Does Real-Time Marketing & Newsjacking Really Work? New Book Says Yes & Has Data To Prove It
In a Marketing Land Q&A, Spredfast's Chris Kerns, author of "Trendology," makes a convincing case that brands can increase their social relevance with in-the-moment messages.
We all know it when we see it: the real-time marketing slam dunk.
Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” is the uber example, an inspired tweet quickly conceived, produced and sent during the Super Bowl blackout of 2013. That tweet spawned more than 10,000 retweets in an hour and launched a legion of brand imitators trying to produce magic moments of their own.
Now it’s hard to remember a time when brands didn’t target major events with real-time social messages. It’s such a trend that marketing, tech and even general interest media cover it closely, reviewing, ranking and critiquing brand efforts during tent-pole events.
Real-time marketing is also easy to mock (Don’t miss the inspired “Reactvertising” video by Toronto marketing agency Johns St.). It can also be a high-risk undertaking as made obvious by well-chronicled missteps made by brands such as Delta, SpaghettiOs and DiGiorno Pizza.
But mostly missing from the coverage and commentary about RTM winners and losers is data analysis. And without that, it’s impossible to determine whether real-time marketing efforts are successful in aggregate.
Into the breach comes Chris Kerns, a data scientist who sifted through brands’ Twitter activity to answer the basic question: Does RTM work?
Kerns’ conclusion: Yes, definitely.
For evidence, Kerns turned to Twitter’s public API, pulling data for 106 brands — 98 of the Interbrand Top 100 companies with Twitter accounts plus eight brands especially active in RTM, Arby’s, Charmin, Denny’s, DiGiorno, Gain, JCPenneys, Oreo and Tide — establishing baselines for average retweets and favorites per tweet per follower.
And when Kerns crunched the numbers for the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Grammys, he found that brands targeting the events with planned real-time messages got 400% more retweets and 421% more favorites per follower than their average tweet.
The lift was even higher for tweets about unexpected occurrences during the events — the Super Bowl blackout, Joe Namath’s fur coat at the coin flip, Ellen’s selfie, Pharrell’s hat, etc. — with brands seeing a 1,200% improvement in retweets per follower and a 1,100% increase in favorites per follower.
And the success was spread across the spectrum of brands making attempts; 82% of the companies — 46 of 56 — that sent RTM messages about unexpected events saw higher lift for those tweets. Compare that with the 58% of companies (23 of 40) that did better than average with planned RTM, and you can see why Kerns is especially bullish on what he terms opportunistic RTM.
That opportunity is also out there every day, and Kerns found brands having notable success targeting trending news events, from the birth of the royal baby (1,200% bump) to the death of Nelson Mandela (600% boost) to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado (6,000% RT increase over the average for Ben & Jerry’s).
BREAKING NEWS: We’re hearing reports of stores selling out of Ben & Jerry’s in Colorado. What’s up with that? pic.twitter.com/zBs8nyxZWn
— Ben & Jerry’s (@benandjerrys) January 2, 2014
Non-news Twitter trends are also worth tapping into according to the data. For instance, of the 10 brands that joined the #RuinARapTrack conversation last May, eight experienced higher than average engagement rates for their tweets. In total the retweet increase was 380%, led by Crest, which got 2,000% more retweets for this:
“When a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and white teeth in your face you get… really interested in her dental care.” #RuinARapTrack
— Crest (@Crest) May 6, 2014
Executing such efforts well, of course, is not easy, requiring planning, resources, quick thinking and witty people at the social controls. Kerns makes a convincing case that it’s worth the effort and in Trendology lays out a roadmap for businesses that need help developing a data-driven process.
Marketing Land caught up with the author via email to discuss his research, his book and the future of RTM.
Marketing Land: What prompted you to research and write the book? Did you think real-time marketing needed defending?
I became fascinated with real-time marketing as I watched brand social activity during the 2014 Super Bowl. I noticed that while overall brand activity had slightly increased compared to the previous year, brands’ use of real-time marketing had almost tripled year-over-year!! I wanted to figure out what was going on — was this just a short-term fad or was it an evolution in the way brands do social marketing? From the data I’m seeing, it seems to be a trend that’s here to stay.
Q: You wrote that the engagement metric gets a bad rap. Can you explain why and give your best argument for why you think it’s a good measure of social media success?
For some reason, marketers assume that because social media lives in the digital world it should be tracked like a banner ad. Social media does a great job of driving the core metrics that advertisers love — reach, sharing, and engagement — but it’s still discounted by many because not every individual interaction can be monetized. I stand by the belief that social media is powerful, but it’s not an ad. Social media is different, it’s designed for different audience reactions than advertising, so it makes sense that we would measure its performance differently as well.
