Success in real-time marketing is as much operations as creativity

Ever since Oreo suggested that you could “still dunk in the dark” during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout, real-time marketing (RTM) has become the new black. Never mind that the phrase was first coined in 1995 by Apple marketing guru Regis McKenna; this winter, breathless media pundits across the social web touted the brilliance of Oreo and its agencies for inventing something earth-shatteringly new and exciting.

However, the real story behind Oreo’s timely tweet is perhaps not so startling after all. I moderate a weekly webinar for Social Media Today, and on one of our recent shows, David Berkowitz, vice-president of emerging media at 360i (who leads digital strategy for Oreo), reminded our listeners that the brand began building the culture and processes to support its real-time approach almost a year before, with the start of the Oreo Daily Twist campaign – 100 days of real-time content to celebrate the cookie’s 100th birthday.

By the time the Superbowl rolled around, both agency and client teams were operating like a finely tuned machine, and were about as close as you can get to experts at marketing in the moment. In Berkowitz’s words, they made content every day – Feb. 3, 2013 just happened to be a really, really good day.

A lot of the reason that Oreo was able to make this work is strikingly simple and yet totally uncommon. The agency and client trust each other. They worked together to develop an approvals process that was streamlined, they had months of practice (delivering hits and lots of misses) and had the right people at the table to make it work (including the PR team).

They could make decisions quickly, and thought thoroughly about the implications of doing it wrong – being accused of newsjacking, or worse.

In fact, Oreo was ready to go with their famous tweet, but decided to wait a few minutes to ensure the blackout wasn’t an attack of some kind (imagine how differently the analysis would be playing out if it had been?).

If you’re an organization that regularly experiences lengthy, painful approval processes on creative, you’re going to need to do some thinking before you even attempt marketing in real time. Not only because it will be virtually impossible for you to take advantage of the now, but also because throwing out a piece of RTM content is just the start of the chain. If people are interacting or responding to you in a positive way, there are layers upon layers of opportunity to keep that conversation and engagement going. You need to be able to keep your foot on the gas, and having the trust and commitment of legal, leadership and your creative team is the only way you can possibly hope to keep up.

You need to be in a place where you can sit with stakeholders and reimagine the way you market, and then be prepared to change what you imagined based on reality – not your best-laid plans. You need to be flexible, and you need to have a team of partners you trust.

Real-time marketing success is as much operations as it is inspiration – an approach that probably gives many creatives hives. It’s the orchestration of diverse teams (legal, agency, marketing leadership, communications), it’s process and it’s comfort with risk.

Both client and agency need to be prepared and plan for failure – either by getting little or no attention, or lots of the wrong kind. As Berkowitz so aptly noted: confident, curious brands that are prepared to innovate, experiment and screw up will emerge as the true leaders in real-time marketing. There is no shortcut.

A modified version of this column appeared in the May 22nd edition of Marketing Magazine.