Everyone is talking about the real-time web. Which of course means, brands are asking questions about it. Which has ad guys and gals quoting pundits and regurgitating sound bites. Currently, most talk about real-time is specific to search. Which makes sense because search is a huge industry, used by most brand marketers. But, search really isn’t the easiest initial foray for brands interested in real-time information.
Currently, real-time themes are starting to show up in the work of a few forward-thinking agencies. Goodby’s Sprint Now Network is a personal favorite because it takes the idea and delivers it entertainingly across the perfect collection of media from the Now widget to clever TV spots. It does so, however, by not actually limiting the creative to real-time— just the premise of real-time. The same can be said for Droga5’s work on behalf of Puma. They created the Puma Index, which undresses models as stock prices fall. Both campaigns help keep their respective brands relevant by actively gauging what’s happening today. Both use real-time as a creative engine of sorts and to great results.
However, I think the big role of real-time technology for brands will be via curation. Curation as a marketing mechanism is easy if your brand has the credibility to pull it off. Lots of brands have played in the space (Denuo’s on that list, having created Purina PetCharts in early 2008), but most seem to miss the mark. They focus on real-time curation of content about themselves (skittles.com is the most notorious example), which basically takes a traditional media brand-centered approach and applies it into new technology where it’s much less relevant.
Instead, why not curate what’s relevant to your consumers, but credibly reinforces your positioning? It’s possible real-time curation might facilitate marketers striking the balance of providing utility, while still doing brand-level marketing. There are two simple ways to do this:
This can be as simple as applying RSS technology. It’s an obvious idea and lots of brands are doing it (Steve Rubel cites some interesting examples here). In most cases, this will be limited to consumers that are already loyal to the brand. For example, when AmEx tells me about products or events I might enjoy, I listen. They know my spending habits better than I do, so I feel like I have a personal curator. It makes sense for AmEx because they’re inducing spending. Real-time is critical to this type of curation because of the urgency tied to limited opportunities or restricted purchase windows. The premise starts to get a lot harder when you’re talking about a canned beverage though.
Or does it? Red Bull is a brand that is so well respected in extreme sports, that it credibly invented a few (e.g., FlugTag). So, when Red Bull wants to tell me about videos, news, or events in that space, I trust them. However, Red Bull currently (beautifully) produces much of what it curates, which can’t happen in real-time. Instead, the two experiences should live together. Sure, I want to see the edited, kick-ass wake boarding video from a month ago, but I also want to know if I should turn my TV on right now or open up a Twitter Search because extreme sports are better live.
Yikes, the idea of a brand connecting people makes most of them nervous, but I believe social media flings are the most under-utilized experience for brands (I wrote a post about flings a while back). Brands love to connect around consumer passion points, as most media planners can attest to. Anything from the NFL to indie rock is a passion point. Real-time is clearly important when talking about news (thus the focus of most blog chatter on search), but it’s also relevant to any subject someone’s passionate about.
So, if a brand can serve as the connection between people for a brief instance, that’s potentially powerful. For instance, people at a sporting event have a shared passion. If the brand can connect them in real-time during important moments, the brand is providing an unprecedented level of relevant utility (aided by the rise of geo-based social networks like Foursquare). Brands can even curate people even when they aren’t all at the event, but they care about it. Almost.at is a favorite site of mine because it lets people engage in real events in real-time without actually being there. Users can see videos or read tweets from people at an event they couldn’t personally attend.
Real-time flings can happen irrespective of geography; for example, take a food brand posting a recipe to Facebook (Denuo recently launched General Mills’ Tablespoon on Facebook). When the brand posts a recipe and users that don’t know each other start to comment on it by adding tips, asking questions, or altering the content, the brand is working in real-time to connect people. These people in many cases go on to help each other, serving as part of the brand experience (after all, they’re not Facebook friends). The brand starts by curating the content (in this case a relevant recipe), but ends up curating connections simply by administrating the environment and instigating conversation. This is important because these connections wouldn’t happen if they weren’t in real-time. A user wouldn’t be motivated to weigh in if they didn’t think they were part of a conversation. They expect responses back from someone who’s still (briefly) paying attention, and their threshold for weighing in is much lower as a result (compared to say a blog comment or wiki entry, which is more akin to encyclopedic reference than a conversation). Thus, timeliness is driving the connections. The brand is the engine behind those connections by serving as the curator. It’s an incredibly unique opportunity for a brand and it’s only possible because of a shift toward real-time.
In conclusion, real-time search will continue to be the subject du jour, but brands shouldn’t start there as they seek opportunities. In fact, the way brands think about real-time, might be closer to “almost” real-time. Thus, they should start with a different question: how can I be a relevant curator for my consumers in an increasingly real-time world?