And Now This: A Response To John Oliver’s Views On Real-Time Marketing
Contributor Chris Kerns argues it's easy to poke fun at obvious brand mistakes on Twitter, but that doesn't mean newsjacking isn't effective marketing.
First, let’s get something out of the way — I’m a huge fan of comedian John Oliver.
When he came to Austin last year for a standup show, my wife and I were first in line to buy tickets. I’ve never missed an episode of Last Week Tonight, his new weekly HBO show. And so when I tuned in this week, I was surprised and excited to see him address a topic that’s been heavily debated over the past year in marketing circles — brands on social media jumping on trending topics.
This practice, known as real-time marketing (RTM) or newsjacking, has been experiencing massive growth while seeing a fierce amount of criticism from many pundits. Oliver jumped in with his criticisms, as well. While I can’t repeat many of the examples he used in his and keep my day job, here’s a link to the video for you to check it out for yourself.
He’s Got A Good Point
Many of Oliver’s points were spot on. The DiGiorno Pizza social gaffe he mentioned was a case study in making sure you understand the origin of a hashtag before joining the conversation. That being said, the brand’s response to the mistake was honest and humanizing — one of the best apologies I’ve seen by a social brand.
A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.
— DiGiorno Pizza (@DiGiornoPizza) September 9, 2014
Oliver’s criticism of brands chiming in on 9/11 was right on, as well. This year I was disappointed in many brands that created content on September 11th to offer discounts, deals, or products, when they just should have kept quiet.
These examples showed poor marketing decisions by brands and their social teams. September 11th isn’t the Fourth of July, and brands need to stop treating it that way.
The Very Visible Missteps Are Edge Cases
Still, to build off a few admittedly terrible anecdotal examples to claim, “That’s what brands don’t understand — Twitter is a cocktail party where friends and strangers can meet and chat; Corporations don’t belong there,” misses the greater reality.
Oliver’s example of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger chiming into a conversation at a party with an irrelevant “That’s Grrrreat!” comment is funny, but misguided. You see, it’s not actually what most brands are doing with real-time marketing. Or at least strategic brands aren’t.
I know this because I’ve been spending the past year researching the data behind RTM across more than 100 of the largest brands in the world. That research will be available in my book, Trendology, which will be published on November 4th.
Audiences Respond Overwhelmingly Positively To RTM
The data show that audiences are actually responding to brands and their involvement in trending topics with great enthusiasm. Huge enthusiasm. Who knew?
I’ve researched the practice across multiple scenarios — brands jumping in on big events, smaller events, everyday trending topics — and found that in almost every scenario, RTM posts receive a huge bump in social response (retweets and favorites) from the audience. This content is performing not only for a few brands famously using the practice to grab headlines, like Oreo and Arby’s, but for the majority of brands participating in the practice.
If you step back and think about it, this shift make sense. Traditional advertising relies on brands disrupting an existing activity with a different story line or message, which can be distracting, annoying, and look completely out of place. Nobody wants that message from Tony the Tiger in their social feed — but that’s not what (most) brands are doing.
Brands are posting RTM content that goes along with the trend and conversation. They are adding to the discussion around the trend, not trying to move people away from it. And when brands jump in on the topic in this manner, the audience retweets and favorites those posts like crazy.
Again — I get it. It’s weird to see Charmin talking about the Royal Baby. It’s odd to see an airline photoshopping lightsabers into a stock photograph to celebrate Star Wars Day.
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) May 4, 2014
It’s new and it’s scary and it’s strange. But the data show that, time and time again, RTM works.
Brands Are Responding To The Audience, Rather Than Trying To Set The Agenda Themselves
The audience engages with real-time content in much higher numbers than any other content these brands are posting. It’s because brands are now wrapping their messaging around what’s top of mind for the audience vs. traditional advertising, which works the other way around.
It doesn’t mean that brands should jump on every trend, but the data shows that brands shouldn’t be shy about jumping on the right trend.
It shouldn’t be any surprise to Oliver — in fact, his own network, HBO, saw enough value in the practice to engage in real-time marketing during last year’s Emmys. His own show capitalizes on topics and trends from the week — that’s the whole point of it — to offer new views on recent topics that resonate with his audience. And that’s why we love his show so damn much.
His former network, Comedy Central, has engaged with real-time marketing, as well. This Tweet about the Polar Vortex, a trending topic from earlier this year, is a good example of a brand jumping in on a relevant topic.
Polar Vortex just sounds like a sequel to Sharknado. pic.twitter.com/PgmtNuU7qS
— Comedy Central (@ComedyCentral) January 6, 2014
What does Comedy Central have to do with the Polar Vortex? Nothing. Did the audience revolt? Absolutely not. In fact — the audience loved it.
Comedy Central’s Polar Vortex Tweet received 480% more retweets and 136% more favorites than Comedy Central’s last 3,000 Tweets. The network jumped in on a relevant, trending conversation to engage its audience. Why can’t another brand do the same thing?
It’s Easy To Find Poor Execution, But There’s Another Side To The Story
Real-time marketing, for too long, has been anecdotally picked apart by examples of poor execution that are easy to make fun of (and should, for the record, absolutely be made fun of). John Oliver made some great points in his takedown of RTM, but only showed one side of the story before jumping to a conclusion.
But the data show that followers disagree with him. Social audiences are welcoming brands into public conversations — at least when brands are doing RTM well.
Yes, I laughed at the John Oliver piece. How could I not? It was well written, timely, and funny. And yes, I’ll still be first in line the next time he comes to Austin for a show. But the next time he tries to persuade me about the impact of real-time marketing and social brands, he’ll have to bring more data.