Real-Time Advertising: Why Is It So Elusive?

“Real-time advertising” is the all-time big tech buzzword reverberating throughout meeting rooms worldwide. What probably comes to mind is Oreo’s timely ad during Super Bowl XLVII or the dozens of brands that tried to jump on the real-time train during The Oscars.

However, this narrow definition is a far cry from the relevance and timeliness that real-time marketing is all about. To be successful, the first step is to understand what real-time marketing actually is: systematically responding to customers in the moment based on an ability to know who the customer is, what they need right now and how they’re interacting with a brand through any channel.

According to Deloitte, the use of data and technology to identify brief opportunities to put the right message in front of the right customer at the right time is one of the top six trends that will define the marketing landscape.

It makes sense, too. Today’s consumers don’t want to be put in a box. They are accustomed to doing things in real time, using any device or channel, to find and get the things they want, when they want them. They taunt advertisers to keep up as they transition between devices and both online and offline channels, often in too little time for cookie-dependent marketers to serve them a meaningful ad.

The trouble is that marketers really struggle to develop holistic, real-time advertising strategies that are suitable to today’s cross-device, always on consumer. In fact, research from Censuswide found only one-quarter of marketers in the U.K. said they were able to respond to offline events by a consumer and use that information to target a marketing campaign within 10 minutes, while most were able to do so within 21-30 minutes.

3 Reasons Marketers Struggle with Real-Time Advertising Relevance

So what’s holding marketers back? There are a number of hurdles advertisers must overcome:

1. Responsiveness is Confined to Social

A lot of marketers immediately think of social media when they hear the term, “real-time marketing.” However, this limited definition couldn’t be farther from reality. While social media is a valuable piece of the real-time marketing puzzle, brands that limit their responsiveness to social platforms aren’t actually executing a comprehensive, cross-channel strategy. The key to success is to be able to reach and respond to consumers in real time regardless of their device or channel – not to rely on their next log-in to a social media platform.

2. Technology is Often Prohibitive

A robust, all-encompassing real-time marketing strategy is one where advertisers are able to systematically collect, recognize and act upon customer interaction data from many touchpoints, both on and offline. The problem is that too many advertisers rely on multiple, fragmented technology platforms that can’t link cross-channel engagement data. They use ambiguous customer profiles and cookie-based behavioral data that quickly decays. And frankly, this outdated approach is the antithesis to real-time marketing.

3. Cross-device Recognition is Limited

Finally, if marketers can’t systematically collect and connect data about their customers throughout their shopping journey, recognizing those individuals across channels is going to be quite tricky. Real-time marketing is all about the right message at the right time. However, brands will struggle to keep up if they don’t know who their customers are across all channels, or they can’t act on intent data while it’s fresh. What’s the point in collecting information if you cannot recognize the customer fast enough to use it?

Real-Time Marketing: A Route to Loyalty

Marketers who overcome these challenges stand to win the loyalty of today’s fast-moving, always-on, self-directed consumers. Consider the following examples:

  • A woman is shopping online for rain boots at the beginning of March. It makes sense that this purchase cycle is short, as the consumer likely wants to make a purchase before rainy season hits. An ad served right now is better than a message delivered in 30 days.
  • A loyal customer at a large home-goods retailer purchases new sheets in the store. When he gets home – rather than weeks later – he receives a digital ad offering 20% off any online purchase of decorative pillows or other related items.
  • A college student creates an account to purchase items online for her dorm room. The particular retailer she purchased from has beacons enabled in its physical locations – which the shopper has opted into – and when she enters the store, she receives a mobile alert with a targeted ad for 10% off college supplies like text books, backpacks and storage.

Real-time marketing that addresses known audiences is very possible, but it’s not about capitalizing on mass media trends that aren’t relevant to individual consumers, nor is it a strategy that is limited to social media. Rather, it’s about timely relevance that empowers consumers in their cross-channel shopping journeys. And achieving this timely approach is the heart of people-based marketing.


Originally published May 17, 2016

Jon Padilla

Jon is a data-driven marketer who's passionate about using technology to deliver innovative media strategies and create meaningful digital measurement. He the former Director of Product Strategy at Signal.

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