Why Real-Time Marketing Matters Now

Dumenco's Media People: Wiredset CEO Mark Ghuneim

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For more than a year now, the Trendrr Chart of the Week on AdAge.com has served as a fascinating barometer of the real-time information economy. The chart, which runs most Wednesdays (and which, speaking of charts, invariably lands in the AdAge.com "Most Read" Top 5), utilizes data from Trendrr, a digital- and social-media tracking service. I've used it to parse all manner of trending memes in the entertainment/media/tech brand space, from Apple ("A Close Look at Apple's Latest Astonishing Twitter Takeover") to "Inception" ("How 'Inception' Became the New World Cup") to Foursquare ("The Consumer as Waldo: Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook Care Where You Are; Do You?") to a certain unavoidable Canadian crooner ("Behold -- and Fear! -- the Awesome Social-Media Power of Justin Bieber Beliebers!").

I've loved using Trendrr as both a research tool and as an excuse to explore how culture and conversation is manufactured these days. (My favorite Trendrr-inspired riff of the year so far? "Greyson Chance, 12-year-old YouTube and Twitter Superstar: How He Really Happened.") Now Trendrr has rolled out a major upgrade -- they're calling it Trendrr v3 -- which I think will vastly expand its strategic value and utility to marketers and media people who need to track campaign/brand performance in the social-media space and beyond.

Mark Ghuneim
Mark Ghuneim
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On the occasion of the launch of Trendrr v3, I spoke with Mark Ghuneim, the CEO of Wiredset, the digital agency that created Trendrr. I sat down with Ghuneim at Wiredset HQ in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, where his staff of 20 create cutting-edge digital campaigns for clients including Bravo, Calvin Klein (Coty), Comedy Central, HarperCollins, Hugo Boss (P&G), MTV, Oxygen and Sony Pictures Television. What follows is an edited and compressed version of a much longer conversation.

Simon Dumenco: You've been at this awhile. Wiredset has existed as a digital agency since 2004 -- pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook! -- and you were at Sony Music [as VP of Digital Marketing] before that. Talk to me about the idea of digital/engagement marketing, like, a decade ago, vs. now. What's changed -- other than everything?

Mark Ghuneim: When I was at Sony, I remember -- I want to say this was around 2000 -- I had to go down to a theater in TriBeCa to watch a demo of an interactive movie. Kevin Seal, the old MTV VJ, was in it and what we were doing in our seats was pushing buttons to change the plotline. That was kind of the idea of interactive TV/film at the time and I remember thinking, "Wow, this doesn't scale. They have to shoot five endings for every scene?" Also, I didn't want to be making those decisions; I wanted to be passive in that particular case, when I went to a movie theater.

Eventually, though, we started to see the correlation between television and the live web, as the real-time web began to emerge. And that was not only exciting, but sort of obvious, because just go back to what TV has always been about: friends and families sitting in the living room, talking about TV. And really the only thing that's changed is now the living room is the entire world, right? It's the same type of interactivity: You're talking about what's taking place in front of you.

From a marketing perspective, the important thing is figuring out when consumers want to be passive and when they want to be active. How do you use that? How do you activate consumers? Can it affect the primary business -- you know, gross ratings points, if you're a broadcaster? And can you use what we call "social tune-in" to communicate the value of the network or the show off-network?

Dumenco: "Social tune-in" -- I like that. You know, in deconstructing trends for the weekly Trendrr charticle, I've written a lot about how the real-time web is often just basically about what's happening, right now, or very recently, in old-school media. Twitter a lot of time is all about what's on TV right now, or last night.

Ghuneim: It's gone from "must-see TV" to "must-tweet TV," but it's still just about shared experiences, and I think that's really a basic human behavior.

Dumenco: It's deeply human.

Ghuneim: This is going to sound really cornball, but, you know, I only want to break emotional ground. When I was at Sony, I was there for a specific reason: because music breaks emotional ground. People at live shows throwing themselves off stages, dancing like they're on fire -- music resonates. Watching how broadcast resonates in real time -- as we look at the real-time data, the conversation is about emotional reactions. When you think of a tweet as "resonant" -- how many people liked it, retweeted it, interacted with it in some way -- I always view that as, like, a helium balloon that you're keeping in the air. How long did that tweet stay in the ecosystem? Tweets at their best are conversations, they're best when they break emotional ground.

Digital marketing is about understanding the difference between the passive side of engagement and the really immersive, active side of engagement. There's a boatload of space between those two things, and data plays very well into that.

Dumenco: You work with a lot of broadcast clients. Give me an example of data helping a broadcaster get a grip on the active side of engagement.

Ghuneim: We've worked with MTV over the last two years on their Video Music Awards. If you have the data and you know that 80,000 people are going to be on Twitter talking about the show when it's on, you have a very real opportunity to feed that ecosystem to drive social tune-in. So as real-time marketers, we'd start to build awareness and start to build in the mechanics of engagement a couple of days before a show starts. As you monitor the conversation, you're able to see, like, OK, X amount of people -- a particular subset -- are asking a question. How do we answer that en masse? How do you get the information out most efficiently? So we've developed ways to parse the stream for context, location, sentiment and influence, focusing our marketing and time on the most valuable areas as they happen. What knocks me off my chair is learning who is actually driving the conversation, controlling the conversation. It's a subset of a subset.

The core Wiredset crew on West 13th Street in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.
The core Wiredset crew on West 13th Street in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.
Dumenco: So you've got this flood of data and you're filtering it down and further down and further down to figure out the core -- where the memes, the conversational threads, really gain traction.

