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Time-shifting the real-time web
Understanding where and when to time-shift is existential for your survival online: personally and professionally. Learn this well and step off unwinnable treadmills...
Streaming services like Hulu, devices such as DVRs, and in the past quick DVD launches of previous seasons enabled you to time-shift TV content for viewing on your time. The idea of having to watch pre-recorded televised content on someone else’s timetable is a dated notion, at least to those who value their schedules. There are exceptions to this, in the case of Sports or awards shows (for those who enjoy that sort of thing) which are far more socially-oriented and thus lend themselves to being watched in real-time. None of this is new. It’s ingrained in the DNA of the millennial generation and younger, yet completely lost on the older cohorts who still have a cable subscription. It’s why the below graphic makes absolutely no sense and was created by someone without the faintest understanding of why time-shifting is valuable.
Most programs don’t need to be viewed a scheduled manner any longer and if you think this is the case you don’t really get how the internet functions. This is a huge shift from the past where if you wanted to watch any TV you had to do so on someone else’s schedule (VCR taping was possible but inefficient and still required work).
And yet, everything old is new again. As the real-time web grows in popularity so has the notion that getting web content in real-time is essential. People refresh Twitter or Instagram feeds for the latest updates, as if something there will unlock some epiphany that somehow magically solves their problems or gives them an edge in life. Nothing could be further from the truth for nearly all content produced by individuals or businesses. The only web content (or any content) you might need to get in real-time is perhaps breaking news about a danger to your physical world like a chemical weapon threat or Tornado warning. Everything else can wait.
That’s the beauty of the web and something I’ve enjoyed since the days when forums and boards reigned supreme (something we’ve lost, but ultimately might rediscover thanks to Substack and YouTube which have subscription options best suited for on-demand viewing). In the past, conversations were time-shifted to the convenience of the user, who would bump old threads back to the top when they were ready to add their contribution. For those with interests in specific subjects vs. simply an interest in what’s new because it’s new, this is still happening. It’s objectively far healthier mentally and when you rediscover this pace any childish “FOMO” emotions will surely fade.
Don’t let your view of digital content consumption get skewed by early adopters or news junkies. Within industry-specific content categories it’s more about getting deeper into subjects than just flirting with the surface. This involves threading the past with the future – in essence ongoing discussions over longer periods. Plus, don’t forget that the people carrying on niche-specific conversations (generally these folk aren’t in the tech industry) likely have commitments that take them away from their computers or even mobile devices. To them, time-shifting is even more relevant and they maintain a sane pace, vs many of us in tech and marketing who have problems turning away.
Still, we can’t ignore the fact the real-time web matters. Just a few brief reasons include:
The 24 hour news cycle and news blogs pushing quantity have set expectation to consumers what’s new matters most (even if that’s not always the case).
Trending topics can send a lot of search traffic – whether appearing in Google News, Reddit or other communities if you are the one who can set the agenda for the topic du jour. Some can do this with consistency, but for others this may be an occasional opportunity.
Social media power users love what’s new, interesting and yet to be shared – while older content can still end up going hot, the tendency is to share what’s breaking or at least ‘perceived novel.’
Real-time services and streams are essential to conferences and real-world events – everyone at the event can participate while the rest of the industry gets the story while it’s hot and is part of the backchannel, even from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Reactions to news tends to break in real-time streams in short form, followed by deeper analysis (which then also gets fed back into the stream). Decide if being at the edge matters for you, generally there’s a steep time decay of value here but always value in the right analysis even if it comes later (far easier to be consistent here).
Reporters and media are fishing for content in real-time services so they’re covering topics that are at the edge. Instead of replying to a HARO query this is a more potent (and inbound) way to be included in stories. The requirement here is you need to have team members incisive enough to be effective here, intern-level social media folk have essentially zero chance of effectiveness. Smart organizations have always known this and thus valued social appropriately (many do not, so still relatively easy alpha for your marketing team if you’re willing to invest).
Continued growth of location-based services are powered by real-time updates. Some people like Mr Beast even have enough power to draw a crowd, instantly, with just one update.
There are many time-sensitive approaches that directly leverage the real-time web for digital marketing and PR that few take advantage of, but could. And embracing real-time in this manner if you have the resources as part of your strategy to accomplish larger objectives makes a lot of sense especially if you’re a national and well-established brand, but also perhaps for startups with bold leadership. We want to connect around people in specific moments in time as much as the type of content such as sports that has a temporal nature.
But aside from the obvious approaches to leveraging real-time here are some strategies to embrace thriving in a real-time web possible on your own time….
Don’t worry about getting everything that’s new, now
For a majority of digital content, it’s not at all necessary to get it in real-time. In fact, as my friend Mathew Ingram noted many years ago: if the news is important, it will find me. Matthew realizes that real-time produces a perpetual churn and there is no possible way to read everything. And that’s just fine – the most important information will always surface.
As Seth Godin observes, there’s a high cost of now:
The closer you get to the source and moment of information, the more it costs.
You can check your email twice a day pretty easily. Once every fifteen minutes has a disruption cost. Pinging it with your pocketphone every sixty seconds is an extremely expensive lifestyle/productivity choice.
