When the lights went out at 8:38 p.m., Feb. 3, 2013, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII, Oreo’s message that “you can still dunk in the dark” took advantage of the situation to promote the brand. The short message received more than 500 million earned media impressions and garnered digital ad agency 360i numerous awards for social media marketing.

All the hype around the notion of real-time marketing and the potential to leverage social media leaves you thinking that it’s something new. In some sense, it is. Social media provides another platform for brands to reach consumers, as well as delve into their interests and personalities.

But the underlying marketing principles remain. It’s about delivering the right message to the right consumer at the right time. From nonprofits seeking donations to politicians seeking votes, to telecommunication firms cross-selling products and retaining subscribers, customer-centric marketing focuses on identifying those individuals where marketing efforts are expected to have the biggest impact. That is, it’s about identifying the right consumer.

Here’s where marketers can take advantage of social media chatter:

• Travelers ranting online about their horrific holiday experiences provide an opportunity for brands to make inroads with their rivals’ customers who are already dissatisfied.

• Consumers soliciting advice from social networks before making a purchase are a ripe target for brands to reach out to, tailoring the message based on the information sought by consumers.

Brands monitoring social media conversations can not only engage with their own customers, but they also can identify other consumers to whom they should reach out. Social media offers a potential avenue through which marketers can reach these consumers at opportune times using content that is likely to be the most effective.

This may explain Apple’s recently announced acquisition of Topsy, a social media analytics company for which Apple paid in excess of $200 million. One possible rationale is that the insights derived from analyzing social media conversations could be used to support Apple’s advertising platforms. Another is that mining the social media conversations would support the recommendation systems in Apple’s App Store and iTunes.

Bought Justin Timberlake albums lately? Photo credit: Georges Biard, Wikimedia Commons.

Bought Justin Timberlake albums lately? Photo credit: Georges Biard, Wikimedia Commons.

At their core, these two explanations revolve around the same goal: aiding Apple in understanding what will appeal most to its customers at a particular time. If I’ve purchased a season pass to the TV show Scandal or bought albums by Justin Timberlake, algorithms can figure out what should be recommended to me next based on the purchases made by others with similar tastes. Add signals from social media conversations, which research has found to be a leading indicator of offline activities, and recommendations can be made dynamically. Social media has been found to be an early indicator of changes in stock prices and product sales—a leading indicator of brand tracking studies and related to TV ratings.

This same line of thinking would hold for advertisements within mobile apps. Just as there is heterogeneity in terms of the topics of interest, resulting in some advertisements being better suited to some compared with others, there is variation in the time when advertisements will be more or less effective. If I see an ad for furniture after I’ve moved into a new place, for instance, that’s probably going to be more effective than showing me the same ad after I’ve been living in the same home for a couple of years. More generally, if we can time an advertisement to where a consumer is in the purchase funnel, the message can be tailored. Someone just beginning to search for information being exposed to an ad is going to react differently compared with someone who is on the cusp of conducting a transaction.

The data available on social media have ushered in a new wave of what’s possible for marketers. We still need to find the right customers. Once we’ve figured that out, the analysis of social media data can provide direction for fine-tuning messaging based on the context in which an organization is operating. Marketing is about the same thing it’s always been: reaching the right customer, with the right message, at the right time. We’re just in a better position to implement it now.