What the Heck is Real-Time Marketing?

In an industry awash with buzzwords, “real time” is currently one of the most overused and abused.

It is also one of most important. We can’t afford to discount “real-time” marketing as yet another market trend; it’s worth the effort to dig in and understand what the term is all about and why it matters to brands.

Technology enables consumers around the globe to research, browse, and buy the products and services they desire any time they want, anywhere they are. It’s making everything faster and easier. “Multi-screening” consumers are switching back and forth among their smartphones, tablets and laptops throughout the day as they interact with the brands they do business with. Customers “showroom” with abandon, comparing prices and checking product ratings on their mobile devices while shopping in retail stores.

Consumers are empowered to shop and make purchase decisions more quickly, are better informed and have more choices about where to buy. Marketers feel the pressure to keep up with customers’ sophisticated purchase cycles, and to engage with them in a coherent way as they move between Web, mobile, social, in-store, e-mail, call center and kiosk environments. And real-time marketing is the oft-cited solution to these challenges.

As shown in this infographic from Direct Marketing News, a recent survey by Evergage and the Realtime Report found that the vast majority of marketers – 88 percent – say that real-time marketing is a key element of their strategic plans, and 76 percent believe they’re already doing real-time marketing.

Though marketers overwhelmingly agree that real-time marketing is critical, the actual definition of the term remains fuzzy. What constitutes real time? Is it personalization? Web chat? Social content? Triggered emails? Targeted display ads? Or all of the above?

At Signal, we think that the notion of real-time marketing demands a look at the bigger picture. For example, a consumer might use his smartphone to scan emails and social media in the morning, compare product prices on his tablet at lunchtime, and make a purchase on his laptop that evening. That customer views your brand as a single entity and expects a seamless experience no matter which device or channel he’s using.

But most brands are unable to tell that “Joe” who is browsing leather wallets on their website right now is the same Joe who was shopping on their mobile app three hours ago, who also bought a pair of shoes in their store a month earlier, and who spent $500 in the previous 12 months on men’s clothing and lawn-and-garden products.

Using real-time techniques at isolated points in the marketing mix isn’t enough. Without connected, real-time insight across interactions or the ability to immediately deliver relevant content at the right point in the buying cycle, marketers are fundamentally unable to meet customer needs. In essence, brands need to be real time, all the time.

This vision is complex – even futuristic – and most brands will need to build up to this state. But if you’re not thinking about it that way and actively planning to accelerate data collection, connection and actionability, you’re at risk of lagging behind your competitors. Once consumers send out signals that they’re in the market for your product, you may lose the opportunity to make the sale if you’re unable to detect their intent and respond in a timely manner with the right message.

Signal defines real-time marketing by measuring the speed at which the following sequence of actions occurs:

A) Ingest customer-interaction data from Web, mobile, point-of-sale, email, call center, kiosk and CRM channels.

B) Synchronize the data across touchpoints to assemble unified profiles of individual customers.

C) Apply rules that determine how your brand will respond to each type of interaction in specific channels based on customer attributes and behaviors.

D) Act on those insights by executing interactions at an appropriate endpoint, such as serving an ad, personalizing a website, or sending an email or text message.

If the amount of time that elapses between action A and action D is anything more than milliseconds, that’s not real-time marketing. From the point of collecting data about a customer interaction to linking it with other data-relevant points about that customer, to deciding how to respond to the interaction and then acting in concert with your marketing partners – this entire sequence of actions from end to end should occur simultaneously across all channels. That’s real-time marketing in Signal’s book.

Conversely, if you are collecting data in real time, but it takes you days or weeks to decide your response and act on that data, you’re not marketing in real time. Your ad campaigns might be leveraging real-time bidding, but if your vendor isn’t simultaneously accessing your customers’ in-market signals while they’re occurring, you’re not marketing in real time.

Signal helps brands and agencies build the real-time, cross-channel marketing infrastructure they need to adapt to today’s dynamic, interconnected environment and drive more engagement, conversion and brand loyalty.

Originally published May 13, 2014

Joe Stanhope was formerly Senior Vice President of Marketing at Signal.

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