Skip to content

4 Keys to Using Social Media Content for Real-Time Marketing

To build customer loyalty — to build a brand — companies need to keep their customers engaged in a continuous dialogue.

outside lands-instagramThat sounds like something you might have heard at the last marketing conference you attended. Or maybe it was something you read in one of the dozens of industry newsletters that clutter your inbox.

Nope. That line was actually written in July 1995. That means when that line was published, you couldn’t watch the first Toy Story movie on DVD because neither Toy Story nor DVDs existed yet. You could, however, buy a gallon of gas for $1.09, and you were probably enthralled with the O.J. Simpson trial.

You may also be surprised to learn that the article to which that sentence belongs was first published in the Harvard Business Journal by Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna under the title, Real-Time Marketing. That’s right, real-time marketing — one of the hottest marketing buzzwords today — was coined in 1995.

But, according to a survey conducted by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the majority of marketers today are no closer to marketing to customers in real-time than they were back in 1995. In fact, 60 percent of the North American marketers who consider real-time marketing and personalization to be among their highest priorities report that they still struggle to actually execute on this goal.

On the social web, brands and fans can already engage with one another in real-time. They produce continuous dialogues of content, sharing and remixing through YouTube videos, memes, Facebook posts, commenting, tweeting, etc. So, the real-time social media content challenge obviously isn’t due to a lack of content; rather, the challenge lies in determining how best to use personalized, real-time social media content in valuable, relevant, and timely ways.

Here are four tips on how brands can use social media content to accelerate their real-time marketing efforts.

1. Use social media to build authentic outbound stories

Although there is a plethora of real-time interactions across Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like, the content developed for these channels tends to sit in a social silo — by and large, brands aren’t using those stories, opinions, comments, etc., outside of their social streams. In many cases, the social team and the direct marketing team don’t even communicate or plan together.

There are two components involved in addressing this challenge: attitude and aptitude.

First, businesses need to learn to be more authentic. You cannot do real-time marketing if every piece of content has to go through a “sterilization committee.” If you want to grow, you have to let go, and become comfortable with authentic, fan-driven content and interactions. One thing we know about the web is that people crave authentic experiences and quickly see through smoke and mirrors. Face it, people trust other people more than brands.

Secondly, businesses need to invest in the capabilities to listen to content, curate content, and syndicate that content into un-siloed direct messaging and push-based messaging and incentives. They must invite customers to become participants in content rather than just bystanders. Social digests, remix contests, “insiders’ clubs,” and automated content alerts are just a few examples of how content can be extended into real-time marketing.

For example, Dreamfields Pasta identifies the consumers who are most engaged in its content across social and newsletters and invites them to join its “Taste & Tell Team,” a special program that encourages Dreamfields’ most passionate customers to share their own experiences, recommendations, recipes, and stories — both offline and online. This takes guts. Dreamfields has to put its whole message and brand, untethered, into the hands of its consumers — trusting that with a little extra love and the chance to participate, these people will share the brand’s message. The result? Every year, Dreamfields’ fans activate more than 130,000 of their friends to try Dreamfields’ products themselves.

dreamfields news-consumer content

2. Use content as a data point

Real-time marketing without relevancy is like receiving a package in the mail addressed to your neighbor. The mind immediately says, “I don’t need it. It doesn’t belong to me.” On the other hand, when real-time content is relevant, the mind responds like a kid on Christmas morning.

For every piece of quality content, there is a relevant demographic or persona to match. Therefore, it is important that marketers view content as data, and align both the right channel and the right content item (picture, post, topic) to the right person.

For example, real-time images from Instagram might not be the right fit if your brand targets folks over 50 — YouTube videos or blog alerts are far more digestible for this older demographic. But Instagram or Twitter alerts for Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke fans? That’s an obvious match, as is Pinterest digests for women and children.

The challenge here, again, is that content tends to sit in silos. Different content sits across a website, social, mobile, eCommerce, CRM, etc., and rarely is content tagged with data in such a way that it is uniform and extendable. This is why marketers need to invest in platforms the can find, curate, aggregate, and manipulate content to fit their needs and deliver targeted real-time messages.

3. KISS (keep it simple, stupid)

Data is a fire hose, and it’s very common for brands to want to capture consumer data based on “ideal” segmentation and analysis scenarios. Truth be told, data is easy to capture and store, but using it in smart and efficient ways is still a major challenge to organizations. Consumer data can be overwhelming, or it can already be outdated by the time it’s captured, sorted, analyzed, and utilized. It’s best to keep marketing simple by focusing on the basics, like age, gender, location, interest, and persona. Brands can make massive leaps with even the most basic profile targeting by allowing for nimble changes and keeping campaign development out of “analysis paralysis.”

One brand that does a great job of delivering relevant content to its email subscribers is Major League Soccer (MLS). Connecting with local fan bases, engaging new fans, and driving national ratings for live-game broadcasts remain among MLS’s top priorities.

automated newsletter-mls

MLS delivers personalized content on a weekly basis to its fans via email — with content such as video highlights of the previous week’s matches, photos of star players and broadcast schedules — using only two data points: location and favorite team.

So what’s the takeaway here? If you know even the most basic information about your customers, such as their email addresses, locations, and personal interests, you can give them relevant content in which they will engage — and find useful value.

4. Above all else, don’t be boring

Content on the web lives and dies in very short periods of time. Remember, a tweet generally has a life span of only a few minutes, and the average Facebook post has a life span of just a few hours. To extend the typical life span of social media content, make it awesome, remarkable, and shareable. For every bit of content you create, it’s best to ask yourself, “Will the fans love this?” If the answer is no, kill it and start over. Fans want real, authentic experiences and, in many cases, that includes content from other fans. What other people say about a brand is far more valuable and believable than what a brand says about itself.

Compelling content will not only have a longer life cycle and greater reach, but is worth amplifying through outbound real-time marketing. Social content in your email marketing programs can provide massive exposure that it wouldn’t otherwise get through organic social streaming.

outside lands-content on mobile, tablet

For example, Outside Lands, one of the largest music festivals in the country, was able to double its social engagement by featuring the best fan-generated Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts in an automated daily email digest. One attention-grabbing Instagram photo saw both organic engagement around the original post and an additional 120 percent lift when featured in the digest. Fans love to feel like they are part of the experience, and the psychology of participation dictates that when a fan sees another fan featured, they are more likely to participate.


The key to real-time marketing is not necessarily to produce more social media content more quickly; it’s to curate real and authentic stories that are relevant to consumers, and encourage them to share and participate. Isn’t that the kind of forward thinking we used to see in the mid-90s? It’s safe to say McKenna was on to something.

Disagree? What do you think is the key to marketing to customers in real time?

Need help finding which content marketing tactics will put your business on the path to greater success? Check out our guide toBuilding the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Execution Tactics.