Over the last few months I’ve noticed a phrase being used in conjunction with social media marketing with increasing regularity. Indeed, in the last couple of weeks I’ve had no less than three clients or prospective clients say to me that they want to adopt an ‘always-on’ approach.
But what exactly does that mean? It’s become a bit of a buzzword that, I feel, is being thrown around with gay abandon without any real understanding of the implications.
[Tweet “‘Always-On is a nonsensical buzzword that’s open to interpretation”]
So let’s take a look at its origins and what it means to different people. To start with, we need to visit February 3rd 2013.
The History of Real-Time
Shortly before 7.30pm local time during Super Bowl XLVII, the floodlights failed. (It was later blamed on Beyonce’s power-sapping half time show, but that’s another story.) As the stadium went black, social media lit up with people talking about the incident.
Inside of 30 minutes, Oreo published this now infamous tweet:
Power out? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC
— Oreo Cookie (@Oreo) February 4, 2013
It was, and still is, a remarkable piece of fast, creative and relevant advertising from a brand that clearly had its finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist. And it was no accident; Oreo had been preparing for such a moment since the previous October.
With those 21 characters and single, simple image, Oreo created a gold rush and the real-time marketing craze was borne.
But this wasn’t the first example of ‘real-time’ in action. Far from it. Technological techniques were first developed in the mid 1990s alongside the deployment of CRM solutions in major banking and telecommunications companies.
And in reality, the concept of leveraging the news agenda to generate publicity had been used by the PR industry for many, many years. Decades, perhaps. The term ‘newsjacking’ was popularised by David Meerman Scott in 2010 to describe the activity of injecting ideas or angles into breaking news, in real-time, in order to generate media coverage.
But social media, and Oreo in particular, took it to a whole new level.
What followed that pivotal Super Bowl moment was a year of rather disastrous attempts by brands to jump on the latest bandwagon. And most got it very badly wrong. The birth of Prince George in July 2013 was a particular low point, with endless brands trying to be clever and relevant but ending up looking silly.
Within 18 months, most brands had given up on real-time marketing, realising that it was very difficult to get right. To put it bluntly, they sucked at it. And that left the door open for those who do understand the mindset of real-time to step forward; the likes of the Specsavers and the Paddy Powers.
How Did We Get From ‘Real-Time Marketing’ To ‘Always-On’?
To some, ‘always-on’ is just real-time marketing under a different name. It means being responsive and opportunistic to creatively take advantage of what’s happening in the world no matter when it happens. To others it’s more about users; following what they’re doing and, crucially, when they’re doing it. For others still, it’s a behaviour.
[Tweet “Is ‘Always-On’ just real-time marketing under a different name?”]
A few weeks ago, Mark Schaefer and Tom Webster recorded an episode of their Marketing Companion podcast about the failure of real-time marketing. Tom spoke of Oreo having set a “dangerous precedent” and of his dislike of the practice. Mark on the other hand defended it by explaining it as “awareness to engagement to action” and using popular culture as the start point for the awareness part of this path.
This interesting discussion highlighted for me this issue over how different people believe ‘always-on’ to be very different things.
Definitions of ‘always-on’ are as numerous as the brands experimenting with it. Out of curiosity and, admittedly, to illustrate the point, I asked my networks what they think the term means. And the volume and variety of responses surprised even me.
How is Always-On Defined?
“It’s a blog or a social channel that’s up-to-date and topical with regular posts”, says Rhys Gregory.
“Being alert”, says Gary Day Ellison succinctly.
“The expectation that all channels are fully manned at all times; 24 hours a day, 365 days a year”, says Gemma Went.
See what I mean? Diverse.
An interesting take on this came from Louise Lloyd, who says: “For me, always-on is a personality type. It means that your senses are alert and you’re always looking for opportunities. It’s not a choice; I am whether or not I want to be. You can definitely see or feel this in people.”
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As someone who believes completely in the principles of real-time marketing done well, I agree with Louise’s view. It’s very much a mindset. And yet, this ‘definition’ is no more or no less accurate than those offered by Rhys, Gary and Gemma.
This is perhaps echoed by Alex Pearmain, who says: “It means at least three things in my experience; a personal attention model for marketers themselves, a media buying/planning model, and a brand strategy where the focus is on being reactive and opportunistic over planned and proactive.”
Linking these three threads, Chris Owen’s view is that always-on shows “how people are always connected and always listening; always plugged in; and always open to marketing”. He think it’s a sign of how “bubble-led” we’ve become. “From a brand perspective, it’s a lot of plates to juggle and a lot of work to filter”, he says. “You can’t choose when to engage and interact as a brand – you need to do it 24/7. If the user is always on, you need to be too, and that creates lots of noise. It’d be impossible to respond to everything for some major brands, and yet everyone will expect to be heard.”
Does Always-On Mean 24/7?
The issue of always-on implying 24/7 cover isn’t even something that people agree on. “I see always-on in digital as 24/7, primed to jump on opportunities, identify influencers and create added value content at short notice”, says Kate Reynolds. “It’s destined for frictions and frustrations though because of client approval processes and the resource v results issue. Another take would be ‘always available’ if we need you.”
And while Danny Brown says he defines it as being constantly available or at the very least always contactable, he says it’s also “unreasonable. It sets expectations of being available at stupid times of the day that can’t be met if you don’t have the budget/resources to scale.”
And yet Lucy Downing goes against this availability definition. She describes it as “day to day communications that bring key brand message or values to life. Campaigns are used on top of that to communicate a certain message at a certain time.” This is something that both Emily Mukalazi and Felix Hemsley agree with, the former explaining it as “always-on content versus hero content (campaign spikes)” while the latter says “it encompasses all the platforms and content feeds within them, populated with relevant ‘hygiene’ content which transcends the primary audiences of a brand and its thematic pillars”.
Always-On As The New World Order?
I’m going to leave the final word (well, not quite, but I say that in recognition of some great input… ) to Lindsay Bell-Wheeler. “I think always-on reflects our entire new world order”, she observes. “People are always-on (smartphones, mobile, smartwatches); devices are always-on; the news stream is always-on (instant Twitter updates); consumers are always-on; even employees are always on.
From a marketing perspective, I think it behooves any brand to attempt to achieve always-on status. But I’m not convinced that means 24/7 operation. I think it’s more about thinking about how they function in terms of how people and consumers function today. Be aware, be alert, always be checking, keep up on trending news stories, stay on top of social accounts, embrace this new, digital mind-frame.
Forget the millennials, Gen Z is here. And statistics are already showing how on and mobile they are. They refuse to be tethered to anything.”
Jonathan Bean adds: “The digital, social and mobile revolution has opened up access across all channels. Always-on is your only option as today’s marketer.”
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So there you have it. Always-on.
Is it real-time marketing? Or social listening and engagement? Or exceptionally responsive customer service? Or a mindset?
Is it 24/7? Or is it just day-to-day business as usual?
The answer is ‘yes’. It’s all of those and more. Which makes it, for me, a term that is nonsensical. It’s too open to interpretation.
If you’ve actually read all the way through this post (bravo!), you might need a reminder that my original assertion was that ‘always-on’ is one of those phrases that it’s become fashionable to use. That everyone has their own understanding of, and that is, therefore, confusing and misused.
I’m upgrading that assertion. Always-on is completely and utterly meaningless.