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How ‘real’ is real time marketing?

Carl Sandburg once described a foggy day from the perspective of ‘a little cat’ who peered through the harbour fog on its silent haunches before moving on. A few years ago, real time marketing was like Sandburg’s cat. Its aspirational, illusive promise sounded misty and futuristic – causing a wait-and-see attitude. Meantime, with the availability of real-time data, our cat has been moving on, in real time and subtle ways.

Consider the following product use cases, promoted not as real time marketing solutions, rather applications with real time attributes:

Getting instant advice from a peer. An innovative company in Salt Lake City, Needle, tracks a buyer’s shopping experience in real time and connects them with other existing users who are potential advocates. The solution needs to be carefully-designed not to disrupt those who will probably buy anyway or those that are just passing by, rather those who are struggling to make a decision and want to talk to a peer in real time.

Like many innovative companies, Needle was born from the personal experience of its founder Morgan Lynch, who needed help buying a triathlon wetsuit. After hours of scouring through forums and product reviews, Morgan realised what he really wanted was a credible peer to talk to – one that could help him decide which wetsuit would give him a competitive edge. And Needle was born.

Making a same-day doctor’s appointment. Former McKinsey consultant Cyrus Moussoumi needed immediate medical attention after returning from vacation with a painful ear infection. Four days later he finally got to see a doctor. The experience got him thinking that there must be a better solution for patients requiring immediate care (other than an emergency room, which is often anything but quick). He was right. It turns out up to 20 per cent of appointments made with physicians are cancelled.

Cyrus went on to found ZocDoc, which makes these last minute cancellations visible and available to patients requiring same-day appointments. Today, four million people use the service in nearly 2,000 cities.

Pitching the right product to the right buyer at the right time. Another innovative vendor, Gagein (also known as Google alerts on steroids), helps sales teams double, even triple their conversion rates using sales intelligence they gather in real and near time. For example, when the CMO of a large retailer says to the press, “Revamping our digital commerce systems will be one of our leading priorities this year”, that intelligence goes straight to the sales team of an ecommerce vendor in real time. And as we all know, showing up first gives any sales team an advantage.

Serving the right ad to the right buyer at the right time. Then there’s programmatic ad buying (fueled by real time bidding), which is akin to programmatic stock trading. In this case, ad buying happens as the result of a computational proxy bidding on behalf of humans. This is a true, real time application where ads are served up in microseconds, based on information gathered immediately.

Giving buyers choices, right now. Augmented reality provider, Metaio, just released its free augmented reality browser (for Android and iOS devices) which combines GPS, image recognition, and visual search to attach digital descriptors to one’s physical environment. Metaio is one of dozens of companies that augments our physical world with digital information obtained in real time.

What do these cases have in common?
These use cases illustrate how companies are making money from data that we never had before, or at least never had in a timely, scalable manner. Sure, that cancelled doctor appointment was known, but only to the receptionist and the doctor. The peers who we needed to advise our purchases were out there, but we had no way of finding them, let alone chat with them.

And in all of these cases, the scenario feels so natural that it’s not promoted as a real time marketing solution, rather an application with real time attributes that gets people what they want, when they want it.

If you’re like me, the last thing marketing needs is another adjective, mostly because such an overuse of qualifiers to describe marketing has a way of giving birth to new silos (digital, email, social, mobile, data, real time, near time – have all headlined the latest marketing strategies). I suspect we’ll slowly drop all these adjectives some day and just get back to marketing.

Richard Fouts

The author, Richard Fouts, is the Research VP at Gartner. Mr Fouts analyses best practices in marketing management for technology and service providers, including insight and advice in brand management, market and competitive position, messaging, sales, and go-to-market strategies.
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