Ghuneim: Exactly. You know, it's never been about just having the data -- there's too much data, right? It's understanding how not to abuse it, how not to get run over by it. Like, you could behavioral-target with, like, a scalpel and a laser right now, but does it need to be that incisive? If you really understanding who's most influential around a subject, then you can begin to optimize messaging; like, you can figure out the best way to target future advertisements. It's also about knowing when to message -- when to listen and when to talk.

Dumenco: Talk to me about listening to negative talk as a marketer. Because while a lot of brands are thrilled to engage in conversation with quote-unquote fans, they can freeze up when non-fans start speaking up on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Ghuneim: You know, I think everything I learned about social media happened before social media. Looking back to my days of what I did before Wiredset, I remember one particular situation that helped me hone my crisis-management thinking. I put up one of the first rock-and-roll bulletin boards at the time. Which tells you that I'm old, but, you know. [laughs]

Dumenco: When was this?

Ghuneim: It was probably '94, '95. I was working with Toad the Wet Sprocket, the band. Toad wanted to really engage with their fan base, so the net comes about, they understand the importance, we're doing some really fun stuff with them, and we get to deploy the first bulletin-board software. We put up a forum for Toad the Wet Sprocket, and the first post is, "You guys totally suck." I get a call from the manager and the head of the label and the product manager and the head of the fan club and they're all, like, "Take it down, take it down, take it down, oh my God, take it down!" And I said, "OK, OK, OK, OK," hung up the phone, absolutely didn't take anything down, and then sat back and watched the band's fans trash that post down to dirt. They made that guy go away and in doing so really started to form the basis of a community.

Now we're in the same place. I'm a brand -- did that person just say something that's really damaging to my brand? Well, same thing: Should I wait and sit back and see what's going to happen, or should I act immediately? These same decisions are being made now. Sometimes you don't want your first decision to be an act of censorship, because from there the second and third decisions and so on can just get worse and worse and worse. Rapid-response brand management today is about understanding how to communicate and how to give your brand advocates an opportunity vs. worrying about the detractors all the time.

Dumenco: It strikes me that you're in a great position working with entertainment and broadcast people, because they've understood for decades a kind of almost slow-motion real-time marketing. Like, a label would watch their artist perform on "Saturday Night Live" and then breathlessly wait for the Billboard charts -- and the retail-scan numbers, when SoundScan came about. Then it became about even more instantaneous metrics: site visits, MySpace song streams, iTunes downloads, Amazon sales rank, Twitter buzz, etc.

Ghuneim: The window has just gotten smaller. That's where Trendrr came from -- we needed more fine-tuned tools to understand what was happening in the marketplace to communicate to our clients.

Dumenco: And then Trendrr took on a life of its own.

Ghuneim: Yeah. I wanted to be an agency that builds things -- that makes beautiful things, ultimately. We actually started Trendrr, which we called Infofilter at first, with two data sources: Delicious and Flickr. We took a big, big risk in building out a product at that time and continuing to build it assuming that the net would open up and data would open up, and sure enough, it did. Delicious and Flickr were among the first to open up, but then slowly things started to kick into place.

Dumenco: What would you learn from Flickr? Would it be people posting pictures that they took at concerts for band "brands" you were monitoring?

Ghuneim: It showed how active the audience was so, yes, you could look the next day and see events driving actions: the taking of a photo, the conversation around that photo. It was a brand-imaging tool: This is what's said about your brand now. You might have the most sophisticated branding strategies in the world, but if people do a Google search or a Flickr search and see a particular conversation about your brand, well, in that moment, that's what your branding is!

Dumenco: And now you've got dozens of data sources feeding Trendrr. Which reminds me why I'm talking to you in the first place: the relaunch of Trendrr, aka Trendrr v3. Beyond the fact that Trendrr now also incorporates additional feeds like location-based data from Foursquare and Gowalla, what's different?

Ghuneim: The streamlined workflow and feature selection of Trendrr v3 is what sets it apart from the previous version. Trendrr enables marketers to listen, measure and respond to the conversation about a brand, service or product. The "listen" layer enables users to search, curate and save real-time conversation streams. The "measure" layer enables users to measure conversation and activity across Twitter, blogs, news, social networks, search, sales and location-based services, addressing a shift to what we call "swarm consumer behavior." The "response" layer enables users to communicate and market directly from their dashboard.

Dumenco: You've added Facebook data too, right?

Ghuneim: Yeah, Facebook "likes" and shares.

Dumenco: I know some marketers and media people would be blissed-out to have all that data at their fingertips, and others would freak out at the thought of it, as in, Not more data! I'm already swimming in too much data!

Ghuneim: The point of Trendrr is to structure and contextualize large, otherwise incomprehensible data sets in real-time by organizing sources into individual management dashboards. Each dashboard has been developed and designed to provide the user with simple, actionable intelligence. Our data is actionable because it can be viewed in both real-time, as it's processed, or over time, which provides a historical perspective.

Dumenco: Do you ever get sick of any of the data yourself? Like, have you discarded any data streams because you figured out that they really don't tell you that much?

Ghuneim: Yeah, you can get too mired in the not-important ones. Like, yes, I can count the number of comments on a video on You Tube. How actionable that is right now? Not sure.

Dumenco: I think it probably just means too many people have too much time on their hands.

Ghuneim: [Laughs] We don't hold it against them.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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