Let's say you walk into your favorite tavern and order a bottle of your favorite craft beer. Almost by magic, an open bottle appears before you -- except it arrives 30 minutes after you placed your order.
The problem isn't with the tavern's technology: It has all the latest coolers. And the problem isn't with the tavern's supply chain, either: Every few days, a big truck blocks traffic while a guy wheels kegs of beer into the cooler.
The problem, instead, clearly rests with a management culture that sees 30-minute deliveries to your table as acceptable -- even though you were expecting something more along the lines of two minutes.
As the leader of a public relations agency, I've seen too many content marketing strategies out there continue to reflect the culture of a 30-minute beer when the market expects a two-minute beer. We're now more than two decades into the era defined by Apple's legendary marketing guru, Regis McKenna, as "real-time marketing."
What Is Real-Time Marketing?
Writing about the trend in Harvard Business Review in 1995 -- long before the emergence of social media -- McKenna suggested that close communication between brands and their customers, driven by technology, could dramatically increase the pace at which new products are developed and radically improve their adoption.
Clearly, McKenna was right on the mark.
But, he added, continuous dialogue with customers, suppliers and distributors would deliver on this promise only for organizations willing to learn how to effectively use information technology and think about their relationship with customers in new ways.
That's the point where many content-marketing strategies remain stuck in 30-minute Beer Land.
It's not that we don't have access to the technological tools that are right for the job. From Facebook to Pinterest and LinkedIn, these channels allow us to closely engage audiences without requiring hours of programming time.
What's lacking, rather, is management's understanding -- and more importantly, management's commitment -- to the power of real-time content marketing.
Debunking the Myths of Real-Time Marketing
Some of the froth surrounding recent discussions of "real-time content marketing" arises from folks who think that the term refers to quickly injecting their brand into external cultural conversations. Clever Twitter posts and opportunistic blogs tied to news events may improve consumers' sentiments about a brand, but there's little evidence that they improve conversion rates or customer retention.
It's more useful to think of "real-time content marketing" as a strategy that's based on getting useful information into the hands of customers -- and prospective customers -- before they even know they need it. That requires personalization in real time, or at least something close to real time. What's the customer's history? What are they doing at this very moment? Are they signed on as members or are they just visiting the website?
It requires delivery of personalized messages shaped to meet the needs of the customer, wherever in the customer lifecycle they may be.
Most of all, this sort of effective real-time content marketing requires that the insightful content is delivered immediately -- right at the time that customer or prospect is engaged with the brand. Following up with an email or responding to a social media inquiry a couple of days later is substantially less powerful.
Rapidly disseminate information provides an important competitive advantage: Think of the times you've been impressed by a quick response to an inquiry, or conversely, frustrated by a response that never seems to arrive.
How To Be Effective In Your Real-Time Content Marketing
Real-time content marketing doesn't replace the campaign-based marketing initiatives that almost run on autopilot once they're launched. Instead, they stay close to customers in the moment, evolving with them and shaping messages based on the constant flow of feedback from the market.
Here's where the management's commitment comes in: To be effective, real-time content marketing requires a live presence that's paying attention. It requires a shift from the broadcast kind of thinking where a message is fired into the market, then goes out for a long lunch while waiting for customers to respond. It may even require empowering staff members to make faster decisions more often on behalf of your customers.
It doesn't take too long for beer to go flat. Content marketing that isn't closely tied to real customers -- in real time -- can go stale just as quickly.
Abbi Whitaker is the founder and creative engine of The Abbi Agency.