When Does Real Time Matter?

It’s impossible to work in a technology-related field and not be bombarded by the term “real time.” It’s used in one way or another to describe some element of virtually every marketing technology product or service.

Web analytics systems claim real-time analytics, real-time data, real-time reporting, and real-time actionability. Ad servers boast of real-time scheduling and real-time targeting. Behavioral targeting systems claim real-time audience segmentation and real-time targeting (like the ad servers). Content management systems claim real-time personalization. E-commerce systems boast of real-time transaction processing. I’m sure there are many more, but you get the idea.

I first encountered the term 15 or 20 years ago. A Tom Clancy novel describes satellite images from the other side of the world transmitted and viewed simultaneously (in “real time”) by U.S. intelligence agencies. It seemed like a very cool concept. I never dreamed it would actually become part of my life.

According to Merriam-Webster OnLine, “real time” is “the actual time during which something takes place.”

Basically, real time means something happens instantaneously. I won’t split hairs here with serious technologists or scientists, those who worry whether the occurrence of events within milliseconds constitutes real time. For purposes of this analysis, let’s assume actions that occur within the same second constitute real time.

“Real time” is used with so little precision and in so many different ways, it’s incredibly overused and seriously misunderstood. Many technology vendors throw the term around with careless abandon, caring little for the confusion they create among clients and prospects. All too often real time is over-promoted as a product feature. When it does matter, few notice or understand. People have been desensitized by inappropriate uses of the term.

The term’s misuse creates misunderstanding both inside organizations and out in the market. Real time is expensive. Creating and managing technology applications that operate in real time require a lot of infrastructure, people, and processing power. These are unnecessary if you don’t mind if an action occurs “just in time” or “some time later on.”

A few examples:

  • Real-time analytics and reporting. Does it matter? Depends on the use. For people only concerned with strategy insights, such as paths different visitors types take, or those focused on use of different navigation tools, real time is meaningless. If no action you can take in real time changes the user experience, then time and money spent to get information faster is overkill. The extra information is probably a distraction.

    If you’re an editor and constantly adjust stories and headlines to respond to audience interest, then real-time data can make a difference. It may be a worthwhile investment. Bottom line, real-time analytics are good for tactical applications, overkill for strategic ones.

  • Real-time actionability. As with the above example, this matters if the desired action is tactical. Would very fresh information help someone or something take an action at the same time?

    If resulting actions are strategic only and not intended to be taken at the same instant the information is created, then real time is wasted technology. You don’t need real-time audience information if you only use it at a weekly meeting to discuss behavior trends.

  • Real-time personalization. In personalization, real time is essential. If you want to personalize content for individual visitors, such as weather or commerce recommendations, you must do it in real time. You can’t wait minutes or hours to update pages. Visitors won’t be there anymore.

    You can’t personalize content without recognizing users and changing content the moment they arrive. Of course, this can be quite expensive. Those with content management systems with personalization have a special appreciation for the processing and data management costs associated with real-time actions at scale.

  • Real-time ad segmentation and targeting. Another example of where real time can really matter. Ad targeting is a very frontline, tactical operation. If you want to deliver a specific ad to a specific type of person, you must identify the person and deliver the ad in real time.

    To deliver automotive ads to people who viewed automotive content, no matter where they go on the site, you must target as soon as they visit automotive content. You can’t afford to wait until they return. They may never return. And if they do, they may have already bought a car.

    If you don’t start targeting ads on the first visit, you may have lost most targeting opportunities. Users in research mode tend to consume lots of pages per visit but don’t necessarily make many visits. Miss them that first time, and money’s left on the table.

Real time’s appropriateness in advertising and marketing technologies is entirely dependent on the desired application. A significant line exists between strategic and tactical applications. It would be difficult to comprehensively itemize and analyze all the categories and system types that could operate in real time. At least ask, “Does it matter?”

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