Data is actionable only if it comes at the right time. So, depending on what kind of action you need to take, "real time" will mean "soon enough so I could do something with it."
Recently I helped conduct a study on the subject of convergence analytics that included a survey. The survey got responses from hundreds of people, and one of the questions we asked was about the popular phrase "real time" and what it means to different people.
The response was surprising: "real time" apparently can mean anything from under one second to a week!
This means that "real time" is probably a stand-in for "right time." Because what we are actually talking about is utility of information. If the campaign data got to you six weeks after the campaign was over, that's not real time or right time; that's nowhere, because you can't take any action on it.
Bound up in the concept of real time is the utility of the information as it relates to action. Data is actionable only if it comes at the right time. So, depending on what kind of action you need to take, "real time" will mean "soon enough so I could do something with it."
For media companies, or companies needing to adjust campaigns on the fly, real time means very, very quickly. In fact, some content management systems want to suck in data up to the minute and adjust content during the visit or even during the appearance of a banner. In these cases, real time can mean instantaneous.
For companies that don't need to react quite so quickly (or that can't), then real time probably means within a couple of days or within a week. This will allow them to use their analyst skills and their content creation tools to remake their content before and during a certain "freshness" period where the updated content will have relevance for the audience. But it doesn't necessarily tie to an offer that's adjustable on the fly.
For companies that are managing large, complex campaigns, especially those that involve apps and interactives, then real time means something a little different. These companies have real development cycles: they're launching software. Many of the most complex interactive experiences now being measured could not make use of data on the same day or even the same week.
They will collect data over a period of weeks and then review how well the experience performed so that in the next content revision (which may take weeks or months) they can adjust the content based on statistics like which were the most popular parts of the experience, the effectiveness of Facebook referrals, and overall time spent in the app or experience. In these cases, an immediate offer (except perhaps a coupon) is rare and the goal is more about spending time liking the brand than selling directly.
Especially in the case of apps, the fact that they have to recompile the app and submit it to (for instance) Apple means that real-time data is unnecessary for them - a needless luxury. They may not know for weeks whether the changes in their app have resulted in anything meaningful, and as with most software developers, they will have to be OK with that.
"Real time" is a selling feature in many digital analytics offerings today. Some even offer almost cinematic views of behavior on maps in truly real time - within seconds! You can see where and in what intensity behaviors are occurring; especially with social media. This can be a good background in helping make geographical segmentations. But is it something you really need?
It's long been suggested that vendors put features into their products because they can. Real-time capabilities are one of these. But you need to decide what's right for your organization - and what "real time" means for you - before buying into the "real time" paradigm.
Time image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Andrew V. Edwards is a digital marketing executive with 20 years of experience serving large organizations, and has been an operating executive and digital marketing consultant since the 1980s. Currently he is a partner at Efectyv Digital, a digital analytics consulting firm. Andrew combines extensive technical knowledge with a broad strategic understanding of digital marketing and especially digital measurement, plus hands-on creative in the form of writing and design.
In 2004 Edwards co-founded the Digital Analytics Association and is currently a director emeritus. He has designed analytics training curricula for business teams and has led seminars on digital marketing subjects.
Besides writing a regular column about analytics for ClickZ, Andrew wrote the groundbreaking "Dawn of Convergence Analytics" report, which was featured at the SES show in New York (2013).
His book Digital Is Destroying Everything, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be released on June 15, 2015.
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