Real-world challenges for real-time marketers

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IHG sends triggered messages with personalized emails to customers who have just booked rooms
IHG sends triggered messages with personalized emails to customers who have just booked rooms

The idea of real-time marketing is top of mind for many marketers these days, as consumers demand a personalized experience and more timely messages from brands. As marketers adopt an automated approach, consumers have come to expect brands to speak to them on their own terms — wherever they may be, through whatever media they are using — and with offers that resonate for them.


Real-time marketing will dominate the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) annual conference and exhibition in Boston this month, explains Julie Hogan, SVP of conferences and education services at the DMA. "The speed, approach and shift-on-the-fly flexibility in which brands communicate with their customers is a perfect illustration of what real-time marketing represents."


InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), a company with seven hotel brands, is one company that has put real-time marketing at the forefront of its communications with customers. IHG sends triggered messages with personalized emails to customers who have just booked a room, who have reservations coming up, and who have just stayed in one of its hotels. 


Working with digital marketing services firm StrongMail, IHG has created 31,680 different versions of its transactional email template, with 7,000 different landing pages, in order to send individualized messages to each customer. These emails are 
automated and sent in real time based on a customer's profile and where he or she is in the purchase cycle. 


"We are trying to sell hotel rooms, and to do so we have to provide our customers with valuable information at the right time," says Kevin Hickey, global manager of email 
marketing at IHG. "Ultimately, our goal is to deliver timely communications by leveraging automation in real time."


Kristin Hersant, VP of corporate marketing at StrongMail, says, "Real-time marketing is about being nimble and flexible with your schedules. The original way to do marketing was to plan schedules months in advance. And while you should still have a plan, now you have to be nimble and flexible to that plan depending on what is happening in your business."


Advances in technology have transformed a marketer's job, creating new opportunities and challenges. There's now almost an unlimited number of ways to reach consumers, as well as better ways to track and measure responses through sophisticated Web analytics. It's no longer a comprehensive strategy that synthesizes the many levers marketers must pull today to coordinate online plans — marketers must also do so faster than ever before, reacting and adapting campaigns on the fly, based on instant customer feedback.


Dave Frankland, VP and research director at Forrester Research and part of the DMA panel "Breaking Down the Walls: Customer Intelligence's Role in Driving Business" on Saturday, Oct. 1, says while the digital experience is inherently real-time, "most marketing still exists in batch loads where processes continue to be set up in batch waterfall campaign mode. This approach needs to change and communications should be based more on real-time customer intelligence."


With market volatility, financial services companies that work with Google have been making their display and search buys based on the market variations throughout each trading day. Google client Goldline International adjusted its campaigns in real time last August after gold hit an all-time high. Searches for precious metals shot up 400% compared with 2010; thus the gold dealer adjusted its tactics to attract new customers. 


"Volatility creates interest," says Alan Moss, VP of online sales at Google, who is scheduled to deliver a keynote at DMA on Tuesday, Oct. 4. "Advertisers who are really savvy work these campaigns on-the-fly to respond to events going on in the world." 


Since technology makes it easier for marketers to respond in real-time, customers expect much more from brands in this regard, demanding real-time responses via email, SMS and Twitter. "Customers are more impatient now, and they have higher expectations and demands. This comes from the assumption that technology should be smarter," says Christa Carone, VP and CMO of Xerox Corp., who will address DMA on Sunday, Oct. 2. 


Xerox uses data and automation to turn its messaging into more of a conversation. For its b-to-b marketing, the brand sends automated messages based on a customer's past purchase behavior and personal information from customer profiles. 


"It is way beyond sending out an email piece that says, 'Dear Dianna,'" says Carone. "It is about being smart in how you use your data and your creative to align with a customer's needs."


Merrin McCormick, associate creative director at Campfire, who is scheduled to address DMA Tuesday, Oct. 4, thinks beyond poring over data, brands should look to online communities for customer insights. 


McCormick says geotargeting will continue to evolve and predicts quick response (QR) codes will be replaced by RFID tags, intelligent barcodes that are embedded into products and that can talk to systems. "QR codes can work, but they are often too much work for consumers," she says. 


With emerging technologies and more demanding consumers, it would be easy for any marketer to get overwhelmed. The DMA conference tends to be a showcase for products to aid brands in real-time campaigns through channels including search, email and social media, as well as data and measurement tools. Despite these innovations, many brands seek simplicity. 


"I continue to look for simple tools that we can use to look at data and use it in our direct marketing programs," explains Carone. "Simplification is a big word among our marketing team."


Despite the focus on real-time marketing, just because data and automation tools have made triggered messaging easier doesn't mean a brand should always market itself moment by moment. Rather, Frankland warns, brands should focus on marketing at the "right time." 


"If a customer can only change a contract once a month, it might not be the time to trigger a message just because they visited your website. There is no use in sending them a message when the timing isn't right," he explains. "It's about leveraging the data so that you can send the intelligent message at the relevant time."

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