What Does it Mean to be “Real-Time”?

September 2nd, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback
What it takes to be real-time is both the philosophical and practical commitment to be real … and to do this in the face of one of the most exciting new opportunities in the history of business. As always, the temptation to do things the easy way will be extreme. Over the past few weeks, a great deal has been written on the topic of real-time communications. And in case you haven’t been following it, the big driver of the conversation has been Twitter. What’s becoming increasingly apparent to technologists, marketers and other business people is that Twitter is much more than just a wildly popular consumer service. It’s the first successful instantiation of the real-time social media. But what does real-time actually mean, and why are business people — especially marketers — so excited about it? In a recent conversation with a prospective client, TCG learned about an interesting phenomenon, long known to marketers in consumer-packaged goods: by 4PM each day most people don’t yet know what’s for dinner. That’s a pretty exciting statistic if you are in the business of marketing the stuff — the food, the recipes — that make up what’s for dinner. Real-time is human time, and it’s every consumer marketer’s dream to “own” the conversation at a particular time of day (think “Miller time” (end of day), or the “pause that refreshes” (any break in the day). But unless you have a live and practical way for connecting with people at that time of day (forget the soaps; those days are gone), the opportunity may be lost. A new raft of tools and services might help, but there are a few things worth noodling over before you venture out: The Irresistible Lure of Twitter. John Battelle has often described Google as a “database of intentions.” This is a particularly good way to frame the value of the engine because it helps to explain how the once-small company with a simple consumer service could grow so quickly on advertising revenue. Before Google, there was no viable database of intentions for advertisers. But for most businesspeople, Twitter is still seen as the consumer service rather as the owner of a rival “database of intentions.” Every moment of the day, people all over the world are telling their followers on Twitter what they think, what they like, what they dislike, etc. The database is nowhere close in scale to Google (yet), but this database has at least three advantages to marketers. Unlike Google, the Twitter database is open — anyone can study the ebb and flow of the chatter. Two, unlike Google, Twitter is designed to be social – when someone shares a comment, say about Miller beer — anyone following the comment will notice. Third — and perhaps most important to this conversation — unlike Google, the Twitter database is real-time. When a consumer says they like Miller, it’s not just simply time stamped (though timestamps are very useful for marketing research). The person is saying it “now,” giving the marketer the irresistible opportunity to engage “now.” Encroaching on Someone Else’s Time. But here’s one reason why a marketer should resist the temptation — or at least pause before giving into the temptation — of respond in real-time. Once you cross-over from the mindset of the consumer (the user of the service) to the mindset of a marketer (the user of the “database of the intentions”) you need to remind yourself that you can’t just go back out there without putting your consumer cap back on. Imagine you are a fan of hyper-caffeinated soft drinks, and you blurt out to your Twitter followers that you are presenting enjoying one, you might be surprised, not in a good way, to be interrupted by a representative for Jolt. The nature of the interruption should be carefully considered. Is it simply to peddle more product, or is it something that has value to a consumer who clearly is interested (e.g., consumers who complain about a product may not mind hearing from customer service, which is one reason why so many companies are using Twitter to field consumer complaints). This should be obvious, but marketing professionals as a class have never been particularly sensitive about interruptions (door-to-door, telemarketing, spam), and there’s little evidence to suggest that we will not misstep here. Human versus Machine. Finally, there’s another kind of misstep which marketers — who now wear two hats — need to think about. As a backdrop, I’d like to go back to another thing that John Battelle has said, this time on the topic of conversational marketing: “Companies who are going to be very good at having conversations at scale, mediated by high technology are going to win. Companies that are bad at that are going to lose.” The key phrase here is “mediated by technology.” Because if marketers is ever going to have a fighting chance to have real-time conversations at scale, no doubt many will conclude that they will need to have those conversations mediated, somehow, by technology. The Twitter “database of intentions” is too vast, too unwieldy, for human hands, and already a number of useful, practical tools have emerged for enabling human beings to navigate that database. The problem is that it’s too easy to rely on machines to do the work of humans. We can expect businesses to misstep here, and do the real-time marketing equivalent of sending form letters. We can expect others to use these tools in a more intelligent way, offloading work that’s better handled by machines (e.g., using sophisticated semantic and sentiment analysis tools to identify people they should engage, something that technology vendors like MustExist do particularly well) and freeing up people to do what they do best. For in the final analysis, what it takes to be real-time is both the philosophical and practical commitment to be real … and to do this in the face of one of the most exciting new opportunities in the history of business (it’s bigger than marketing). As always, the temptation to do things the easy way will be extreme. Resist the temptation.

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