It’s the day of Super Bowl XLVIII and pregame parties across the U.S. are already underway. Fans are gearing up with Pinterest-inspired snack platters while face-painted and paraphernalia-donning diehards perform luck-bringing rituals.

Brand marketers, meanwhile, are mobilizing their social media “SWAT” teams. Creative directors, copywriters and lawyers are hunkered down in war rooms equipped with sketchpads, computers and big-screen TVs.

The teams lie in wait, armed and ready to assault their Twitter feeds with bespoke one-liners as the drama of the great game unfolds.

But here’s the thing: The game unfolded with little to no drama. It was unequivocally boring, and apart from the Denver Broncos getting slammed, the big losers at Super Bowl 2014 were the brand marketers looking for another Oreo power outage moment that never came.

With no unexpected incident forcing marketers to make game-time decisions, what came out of those war rooms was only slightly more “real-time” than your average tweet.

Twitter channels were clogged with what amounted to a glut of fodder for the Real-Time Marketing Sucks Tumblr: predictable, scripted puns and stock-image-esque efforts that ostensibly fell short of being either quick or witted.

And it’s not just the Super Bowl. Event after event has been jacked by brands – usually on Twitter – striving for the “real-time” hall of fame.

At the 2014 Grammys it was Arby’s jab at Pharrell’s choice of headwear. At the Academy Awards it was Ellen’s Samsung-facilitated selfie stunt that broke Twitter. And despite controversies and cases of hashtag hijacking, brands still crashed the Sochi Winter Games.

Even the finale of Breaking Bad and the royal birth of Prince George were crashed by attention-seeking tweets from brands.

The trend, it seems, is unstoppable. It’s even garnered its own special term: “eventjacking.”

The only problem is that most of these efforts end up seeming pretty lame, or at best uncreatively coordinated to be timely or relevant. So why are brands still in the game?

Real time marketing gets granular

real_time_marketing_graph_1It turns out real-time marketing is a strategy whose scope is much broader than live-tweeting Miley Cyrus’ Grammy twerking spectacle.

David Meerman Scott, who wrote the book on real-time marketing, put it to me this way in a phone interview: “Real-time marketing is engaging with buyers and existing customers on their time frame rather than your time frame.”

This means real-time marketing can include anything from welcoming visitors to your company website with a greeting based on their location, to tweeting someone a new pair of pants.

Eventjacking (which, thanks to Oreo, is often used synonymously with real-time marketing) is more specific. It happens when marketers scrutinize major events as they unfold in the hope of inserting their brands into the social conversation.

And just to make things a little more complicated, eventjacking shouldn’t be confused with newsjacking, which Scott, who also wrote a book on this subject, defines as the “process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or your business.”

Not just semantics

It may seem like semantic nitpicking, but it’s worth spending a little time distinguishing between event- and newsjacking.

Volkswagen's 1969 print ad celebrated the successful Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Volkswagen’s 1969 print ad celebrated the successful Apollo 11 mission.

The Super Bowl may get covered by news stations, but according to Scott, as a recurring and anticipated event, it doesn’t quite meet the requisite just-breaking, real-time criteria of a successful newsjack. As Scott says, “everybody knows it’s coming. It’s a defined event that happens at a particular exact time in history.”

It’s why Volkswagen was able to eventjack the Apollo 11 mission all the way back in 1969, for instance.

Unless something particularly newsworthy happens during an event, like a blackout during the Super Bowl, marketers aren’t newsjacking, they’re eventjacking. And it’s this difference that helps explain why some efforts succeed spectacularly and others fall flat.

Take, for example, Oreo’s 2013 Super Bowl tweet. No, not the power outage one. The other one. Don’t remember? Exactly.

Oreo’s tweet about Beyoncé’s half-time show may have been eclipsed by the famous “Dunk in the Dark” tweet that followed only moments after, but the real reason it has been forgotten by posterity is because it was a preplanned tweet executed during a preplanned event – a classic example of eventjacking.

The promise and perils of perfect timing

To eventjack or not to eventjack? It’s an inevitable question, and no doubt one that’s been tossed around boardrooms in preparation for this year’s FIFA World Cup.

During this year’s Super Bowl, 24.9 million game-related tweets went fluttering about the Twitterverse, 4.9 million of which, according to the Neilson Company, were brand related.

At 8:32 pm (EST), when Percy Harvin’s 87-yard kickoff return for touchdown opened the third quarter, 381,605 tweets were sent out – over 100,000 tweets more than are sent out in the average minute on Twitter.

Put simply, social networks are crowded places during events, and that’s bad news for brands. As David Meerman Scott says, “Sitting around and waiting for something to happen at an event like the Super Bowl where everybody else is doing the exact same thing means that you’re almost certainly doomed to failure.”

