Real-Time Marketing Is Nothing but a Predatory Weed

It's Suffocating the Social Promise of Online Communities

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In the early 1800s, seeds from the purple loosestrife made their way to the upper Atlantic coast of North America via the ballasts of European sailing vessels. The beautiful purple-flowered weed honed in on the region's thriving wetlands and began to take root as an unwelcome guest -- a predator rather than an adaptor. It spread across the country, overwhelming and suffocating the delicately balanced ecosystem of marshes, clogging waterways, strangling native vegetation and displacing wildlife.

A similar phenomenon has now reached social media. Under the guise of real-time marketing, often called just RTM, the purple loosestrife has arrived. It is killing the promise of brands and customers genuinely communicating with each other. That was the potentially game-changing idea back when social networks like Twitter and Facebook were more often referred to as online communities.

Today the hope and belief that brands would connect with people has in large part given way to brands publishing to them by hijacking social buzz.

Purple loosestrife
Purple loosestrife Credit: Ivar Leidus/Wikimedia Commons

Driven by the myopic goal of increasing engagement, many brands are unscrupulously on the hunt for likes, shares, followers and retweets without an overarching strategy based on core business objectives. This blind yearning for social currency is leading to incredibly irrelevant and unavailing branded content (a.k.a. advertising) that's preying on social media. Just because #Sharknado is trending, a royal baby is born, the "Breaking Bad" finale is on, or it's "Talk Like a Pirate Day," doesn't mean your brand has to flippantly post about it.

I recently re-watched the 2009 documentary "Art & Copy," which recounts the power of advertising when it rises to a higher calling – when it's culturally revolutionary and truly affects people. In the film, legendary copywriter Phyllis K. Robinson says, "If you want to move someone to do something, you have to connect with them. You can't just slap them in the face with it or explain it or make a joke about it."

Yet it's tempting. Brand and agency efforts to create their Oreo Super Bowl moment most often come across as overeager and desperate. Just as one cannot make a viral video -- it can become viral only after it's released -- one can't force serendipity. It's easy to forget that what happened to Oreo last February was a byproduct of its "daily twist" campaign -- months in the making. The popular cookie brand's seemingly inadvertent tweet during the game was made possible by the perfect storm of preparation meeting opportunity and a liberal dose of luck. Most importantly, it made sense for the brand, given the context of its platform. It felt relevant.

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When it comes to relevancy, there's no time more relevant than now. That's why the idea of RTM is so appealing to brands. But being relevant in real-time takes restraint much more than zealous community mangers armed with holiday calendars, trending topics and Photoshop templates. Each time a brand asks itself, "Wouldn't it be cool to _____?" it should also ask, "Do we have the right to _____?" This simple rule for RTM (from my Hill Holliday content team colleagues) helps to ensure that the truths of a brand are in line with every real-time marketing execution.

The irony is that as brands race to out one-liner each other in the social streams of various pop-culture events, they're often neglecting the most powerful real-time marketing opportunity in social media: customer service. Far beyond a clever tweet, people want great products and service, and they want to feel heard. Social media offer brands the ability to connect with their customers at an individual level. It's an open invite to, in some way, enrich their lives. Brand-appropriate content that's both timely and relevant is one way of doing so.

After years of trial and error, scientists found that the best way to control the spread of purple loosestrife wasn't with a chemical or a machine or even a human being. It was with a beetle -- the Galerucella. The insects eat holes into the leaves and suppress the plant's disruptive spread. In many cases the wetlands were restored.

It's not too late for our social networks. As brands and agencies, we must take a hard look at what we're publishing to people's personal newsfeeds. As the great art director Lee Clow said in the film "Art & Copy," "When advertising is done well, the wall or the billboard that celebrates the brand artfully and beautifully can be part of our culture as opposed to some form of pollution." The same goes for brands' posts in social media. We can do better.

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