This article originally appeared on the Salesforce Marketing Blog 3/28/23
If you’re like most marketers, you’ve been hearing the term “real-time” a lot lately. And you’ve probably been wondering, what is real-time marketing? Are we delivering content in seconds? Milliseconds? Even faster?
It can sound like marketers need to live in the world of the Oscar contender Everything Everywhere All at Once. Not necessarily. What matters is that you reach your customers when they need to be reached, with the right experience. Real-time marketing is not so much having all the answers all the time, but giving customers what they need, when they need it.
What is real-time marketing and how does it use real-time data?
A search for “real-time marketing” reveals a grab bag of definitions. They range from the vague (“systematically responding to your customers”) to the prescriptive (“focusing on … customer feedback”). It seems as though nobody knows what time it is.
Let’s start with the difference between real-time data and real-time marketing. Real-time data is processed and available for use right after it’s captured. That’s milliseconds. For example, the GPS on your phone captures your location and recommends a driving route in real time.
But while it’s important to capture and process data quickly, it’s not always necessary to act on it right away. This is especially true in marketing, when the customer drives the journey. Real-time does not have to mean right now. It’s delivering the information when the end user needs it. That could be seconds or even hours later.
Travel and hospitality is a very time-sensitive business. If a customer’s digital profile isn’t accurate at the moment, it can trigger unfortunate events. When this happens, a passenger misses their flight or doesn’t get the right seat — and airs their grievances on social media.
When a customer changes their seat or flight on the airline’s app or website, they expect it to show up in their experience right away. When they later go to a kiosk or a service counter, or call customer care, they expect — quite reasonably — that the service agent is up to date. The customer also likely assumes the airline won’t send them irrelevant emails or offers.
This example shows us the difference between real-time data and real-time marketing. Real-time systems should update customers’ profiles right away. On the other hand, real-time marketing should happen at whatever speed is the right one for the customer — whether that’s today, in five minutes, or next week.
There are implications for the marketers’ back-end data processing systems and resource requirements.
When the customer is on the website or app, they expect their actions to be processed in milliseconds (under a second). But there’s no reason the contact center can’t be updated in seconds and the email system within minutes, right?
Managing response rate requirements can lower costs and complexity, as long as they don’t impact the customer experience.
What do marketers mean when they say “real-time”?
On most occasions, when marketers say real-time, what you really mean is right-time. What is real-time marketing, really? It’s delivering the right data at the right time, to the right systems, to better connect with customers.
- Right-time is doing what is needed to make each moment count for the customer
- Real-time is collecting and processing data with no delay
The only reason to make this distinction is there can be major technical and organizational costs to imposing real-time requirements on the marketing team. Some teams have resources to handle it and some don’t.
It’s more important to make strategic investments into the systems that need to be real time — for example, your personalization platform and customer data platform (CDP) — and understand what’s required elsewhere.
How can you set your real-time data priorities? It helps to remember that marketing has two basic modes:
- Respond: You’re reacting to customers when they’re already engaged. They’re on your website, in your app, poking around on a kiosk in your store.
- Inspire: You’re trying to get the attention of customers and prospects when they may not be thinking about you. You send emails with offers, show ads on Facebook and Instagram, etc.
In most cases, it’s the ‘Respond’ mode that needs you to address customer concerns quickly. On the other hand, most ‘Inspire’ activities are pre-planned and benefit from complete and curated data that does not need the hyper-warp-speed investment.
But in some cases, real-time responses can even be counterproductive. Take an abandoned cart email. Not many of us would react calmly to a reminder email — or, even worse, a text message — a mere few milliseconds after we decided to leave. That’s what we mean when we talk about real-time marketing.
What can you do with a CDP using real-time data?
When you’re making decisions based on real-time data, you’re able to respond to customers in ways that make sense to them. Upgrading your customer data platform to one built on real-time data can help make sure that you have the answers your customers want — when they want them.
Doing this can not only make for happier customers, but improve your bottom line in a cost-efficient manner, too. After all, what is real-time marketing but a timely way to meet customer needs?
For example, a customer might make a purchase on an e-commerce website that puts them into a high-value segment. The segment change can trigger — right away — that person’s entry into a journey tailored to high-value customers. You can then target them with the right ad the next time they’re scrolling through Instagram.
Recently, we announced Data Cloud, our CDP that uses real-time data to make real-time marketing easier for companies. Making the most of real-time data can help you improve customer journeys.
Anyone considering a CDP to support real-time data management should ask how well it will support their “right-time” requirements. Just having parts of the customer journey happen in real time may not be enough. For example:
- First-party data: Many enterprises already have a trove of first-party data, and it should be easy to make use of it in real time with your CDP.
- Data actions: Marketers have different ways to communicate with customers, and these different methods (or channels) need to receive rapid signals from the real-time CDP.
- Partnerships: Reliable and easy-to-use integrations with key partners also helps eliminate friction in the data transfer process, where third parties are needed (such as for data enrichment, media activation, and auditing). For example, we recently announced integrations with Snowflake, Amazon SageMaker, Microsoft Azure, and others on the AppExchange.
Any lingering confusion about what is and isn’t real-time fades in importance when we pose a better question: What does the customer really need from us right now?