Q: What surprised you most about what you found?
I’d always read that real-time marketing was a winner-takes-all exercise, and that RTM made sense if you could “win” an event with the biggest social post of the night. But for all other brands trying to join trending conversations, the practice didn’t make sense.
I was really surprised at how the data completely disagreed with these conventional thoughts on RTM. The data shows that in most cases, there are many more winners than losers when brands jump on trending, relevant topics with the right content. Sure, it’s great to be Oreo or Arby’s, but there’s a long tail of success for brands doing real-time marketing that no one has talked about until now.
Q: What else surprised you?
As I watched the most popular RTM brands continue to jump in on trends over the past year, I assumed that there were only a few types of brands that could pull off a real-time social program: CPG brands that were a bit irreverent, or restaurant chains looking to differentiate with a unique voice. But as I looked at the data from more than 100 brands, I saw that real-time marketing success doesn’t just apply to a few verticals. I’ve seen success with real-time across CPG brands, auto brands, financial services forms, retailers, nonprofits, and every other vertical you can think of. The audience doesn’t seem to care what you sell, they are just interested in seeing brands join a public conversation with an interesting point of view.
Q: Do you have a favorite example of a winning RTM tweet?
While I like the real-time marketing that happens during big events, I tend to enjoy it when brands jump on everyday trending topics — ones that they couldn’t see coming just a few hours before — more than anything else.
Last week I saw brands jump in on a daily trend centered around the #MakesMeHappy hashtag, which was formed by Twitter users talking about things that made them happy. I noticed 22 different brands jump in to join the #MakesMeHappy conversation with some great content created on the fly.
— Nissan (@Nissan) October 27, 2014
And the analytics behind their performance was off the charts — 17 of the 22 participating brands saw a bump in retweets versus their historical averages (the average bump was 143%) and 18 of the 22 brands also saw an increase in tweet favorites (96% more, on average). I see this long tail of success with RTM across lots of different trends. While critics of RTM are busy making fun of brands doing quick-turn creative, the data shows that the audience loves it when brands talk about relevant topics.
Q: You make a distinction between RTM for tent-pole events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars, watch-list events like the royal baby birth, breaking news events like legal decisions about gay marriage and everyday events like a trending hashtag (#CAPSLOCKDAY). Does the data favor one of those categories over the others? Is there low-hanging fruit?
When I really started looking into what makes a piece of social content relevant, I realized that there are actually many different categories of real-time marketing. Some RTM content can be planned weeks in advance, other types require a “war room” type of setup during a big event, and then there’s every-day trends that come and go within hours.
I haven’t seen decisive data that favors one form of real-time marketing over another, but I have seen a pretty consistent pattern of RTM outperforming non-RTM social content. The biggest difference I see between the different categories, as I outline in the book, is the team and process that needs to be set up for a brand to seize each type of real-time opportunity.
Q: What about negative results? The book doesn’t look into possible damage done to brands who make splashy errors while trying to join real-time conversations. How would you measure that?
I think the missteps that we’ve all seen have been unfortunate, but I think it’s a mistake to use a wide brush to paint real-time marketing as a risky practice. Every mistake we’ve seen could have been avoided with the right tools, process, people, and analytics in place to evaluate which trends are a fit for a brand. For some mistakes, like DiGiorno, we’ve seen the audience welcome them back to social media with open arms after the dust has settled. We’ll see less mistakes as brands build out a data-driven RTM methodologies to manage their risk and still take advantage of the rewards of real-time.
Q: The book focuses almost entirely on the RTM activities of major brands. What’s your advice for smaller businesses that are wondering whether it’s worth mounting a RTM effort? How do you manage managing real-time without a large social staff?
I think the opportunity to become more relevant to an audience isn’t limited to a certain company size — it’s open to all. I chose to look at the Interbrand 100 in Trendology because I wanted a strong list of popular brands that represented a good cross-section of the social media space. But I actually saw many more of the smaller brands on the list engaging in higher volumes of RTM than the biggest brands in the study. I’m not sure if larger brands see real-time as a bigger risk, or if smaller teams are just quicker to adopt new practices to gain an edge, but that trend tells me that small businesses could absolutely see success using the same strategy.
And real-time marketing doesn’t require a huge team, it just requires a shift in a team’s mindset and solid processes in place to monitor and jump on relevant topics. I outline a number of key roles for an RTM team in the book, and the positions are all very flexible. An RTM team doesn’t have to have multiple people and the job doesn’t have to be full-time for anyone with the right tools in place. It doesn’t take a huge budget to make a social team more real-time, and the data shows that there’s a definite reward for doing so.