Real-Time Marketing 101: The Marketer’s Guide to the Right Message at the Right Time

A guide for marketers to get a definitive overview of one of the industry's hottest buzzwords.

Real-time is important to brands. But what exactly is real-time marketing? Recently, more than 65 percent of marketers surveyed by Signal said that they either want to explore real-time marketing opportunities, or they even have some real-time initiatives under way. They also see the value of real-time marketing to deliver improvements such as better customer personalization. And yet, for many CMOs and their teams, real-time marketing in the age of Big Data is a mystifying concept, creating uncertainty and trepidation. To help senior marketers better understand real-time marketing, we’ve created the following overview, which answers essential questions about this important topic. Take a moment and get better acquainted. And let us know your reactions. We are here to help you maximize the value of real-time in a systematic way to acquire and keep customers — across all the channels they experience your brand.

What is real-time marketing?

Real-time marketing means systematically responding to your customers in the moment based on your ability to know how a customer is interacting with your brand through any channel. The concept of real-time marketing has existed for many years. In today’s always-on environment, real-time marketing is real-time interaction management. It allows marketers to trigger content and promotions as customers signal intent. Marketers match the speed of consumer decision-making with the ability to immediately deliver targeted customer experiences as interactions occur. This requires the ability to respond to customers across any channel — ranging from your social spaces to your website — in milliseconds. If you’re waiting hours, days, or weeks to upload and act on your customer engagement data, that’s not real-time marketing. There are point solutions that enable real- time marketing — but they are not the same as the total process for knowing and interacting with the customer. To make real-time marketing sustainable (as opposed to a one-off action), you need to have a systematic way to respond to customers across multiple channels in an end- to-end fashion as opposed to only occasionally doing so.

Why is it so hard to understand real- time marketing?

Real-time marketing in action can be delightfully simple. Personalizing a website to make the site change its content based on a customer’s interaction is a form of real-time marketing. But understanding real-time marketing can be intimidating because of the technology and data management required to support the process. It also does not help that so many definitions of real- time marketing proliferate. The multiple definitions exist because real-time marketing has evolved rapidly in the digital age. One way to make real-time marketing understandable is to focus on how real-time can make your brand more relevant to customers’ needs in the moment. You can’t go wrong first understanding what your customer needs in real time.

How is real-time marketing different from social media marketing?

Social media is a channel through which a brand can act in real time. When you respond instantly to a customer’s tweet or Facebook post, you are reacting in the moment in real time — a real-time marketing moment, if you will. But social media is not, in and of itself, real-time marketing in any sustainable way. When you apply technology that enables you to know about a customer interaction via social in a systematic way and then respond within milliseconds, you are using social to support a real-time marketing approach. But even so, if your responsiveness is limited to social, and you’re not using data to respond to that same customer in the context of other channels (say, a real-time chat on your website), you’re not truly keeping up with your customers to give them what they expect from one channel to the next.

How is real-time marketing different from real-time bidding?

Consider real-time bidding to be a process that supports real-time marketing, but it’s not the same. To be sure, a real-time bid, when executed successfully, results in an advertisement being placed instantly on a Web property based on a consumer’s action. The instant placement of that ad is a successful real-time marketing moment, akin to a brand responding to a customer instantly on social media with personalized content. But to be a real-time marketer, you need to be able to systematically collect customer-interaction data from many touch points (e.g., the Web, mobile, point-of-sale, email, call center, kiosk and CRM channels) and execute the right interaction in the moment a the right channel.

What is real-time analytics?

Real-time analytics consists of the monitoring and decision-making tools that support a real-time marketing customer experience. The key to making analytics real time is to automate the process so that you enable instant decision-making about how to interact with a customer based on his or her behavior. Real-time monitoring tools observe what customers are doing on your website, mobile app, social media page, or other touch point. And monitoring activity in real time is certainly important. But you also need a set of rules to act on that activity. A decision-making tool assesses whether, say, the customer on your website is about to purchase something — and then serves up the appropriate content based on predetermined rules. If you need to act manually on your data, you are not acting in real time — which is why both monitoring and decision-making analytics are needed.

Does all my marketing need to be real-time?

How much of your marketing needs to be in real time depends on the needs of your brand and the expectations of your customers. A video trailer for the next season of The Walking Dead can inspire fans and create more viewers without being created and shared in real time. Brilliantly executed Super Bowl ads that create conversation in the office Monday morning are not forms of real-time marketing. But if your customers and potential customers expect your brand to understand their intent and react to them anytime, anywhere, then you definitely need to be ready with a real-time marketing program. Increasingly, any kind of marketing that anticipates and responds to customers’ needs with personalized content needs to be real-time.

How do you do real- time marketing right?

