we saw some great real-time social content from brands and celebrities alike.

Brands like ASOS, Benefit UK, and Burberry all chimed in, but Madonna’s fall off the stage brought out some unlikely brands in the local transportation market as well. The National Rail had some fun with the incident, and NCL Airport received a bump of over 28,000% in engagement metrics with their Tweet.

#TheDress Brought Brands Out Like Nothing Before

And then, to top off the week, there was #TheDress. Oh my goodness, #TheDress. As people chimed in on the color of a dress that had been posted on Tumblr, social media exploded with different takes on the color, why everyone was seeing different colors, and how strange the whole trend was in the first place. To say that brands joined the conversation would be a bit of an understatement.

#TheDress brought out more brands than I’ve seen as I’ve researched real-time marketing over the past year. I counted 126 brands that chimed in on the phenomenon, and to be honest, I had to stop counting at some point. Brands from the largest and most diverse set of industries I’ve ever seen chiming in on a trend.

The brands included:

But if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that participation isn’t really what we’re the most interested in when it comes to real-time. We want to see how those posts performed – did they drive more engagement than other social posts for these brands? To answer that, I pulled the last 1,000 Tweets from each of the 126 brands that chimed in on #TheDress to compare their performance on the trend vs. how each individual brands usually performs.

Here is the result:

Of the 126 brands I saw jump in on #TheDress, 106 of them saw higher engagement than they usually see for their branded Tweets. On average, brands saw +539% higher Retweet and +8,900% higher Favorite metrics than their historical levels of performance. Not only did the trend drive conversation, it also drove performance.

The Maturity of RTM

So, as you can see – it was quite a week for real-time. From planned events, international trends, unforeseen everyday topics and a mega-trend that swept the world, brands were creating more real-time content last week than I’ve ever seen before. In fact for many social teams last week, real-time was no longer a shiny new tactic to experiment with, it was something their teams were doing every day. And it was performing.

As the moments pile up and brands jump in with more relevant approaches to social, it’s interesting to take a step back and see how far the viewpoint on real-time has come even in the last 12 months. I’ve seen a noticeable shift in the tone of conversation around RTM, and the shift in attitudes mirror a pattern that I saw years ago in our very same industry.

Back when digital data (web analytics, social data, etc.) was first being introduced as a capability in agencies, it was met with a good amount of criticism. In a world that lived and breathed with the next big idea from a creative team, bringing in an analytical approach to understanding an audience, behaviors, and attitudes was mocked by many. It will ruin our process, said some. I’ve never seen a big idea come out of a spreadsheet, said others. Nobody wants to visit a site designed by an algorithm. Fair points.

But over the years, opinions changed. Creative teams saw that data can help when used in the right way. And then this past year at Advertising Week, I saw no fewer than five panels where creative leads were asked about using data in their process. They all said exactly the same thing – “of course we use data, but we’ve always used data, and this is nothing new.” It made me chuckle, but it was great to see how the industry has shifted over the years.

Real-time marketing is beginning to make the same turn. I’ve noticed that the old headlines that mocked RTM as a “flash in the pan” and “insulting to the industry” have been replaced with “real-time marketing is just relevant marketing”, case studies about how brands are using real-time tactics to becoming nimble and modern, and yes, even many pundits saying “Real-time marketing is nothing new, we’ve been doing it for years.”

It’s music to my ears.

It’s great to see that nimble brands are changing the way they communicate with their audiences. Using real-time, brands can be more insightful, add more value, and yes, even have fun sometimes. In the next few years, the interactions between consumers and brands will continue to evolve on both sides, and it’s great to know that a real-time mindset is pushing social teams forward to not just grab headlines, but to add a better experience for both sides of the table.

And BTW, that dress is totally white and gold. Totally.

Chris Kerns's picture

Chris Kerns

Chris Kerns has spent more than a decade defining digital strategy and is at the forefront of finding insights from digital data. He currently leads Analytics and Research at Spredfast. His research has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, USA Today and AdWeek, among other publications.