Five Best-Practices for Real-Time Contextual Marketing


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.

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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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Impersonal Communication Annoys Your Customers, Use Contextual Personalization Instead


Consider the following email marketing statistics from a recent consumer research study of British consumers:

  • The average person’s inbox has 260 unopened emails, 56% of which are from brands.
  • 60% of those people who never open brand emails admitted they would if the subject line were personalized.

The above facts tell us that consumers find impersonal marketing communications—let’s call it “brand spam”—irrelevant as well as annoying.

Often, unread emails from brands are those the consumer initially elected to receive, a process we call “self-selecting.” Self-selecting is defined as ignoring emails originally requested but no longer relevant by the time they reach the individual’s inbox.

The solution to eliminating brand spam is to provide greater context for improved personalization. At Webtrends, we call this “contextual personalization.”

Is Your Website Welcoming?

Some marketers believe that one-to-one personalized email is a Holy Grail, but you can engage with your customers on a different level in other areas. Your website, for example.

Do you provide a different experience to registered users compared to those who are unknown? For example, show a small banner saying, “Welcome back, (insert name)” to returning visitors.

Also, consider website personalization and social interaction to get closer to consumers through a less formal approach.

Applying Insights to Connect With Consumers

Until now, personalization has largely involved using a combination of known profile information and historical data.

What’s been missing is the ability to combine that valuable data with real-time information, such as what devices customers use, their location, their stage in the buying cycle, even the weather. But contextual personalization does just that.

Contextual personalization applies insights from historical and real-time data to connect with consumers in rich and engaging ways.

The deep, real-time analysis of customer behavior makes brands better-equipped to provide interesting and relevant experiences, taking into account the customers’ needs at the moment. Brands can give customers what they want, how they want it, when they want it, and where they want it.

The ever-increasing proliferation of smartphones and tablets, combined with powerful back-end software technology solutions more widely implemented, means brands now can create distinctly personalized, relevant connections with target audiences.

What Time Is It?

Context can be extended to the time of day, too.

For instance, people who browse websites on the subway on their way to work may buy something low-cost but are unlikely to take the plunge on higher-priced items, such as stereo equipment or televisions. So, for example, at lunch, you may send a text offering free shipping to customers after they viewed a set of wireless speakers that morning.

In the case of higher-ticket items, an email sent in the evening (when a customer is likely at home) may encourage higher-priced purchases. That is especially true if they revisit your website from their PC to read more about the TV they were exploring via their mobile device earlier in the day. A simple website banner asking whether they’d like to see the last page they visited earlier in the day gives a shortcut that might yield a sale.

Putting It All Together

Let’s consider a specific example that shows how this is all ties together.

Emily enjoys shopping for shoes online and in the store, where she uses her loyalty card. On one of her favorite shoe websites, she sees a style she’d like to add to her shoe collection.

Modern advertising technology software lets you align what she’s looked at previously with her current online behavior, in combination with external data (such as geo-location and weather). That makes it possible to then tailor her experience by serving pages that reflect her current, sunny, weather in Los Angeles by recommending summer sandals. Alternatively, if she were in Seattle, where it’s raining, you might instead show her pages detailing boots.

Even if Emily doesn’t put anything in her online cart, you’ve already captured that historical and real-time data. A personalized email can be sent within minutes offering a deal on the products she just looked at, with perhaps a time-sensitive incentive to purchase.

We can extend this example even further by incorporating beacon technology alongside contextual personalization to trigger an “offer” when Emily is walking by one of her favorite shoe stores. She receives a text alert that the shoes she recently browsed online are in stock, in her size and at that store.

Contextual personalization goes well beyond email. Email, appropriately personalized with relevance, is just a part of the overall picture.

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If you’re doing what was mentioned in this article, you can considerably lessen the odds of your communications becoming brand spam.

Consider these numbers from our research, undertaken for Webtrends by OnePoll earlier this year: Of the 65% of people who say they open emails from brands, 82% are more likely to do so if the subject line contains information personalized to them.

Perhaps even more promising, of the 20% who say they never open any emails from brands, 60% say they would be more likely to if those emails were personalized. Those encouraging figures speak to what contextual personalization is all about.

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