The key to doing real-time marketing right is having a systematic approach to gathering cross-channel data about your customers’ actions and responding to those customers instantly via their preferred touchpoints. It’s important that you possess the means to be constantly aware of your customers’ changing context. If a customer has purchased a pair of shoes using your brand’s
mobile app and then engages with a customer service representative via a live chat on your website, your service rep needs to know about the transaction within milliseconds.

How does real-time marketing provide a business benefit?

Real-time marketing delivers measurable benefits such as increased conversion, brand lift, and decreased cost of service. According to a recent survey conducted by eConsultancy and Monetate, brands that use real-time marketing report an average customer conversion lift of 26 percent. According to Taykey, advertising that capitalizes on real-time news trends outperforms industry benchmarks by 10X. If you give customers contextually relevant content, they will engage with your brand — which is one of the promises of real-time marketing.

What technologies do you need to support real-time marketing?

Your technologies need to help you gather data in real time across all channels and devices that are relevant to your marketing efforts. You should be able to centralize the data, merge it with the customer’s transaction history, and resolve cross-channel identity by uniting data from disparate sources. You should be able to make a decision about how to interact with customers, and then create the appropriate real-time action on the fly (such as serving up the right offer to a customer browsing for a product on your website). Ideally you would use an open data platform capable of collecting, merging, and taking action on data in milliseconds. (Full disclosure: we offer one.) You should support that platform with analytics tools to monitor where customers are interacting with your brand, tools to curate content in real time, and a campaign management tool to collaborate with your fans on a consistent basis. On your website, you need a simple process to manage marketing and analytics tags while gaining full control of how data is distributed to your partners. You don’t want your ability to respond instantly to be undercut by poor website page load times.

What is data decay?

In a real-time world, customer data is a perishable good that decays on the shelf. Any marketer knows that you need to engage with customers when they’re showing an interest in your product or service. If you have a customer in your store browsing through your inventory, a good salesperson will ask “May I help you?” at that moment, rather than waiting until the customer is walking out the door. Real-time data makes it possible for you to have that kind of engagement wherever people interact with your brand in the digital world. The effect of recency on response times was studied by Simpli.fi from more than 200 display campaigns. The study found that click- through and conversion rates are highest within one hour of the campaign-triggering event. Within 30 minutes, CTR begins to decline, and after 24 hours, the numbers fall off dramatically. It’s not good enough for you to gather customer data; you have to be able to use it in real time before that data becomes less actionable. If you aren’t able to act on data within milliseconds after it’s captured, all of the work and money that goes into collecting and integrating your data is diminished and the actions you take will be less effective.

How does real-time marketing change the way you collect and use data?

Real-time marketing is an end-to-end approach. It requires you to collect and apply customer-centric data instantly across all devices and channels. You need to take four major actions with your data within milliseconds:

  • Ingest data from Web, mobile, point-of-sale, email, call center, kiosk and CRM channels, as customer interactions are happening.
  • Synchronize the data across touch points to assemble unified profiles of individual customers.
  • Apply rules that determine how your brand will respond to each type of interaction in specific channels based on customer attributes and behaviors.
  • Act on those insights through any number of customer touch points, such as a personalized website message or ad appearing alongside a Web search.

The key is to act in systematic, end-to-end fashion. Personalizing your website or retargeting a customer based on an interaction that took place a month or even a day ago isn’t real-time marketing.

What is the critical success factor for embracing real- time marketing?

One of the biggest critical success factors is for marketers to move from a campaign-based mindset to a mindset of continuity. A campaign mindset means launching an ad or a social media program, studying the results, and then improving on your effort next time around. A mindset of continuity means treating marketing as an ongoing series of interactions with always-on customers — keeping them engaged wherever they encounter your brand on a continuous basis, rather than launching a one-way campaign with a defined beginning and end date. Succeeding with real-time marketing also means that a business adopts a culture of experimentation and a tolerance for risk. Companies that have zero tolerance for mistakes are not set up to succeed with real-time marketing. Even when you have the right mindset and support yourself with the appropriate tools, real-time marketing requires you to adapt constantly as consumer behaviors change.

How do I get started acting like a real- time marketer?

Most marketers are going to get started with real-time marketing by personalizing a customer experience — such as customizing advertising messaging and/or content on the fly based on what a customer is doing right now. In fact, more than half of marketers we surveyed recently believe real-time can have the most impact on the brand via personalization. But you are not going to go from zero to 60 overnight. First, it’s essential that your brand and supporting technologies are aligned with your customer behavior. Doing so means first auditing the needs of your customers. Use techniques such as journey mapping to understand all the touch points your customers use to interact with your brand. Then take a hard look at whether your brand is present on those channels at all times. From there, take an inventory of all customer interactions and ask, which one of these would benefit from more speed and personalization? Then experiment with a channel such as email or social media. Succeed with one use case at a time to build up to full real-time marketing.