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Real-time marketing is one of the year’s big buzzwords in social media. Many brands have captured our attention and admiration for the ability to quickly link-up to a major current event. This strategy gives a spontaneous edge to a company’s social presence.

However, current events can be a liability for marketing. Leveraging a major political issue may alienate portions of your audience, and pushing too hard to be clever in the wrong situation can backfire on your social reputation.

The good news is that companies can quickly develop a strategy for incorporating real-time or current events into their social media marketing. Here’s an examination of a real-time marketing campaign that will help you better understand this strategy — and help you decide if it’s appropriate for your brand.

By the Numbers

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According to a survey by Infogroup Targeting Solutions and Yesmail Interactive, 53 percent of marketers said they planned to make greater use of real-time marketing in 2013.

However, both companies and agencies voiced some concerns about adopting the strategy. Some of the top challenges according to the survey respondents were a lack of tracking and analytics, problems accessing relevant data, and no budget or no support from the top of the organization. A separate survey by Neolane and the Direct Marketing Association confirmed these attitudes, which cited the complexity of systems required, access to real-time data, and data privacy concerns as the top challenges for marketers.

We’ve already seen that when brands overcome the challenges, they can be immensely successful. Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet in response to a sudden power loss during the 2012 Super Bowl kicked off the trend. That post was retweeted more than 16,000 times and the company’s Twitter account gained more than 8,000 new followers in the days after the game.

Case Study: Tier10’s “Legends”

To get a better look at how to meet the challenges of making this marketing strategy work, we spoke with Scott Rodgers, chief creative officer at the advertising agency Tier10. Rodgers and the Tier10 team worked on a campaign for the New York Acura Dealers featuring Yankees player Mariano Rivera. The campaign featured television spots and a “42 Days of Mo” social media contest, a nod to Rivera’s jersey number. The social component encouraged participants to share stories about a person who had inspired them and to share those experiences with the baseball great.

This campaign was the third spot Tier10 created for the Dealers’ Association with Rivera. Part of “Legends” success came from taking advantage of the existing relationship the baseball player had with the Acura brand. Since Rivera’s arrival in the United States from Panama, he’d always played for the Yankees and always driven Acura cars, which sparked the idea for the initial Loyalty campaign in 2011. The Legends venture coincided with the end of the 2013 season, which Rivera had previously announced would be his last.

Tier10 started the early steps for Legends about six months before the campaign began. The agency shot the commercials on Aug. 26, then finished editing the spots in the following week, providing a full suite of material to support the project as baseball’s regular season drew to a close. The social media contest launched on Sept. 16, and Tier10 saw a slow start. Some of the team members suggested that the campaign would need to change tactics, but Rodgers believed in the original plan. “I didn’t want to abandon the playbook,” he said. “I wanted to stay true to it.”

Persistence paid off. On the fourth day of the contest, the agency started receiving about 10 story submissions every day. Interest in the contest took off organically as more participants shared the relevant links and hashtags. Tier10 didn’t throw money at the problem, either. “During the soft launch we had some Facebook ads running, we had some other digital things running,” Rodgers said. “We didn’t increase our spend.” He added that having a winner for every day of the contest helped sustain interest since it kept up a natural level of interaction.

Rivera played his last game on Sept. 26, at which point the campaign was fully underway. The Tier10 team did take a gamble with the campaign, since they had no control over the Yankees’ playoff bid. “It was kind of a crapshoot in a way,” Rodgers said. “We didn’t have a contingency plan.” But as with the concerns at the campaign’s start, the team stuck to its guns, even when the Yankees didn’t make it to the post-season.

“Do I think that the campaign would have turned out a little bit different if they’d made it to the post-season? Probably,” Rodgers said. But that’s not to say that the efforts fell short due to an early end to the team’s World Series bid. “I thought we would have had about 200 people that we would have been picking a winner from,” Rodgers said of the contest turnout. “I didn’t think we were going to get the results we got.”

Over the course of the social media contest, the group received 360 stories. Facebook Page Likes for the organization nearly doubled from 10,297 before the campaign to 18,236 after. The group also gained 200 new Twitter followers and 172 new Instagram followers.

“I think one of our keys to success on this was just starting way ahead of time, six months or even further out, in monitoring,” he said. “So nothing was really a surprise.” It was important for the team to understand the landscape they would be entering prior to the launch of the campaign. That was key to making sure that nobody would misuse the hashtags for the contest and the project.

Preparation Is Key to Success

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So how can a brand surpass the technical challenges to score a win with real-time or current events marketing? The data from past campaigns and the insights from Rodgers show that data is the name of the game. “We do a lot of monitoring here for our clients and coming up with campaign ideas,” Rodgers explained. “One of the things was monitoring [Rivera’s] brand and activity on social media, and just Yankees in general, and being able to tap that database. That’s why we developed the campaign.”

Knowing who your audience is and what their relationship is with your brand, product, or service will help your company anticipate their reactions to an initiative. Seek out analytics tools that will let you learn more about the audience as well as deliver the information you need to gauge the success of a real-time campaign.

Another key to success is that real-time marketing doesn’t have to be as off-the-cuff as it appears. Rodgers and the Tier10 team knew they had an opportunity with Rivera’s retirement and the Yankee’s World Series bid. Since the agency knew it wanted to showcase the partnership between Rivera and Acura, it was able to do the legwork in advance to bring the campaign to fruition at the most impactful time without scrambling to put all the pieces together in real-time. Being able to strategize in advance and to make accurate predictions will likely help win over the skeptics within your business.

Think creatively about current events. When a big cultural touchstone is approaching, consider whether or not it might have relevance to your brand. Is a potential partner involved, as it was with Rivera and Acura? Will there be a large audience, such as when Oreo took the Super Bowl by storm? Rather than centering your real-time efforts on hard news, look into less obvious milestones or overlooked holidays. Think about the angles that make your brand unique; those are the best real-time avenues to pursue.

[Image credits: H. Michael Karshis, Andrew Magill, Kaja Kozlowska]