Carrie Kerpen of Forbes reports that most eventjacking efforts garner less than 100 shares, which is not a significant improvement in engagement from what brands see on a day-to-day basis.

With hundreds of brands vying for their place beside Oreo or Arby’s in the real-time marketing hall of fame, maybe the Super Bowl (or the World Cup, or the Oscars…) isn’t the best time to get noticed.

So why do it? The tantalizing, if unfulfilled, promise of exposure. A survey conducted by ESPN finds that 83 percent of Super Bowl-watching respondents use second screens during the game, with 65 percent of the respondents saying that social media has made the Super Bowl better in the past 10 years and 40 percent citing the commercials as their favourite part of the event.

Brands may be tweeting into flooded social media streams, but it seems that as consumers, we’re willing accomplices.

And of course, there’s the price tag. Done right, effective eventjacking provides a considerable return-on-investment, especially since it’s proportionally cheaper than traditional advertising.

Ellen DeGeneres proved as much during the Oscars this year with a Samsung-branded selfie that smashed the record for most retweets and which, according to Maurice Lévy, CEO of Publicis, is worth upwards of $1 billion.

Oreo’s parent company, Mondelez, reports a twofold increase in ROI when digital social media efforts are paired with TV advertising.

Ellen Degeneres and a host of celebrities appear in a Samsung selfie during the 2014 Oscars.

Ellen Degeneres and a host of celebrities appear in a Samsung selfie during the 2014 Oscars.

Enough with the branded tweets already

Eventjacking, it seems, is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean people actually want it. The Real-Time Marketing Sucks Tumblr is only one of many indicators that we may be suffering from eventjacking fatigue.

For the number of “best of” eventjacking round-ups that pop up on the web after an event, there are just as many “worst of” lists. As Forbes’ Carrie Kerpen warns, “Poorly executed campaigns can receive more coverage than successful ones.”

JCPenney’s Super Bowl 2014 #TweetingWithMittens stunt, which involved a few incoherent tweets that roused suspicion its Twitter account manager was drunk, set the brand apart from the crowd, but many have criticized the ploy for stooping to a new gimmicky, eventjacking low, even if it did manage to gain plenty of exposure along the way.

To many an eventjacker’s dismay, it has become an event within an event for marketers and audiences to label their disapproval of eventjacking efforts with a #fail hashtag.

Real Time Marketing Sucks Tumblr tracks eventjacking attempts.

Real Time Marketing Sucks Tumblr tracks eventjacking attempts.

Time for eventjacking to get real?

At a 2013 IPA event during the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, Jonathan Mildenhall, Coca-Cola’s vice president of global advertising strategy and communications, shared his prediction that marketing during this year’s World Cup will be all real-time.

“Every single sponsor, every single advertiser, even the unofficial advertisers are going to try and do what Oreo did at the Super Bowl,” he told the crowd.

He’s not alone in his predictions. Twitter has already conducted a live auction of Promoted Trends at an estimated $600,000 per daily trend, proving that what we’ve taken to calling “real-time marketing” during a predetermined international event is more than a bit of a misnomer.

And it’s this confusion – parading scripted content as a spontaneous reaction – that marketers should be wary of, especially if it distracts them from the kind of real-time marketing that people find meaningful, like say, customer service. Or pants-tweeting.

This Google Trends graph shows the rise of interest in the search term, real-time marketing.

This Google Trends graph shows the rise of interest in the search term, real-time marketing.

Real-time marketing gets platform agnostic

The enthusiasm for eventjacking that has led brands as diverse as Arby’s and Jaguar to get in on the action is resulting in new business acquisitions and fancier technology. It’s also driving experimentation across platforms.

As a part of its freshly inked deal with NowThisNews, Mondelez is launching a “new-wave digital newsroom” designed to quickly produce short social videos based on current events. Mindshare, a global media agency network, has announced the launch of “The Loop” – a proprietary network of “war rooms” that allows marketers to track and measure events and collaborate on real-time marketing efforts.

Meanwhile Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, TBS and the Cartoon Network, is bringing real-time marketing to television with the launch of Real Time Now at this year’s upfronts – promising to produce ads in under 48 hours.

Whether this will turn out to be good news for customers is still an open question, but it’s likely that these initiatives are a step in the right direction – allowing brands to get beyond scripted advertisements and enabling the possibility for more meaningful real-time engagement, which is what real-time marketing, at its heart, is supposed to be about.

If brands can do that, it might be worth it for everybody for real-time marketing to stick around. David Meerman Scott conducted a comparison between the stock prices of Fortune 100 companies that engage in meaningful real-time marketing and those that don’t.

Quite simply, he found, “The ones who were engaging in real-time had a better stock price than the ones that didn’t.”

Whether it’s the eventjacking fatigue expressed by audiences and the industry or the success found by companies pursuing meaningful real-time marketing practices, the overall message to brands is pretty clear: It’s time to get real.