Replace email in the above quote with Twitter, TikTok, your web analytics or anything else which updates in real-time and the cost is equally as high. Realize there is no reason to feel overwhelmed and consistently check streams – filter so you’re getting just what matters. Leave the immediately pressing issues, for the most part, to your customer service team (who should be monitoring in real-time). If you’ve educated them properly, they’ll forward issues which require a PR response up the chain as soon as they see them. But as a strategist, there is too high a cost of now for you to stay on top of everything about your brand or the web as a whole. Instead, develop a workflow which involves filtering and time-shifting to view and define next-steps on your own time, and create an agile process for your social CRM team to follow to catch anything immediately pressing.
Develop truly timeless content – if it’s that good, visitors will still find it
A popular notion is that the real-time web is changing the search landscape. This is true to an extent and for some searches. For example, if there is a trending topic such as the World Cup – it makes sense to get information on that topic happening right now, in real-time. Search engines provide a great user experience to serve those results. But what if you were looking for ideas on a topic such as how to overcome writer’s block? Not like that topic is ever going to be a trending topic or is something anyone needs real-time search results for. Does your organization have timeless content that is forever sharable and useful? Targeting broader, popular concepts which are agnostic of trends is smart because it puts less pressure on you to always feed the stream to generate consistent awareness. Search is a core function of the web and is not going away. There’s far too much value in archival content. Anyone who declares web search dead misunderstands the function and value of information as well as the behavior of society. This transcends technology – for a physical world example, look no further than the global investment in libraries.
Focus on growing opt-in at the source
Unless you have tons of resources, let external sources where you’re feeding content like a LinkedIn brand page grow organically on their own. Instead or being thirsty for new followers, work on getting more users subscribed directly to your source content in a place they will see it and they control the signal to noise ratio: email is best, as well as something like a YouTube channel (they own video, and are very generous with distribution, search and awareness, no reason to fight this). I know it’s not new, but by getting people subscribed to your content in an area that is not real-time, you actually position yourself better to gain attention from real-time services. It’s just too easy to miss something in the stream, and it’s so easy for users to unsubscribe in email and email they tend to balance how much they can handle. In analyzing who consistently shares content of the clients I consult for, I find in nearly all cases their “true fans” have opted in at the source.
Aggregate industry content/category yourself
You could be the one to break news or orchestrate daily topics in real-time yourself. That’s a direct path to leverage real-time and certainly one approach. Another approach is to be an aggregator of content in your category either via automation, manual or hybrid (i.e., what if you developed a Techmeme for your specific niche and interspersed your own content in the mix?). The beauty of this approach is with the right automation you could make something pretty meaningful which updates itself. You could easily manage the manual aspects on your own timetable, freeing you of being a slave to real-time, yet still maintaining something which has up-to-the-minute value. Surprised there aren’t more startups in this bucket, maybe difficult to market initially but it’s for sure possible to ‘build habits’ with users here.
Build a community who are active in real-time channels, even if you can’t always be there
If you have a community made up of users who are active in real-time channels, you will need to do a whole lot less promotion there yourself. Do you see the absolute most trusted people mucking around on TikTok? Maybe on occasion, but I’d say it’s smarter to let your community do this for you. I’ve never seen Seth Godin (sorry to use him again today he’s just so good at this) one of the best selling authors of all time post micro content. He does just fine to have his ideas make it into the streams our our sector organically. He shares thinking that’s remarkable, and so his community propagates it and does the additional remarking for him. He’s conditioned them to do so (you can do this too). So remember, don’t have to be everywhere, you have to just be interesting enough to resonate everywhere (imagine throwing a stone in a still pond, better yet, skipping it). Another idea here is to hire terminally online people who will personally show up 24/7 (hard to find, even harder to hire, but will work for you pretty much around the clock as the internet is their life …if you do hire one try not to burn them out).
You can get massive amounts of users to promote your brand in real-time channels in a way that’s not so real-time. How’s that exactly? Remember, much of the real-time web is an ongoing narrative that users build on. Storytelling is something that can and does happen in real-time, but if you plan ahead you can develop the pieces of content on your own agenda and carefully orchestrate the release. Take care of the hard work up front and know where, when and how you’re going to push it into the stream. Follow that plan – while of course being opportunistic as you go (that always has to happen in real-time) and work created in advance can help you permeate the real-time web even if it wasn’t created in real-time.
All content that is freshly published has an inherent advantage of being shared due to our obsession with what’s new. Instead of always reinventing the wheel, why not re-purpose content across formats and channels (of course, making uniquely interesting each time). You can do this with any digital asset you create, for example – a webinar could become the basis for a white paper, which could be re-used as 10 optimized articles in a resource area on your site. Then, as each piece of content is published it’s giving the stream something which is perceived-new even if it’s not 100% original. Everyone is too busy to notice and it will still be perceived new.
Create the perception that your content is breaking news, even if it’s not
Even if you’re not producing content that is necessary to receive in real-time, you should create the perception your content is needed right now. It’s just good marketing. Simply position it as-such and take advantage of how the web’s users have been conditioned to receive and then share ideas. This can be accomplished by using the right language in headlines and updates or even simply covering topics that are known to be shared in real-time channels (easy to see, an obvious one to attach ideas to is the economy because that’s always perceived high value in real time even if it actually isn’t needed in real-time, you get the idea).
Depending on your resources and objectives, how you leverage the real-time web will be unique. With that said, to receive benefits remember that you don’t always have to be there in real-time. You need to learn what matters here for both your marketing and idea consumption and triage both problems appropriately. Your comms team should already be fluent in how to accomplish this, table stakes now.
Bonus related content: I wrote a previous Substack post on demystifying real-time analytics if you need a brief guide on how to best use real-time data (where it matters, where it doesn’t, etc).