Have an acronym for that? The Economy of Real-Time Marketing (RTM)

oreo tweetFrom the starting block at least, social media in 2013 can be accurately grouped into two periods, BO and PO – before-Oreo and post-Oreo. Thanks to sublime timing, agility, and bit of luck during the Super Bowl, Oreo and its agency seem to have awoken a nascent concept within social media circles – real-time marketing (RTM).

Social, like the NFL, can be a bit of a copycat league. So little surprise that sitting through the Oscars, I was as struck as much by the myriad brand efforts to piggyback on Oreo’s success in doing some real-time Tweeting of their own as I was by the lack of originality during the show’s acceptance speeches. (Ben Affleck’s harried speech to end the evening, however, was pretty stellar.)

As analysts hemmed (who will be the next Oreo? what is the impact of RTM?) and brands hawed (you can find a good recap of brand RTM activity from PR Daily here), I was somehow reminded of graduate school.

Rarely do my past academic experiences intersect with my work in social. But watching the surfeit of blog posts and mentions of RTM, I was taken right back to my days in the classroom, listening to and internalizing the encyclopedic roster of acronyms and arcane subjects that literary scholars create for themselves on an (academic) quarterly basis.

In academia, particularly in the liberal arts like literary study, there’s an economy at work in creating a vocabulary unto one’s own. Terms and phrases like “pscyhoanalysis,” “trauma theory,” “gender theory,” “postmodernism,” etc., all keep people employed and hold up well during tenure reviews. They’re arcane, pseudo-scientific terms that create self-sustaining value for professionals whose work is frequently under siege as university presidents compare liberal arts return on investment to business schools and economics departments.

Despite the individual value, there’s a downside to the broad swath of literary taxonomies that even most literature professors will admit to – all of the arcane subjects and hermetic fields of study have fractured literary departments and created troublesome silos in the study of literature.

What’s all this have to do with RTM?

No industry seems to share academia’s obsession with niche fields, acronyms, and subjects more than digital advertising. RTM is yet another in a long list of niche topics that have sprung up around digital and social over the past few years. Industry professionals will quickly adapt, deploy them in meetings and conferences, write blog posts, and some will stake their careers on them.

There’s an economy at work here worth noting. Despite the growth of digital advertising, and social specifically, the industry is still a good distance away from complete institutionalization into traditional marketing and perhaps a greater distance away from budgetary equanimity. Agencies who once basked in the comfort of historic relationships and traditional marketing work are having to find new ways – and terms (read: “disruption”) – to prove value in the digital space and to their clients.

RTM, as the newest member of the digital advertising vocabulary, is yet another in a long list of self-sustaining, circular terms designed in part to demonstrate value in an environment still challenging for legitimacy.

What’s the danger in all this? That digital and social marketers, like literature professors, will continue to fragment themselves into smaller and smaller niche environments, carving out cottage industries, individual paychecks, and job titles while ignoring higher order concepts with the potential to truly institutionalize and highlight the true value of digital and social. They’ll create an environment much more adversarial than collaborative, and sacrifice collective progress against individual gain. We’ll keep folks employed on speakers circuits but digital budgets will remain the same. (Listen to a group of sales people, for example, and you’ll find they’re united by a single term – revenue; they’re vocabulary enjoys a singularity – and a legitimacy – to which digital can aspire.)

Truth be told, I’m not certain what RTM even really means. The idea of real-time marketing seems to me to be an old concept. Isn’t real-time what social and digital professionals have been pitching for years?

What I do know is that Oreo did a spectacular job of creating relevant, resonant, timely – and original – content. All of which feel like old marketing principles, re-applied to Twitter. A hat-tipping feat, for sure. But perhaps not enough to warrant yet another new term in an an industry already suffering from too many philosophical silos and linguistic excess.

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Beyond Local: The Personal Imperative of Social

A few mornings ago, I participated in a brief Skype interview to help promote an upcoming social media conference. While I was a few cups of coffee away from lucid, the interviewer did his part in raising some insightful questions around social business and social media management tools.

