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Five Best-Practices for Real-Time Contextual Marketing

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These days, marketing to people based on their real-time context is all the rage. However, although real-time contextual marketing can drive strong results, marketers need to think carefully about whether it's right for their business.

Not all organizations may be a fit for real-time contextual marketing—but many are. How do you know if it's right for your business?

It's key to understand that real-time contextual marketing isn't just one "thing." A variety of content can be triggered based on five primary real-time "pillars," and within each lie multiple opportunities for using real-time content:

  1. Geolocation: live weather forecast targeting, live maps, temperature, location-based offers
  2. Time: countdown timers, time-of-day/week/month messages, expiring offers/discounts, social feeds, breaking news
  3. Device: embedded video, app download buttons, mobile deep-linking
  4. Language: alternate-language hero image, multilingual articles or ads
  5. Performance: real-time creative/offer testing, with winners chosen dynamically based on click or conversion metrics

For example, an airline might be especially sensitive to real-time offers based on time-of-day since airfares change so frequently, but it might be less so to social context as a business driver. A consumer packaged goods brand might be more sensitive to social context, but less so to time-based offers or device-targeted messaging.

If your business is not sensitive to timed offers, social relevance, weather, mobile usage, or the geolocation of your openers, real-time contextual marketing may not be the best fit.


If, however, your business is a good candidate for sharing such content with your prospects and customers based on their real-time context, the following five best-practices should help drive success for your program.

1. Determine the quick wins and test iteratively

Often, it's best to start with real-time content that's easy to implement and which also delivers the highest expected value to the business. A good partner can sometimes help to identify these likely "quick win" candidates.

Outline a plan that tests over multiple campaigns. Testing on a single campaign, even when A/B-testing, is typically not good enough, because contextual marketing is dependent on the constantly shifting real-time conditions of your openers and constantly shifting offers/creatives of your messaging.

A general best-practice is to test real-time content over at least 10-15 separate deployments over a period of 60-90 days.

2. Understand the limitations and how to address them

In certain situations, it's not possible to use real-time content. One instance to keep in mind is geo-targeting Gmail Web and app openers—typically half of all Gmail openers for B2C marketers, and 10-20% percent of the overall marketable database. Gmail accounts using the native iOS or Android mail client are not subject to this limitation.

When recipients open email through a VPN, reliable geo-targeting is not possible. Time-based, language-based, and device-based targeting are still possible.

When device-targeting, not all mail clients support embedded video. Those that don't will display fallback video thumbnails instead.

Be sure to work with a real-time email partner that can detect these situations and dynamically display fallback content to ensure all recipients receive the appropriate messaging and content, ensuring no one receives a broken message.

3. Strive for automation

Many types of real-time content are "set it and forget it" propositions. Live maps, social feeds, real-time news updates, personalized countdown timers, and live inventory availability or pricing are all examples that can be re-used without building new creative. Using these types of real-time content keeps emails relevant and timely.

In the first four to five campaigns, plan the workflow for using real-time content. Although real-time content can be easy to implement, it's smart to add an extra day or two to the production calendar just in case issues develop—especially in the case of embedded video and live Web content, which tend to be somewhat more complex to implement than other real-time content.

4. Focus on performance

It may seem intuitive that real-time content will provide lift, but that needs to be measured and validated. Apply real-time testing capabilities to dynamically adjust calls to action, timers, maps, and feeds based on up-to-the-moment click activity.

Unlike standard A/B-testing, in which a group is targeted, split in two, and a winner selected, with real-time A/B-testing the email needs to be sent only once, so it is an opportunity to further streamline workflow.

If you are seeking to use real-time content as a lever to enable lower frequency, ensure tests are run over a period of at least 60-90 days, with variable frequency for the real-time group and the control group.

Measure unsubscribes from each group alongside the aggregate performance activity (e.g., revenue, impressions, clicks) to gain a clear picture of the effectiveness.

5. Combine real-time data with other data to drive the most value

One of the most intriguing capabilities and clear benefits of real-time content in email is the ability to personalize for everyone in a database, even if the marketer lacks information on the recipient in advance. When a marketer already knows something about the recipient (preference or behavioral), real-time content becomes extremely powerful.

For example, an airline may know the origin city of a passenger; that vital information can be used to display real-time fares in email only from the passenger's home airport. A retailer may know that a shopper abandoned her shopping cart; that information can be used in a real-time context to display the latest discount pricing and inventory availability for that product in an abandoned cart message.

An insurance company may know that someone requested a quote; it can use that information to display driving directions to the agents located closest to the prospective client. An online travel agency may know the specific dates of an upcoming trip for a traveler and use that information in combination with up-to-the-minute pricing and room availability for his destination.

* * *

Real-time contextual marketing is a powerful tool for the right businesses. With it, personalization becomes possible for everyone in a marketer's database—even when the marketer has no previous knowledge about a specific recipient. It also provides marketers with the ability to deliver updated messaging to recipients without upping the frequency of their emails. Most important, it enables marketers to make their emails more engaging and interactive by showing sensitivity to the real-world conditions of each opener.

In short, real-time contextual marketing can translate into less unwanted email and more relevant messages, resulting in increased conversions and revenue. What marketer isn't looking for that?


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Justin Foster is a co-founder and the VP of market development for Liveclicker, a technology company focused on creating rich customer experiences for leading brands across email and the Web.

LinkedIn: Justin Foster

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  • by Devika Girish Tue Sep 22, 2015 via web

    Very informative read, Justin. Thanks for sharing. I totally agree with what you said. While contextual marketing is in rage now, it is highly critical for marketers to know exactly what kind of offers is their business sensitive to. And one of the best technologies that enables businesses to reach out to customers at the right time, at the place is iBeacon technology. However, many marketers even today are unaware of how to begin planning their beacon strategy. We [beaconstac] are conducting a upcoming webinar on everything you need to know about planning a successful beacon pilot.

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