Expectedly, 3-5 minutes couldn’t do most of his questions justice.

One question in particular, however, stood out: “Are brands using social media [and related management tools] to fake being ‘local’?”

It’s an interesting proposition. One that I rarely receive from clients I work with or myself consider much.

My initial answer was poor … something nebulous about “connections” and social media transcending geographical boundaries. The answer wasn’t directionally poor (I began to arrive on a point I’ll expand on here), but I never quite arrived on a firm POV.

Early in my career, I was working with a national client on a social campaign for a new product release. Although the release was national, they were focused on driving awareness in a handful of key markets.

The basic strategy we’d created focused on influencer outreach – seeding product and key messaging to category influencers who we’d hope would in turn blog or Tweet about the product.

During planning, we provided the client with a list of 15-20 key influencers; people who could, with a single Tweet or blog post, drive millions of impressions across the Web among our client’s target audience.

We were happy with the list we’d compiled. Then we sat down with the client to review.

“None of these influencers are in our key markets,” they said with disappointment.

We left the meeting without much resolution – there simply weren’t many category influencers in their key markets, and those people that we had found in-market weren’t particularly influential.

After the meeting, I turned to my digital director (and mentor) for guidance. I told him if we targeted the few influencers in the key markets, we’d get no traction.

His response was simple: “It’s called the worldwide web for a reason.  People don’t follow people on Twitter or read blogs based on geography. Targeting influencers based on geography makes no sense.”

Our client wanted us to tackle a traditional PR challenge (generating in-market awareness) with a Web 2.0 solution.

Needless to say, we lost the battle. Recruited “geo-targeted” influencers in key markets. And got expectedly sub-optimal results.

The question I recently received – “are brands using social media to fake being local” – re-surfaced my memory about the campaign and the advice I’d received from my mentor.

How are local and social related? Is it inauthentic for global brands to localize their social media efforts? Moreover, what constitutes authenticity in the age of social media?

Social media can often empower local businesses to reach geo-targeted consumers. Through the same technology, social media empowers global businesses to localize their marketing efforts.

With the click of a “follow” button, someone from Germany can follow the Twitter updates of a company based in Los Angeles, California, simply based on a personal whim or interest. Similarly, a reader in South Africa can follow a blog written by someone in France, and so on.

In the case of global brands, these companies can cater their messages to local audiences through geo-targeted paid media, geo-targeted Facebook updates, or entire market-based Facebook pages.

Are these sorts of efforts inauthentic?

I’m generally nervous when a marketer talks too frequently about “authenticity.” It seems to be a curious choice of adjective when talking about an art that is, in large part, based on persuasion. Too heavily applying the concept of authenticity to social marketing seems, philosophically at least, no less curious.

The larger point, however, is this: geography and social media are concepts at odds. Social media transcends markets, locations. Through the connective power of social platforms, consumers across the world can engage in dialogue with any brand, in any location.

Conversely, those consumers are no less defined or restricted by their geographic location than the brands they’re connecting with. Consumers no longer have to be defined by brands through “markets” or “locations,” but can connect with brands based on their own personal data and preferences.

Social media throws the entire artifice of the concept of “market” into relief, exposes “markets” for what they’ve always been, constructs created by marketers to target consumers in the absence of meaningful personal data or medium to facilitate real 1:1 connections with consumers. Social media provides brands the power (and the data) to connect with their consumers in more personal and meaningful ways. Through social and digital platforms, brands have access to the personal data of their consumers at historic levels.

To create a campaign directed at consumers in a specific location ignores the potential – and, I’d argue, imperative – to market to groups of consumers based on more compelling and deeper shared data points.

Social media removes the “market curtain” and enables us to better under consumers as a collection of diverse individuals better defined (and marketed to) through their idiosyncratic preferences and beliefs than any loose, artificial connections they share with other individuals based on spatial proximity.

The question we should ask ourselves isn’t whether brands are faking “local” by using social media, but whether we should still be employing, talking about, and relying on market-based principles in the age of social media at all.