Batch vs Real Time Processing and the Emerging Web Culture

By Martin Kelley
May 9, 2009 | Comments: 1

Malcolm Gladwell treats us to another of his counter-intuitive x-rays of the world's workings in this week's New Yorker feature, "How David Beats Goliath." His focus on the difference between batch and real time processing is a key to understanding why many nonprofit and commercial marketing professionals can use Twitter, Facebook and other real time media. First, a quote from Gladwell:

If a businessman waits until the end of the month to collect and count his receipts, he's "batch processing." There is a gap between the events in the company--sales--and his understanding of those events... What Ranadivé's company, TIBCO, did was to consolidate those databases into one stream, so that the trader could collect all the data he wanted instantaneously. Batch processing was replaced by real-time processing. Ranadivé views this move from batch to real time as a sort of holy mission.

Traditional marketing campaigns are batch: we plan out a commercial, pick its theme, hire directors, do audience testing and months later air it on broadcast television. Even low-budget nonprofits operate this way: they create a schedule of newsletters to distribute by postal or electronic mail, with carefully constructed branded templates and standardized lengths and formatting.

A few years ago I put together a blog for a small, mostly-online bookstore. The bookstore manager planned to use it to distribute the monthly electronic newsletter: five books clumped together into a forced theme with a "buy this week, get 20% off teaser" at the bottom. This is batch.

I had worked in the bookstore years earlier and knew that two or three times a week, a new book came in that caught our collective attention. The packer would open the box UPS had just dropped off, grunt, and call over to the nearest person "hey look at this." A conversation would start and one by one employees would trickle over. Within a few minutes, the entire staff would be gathered around, each flipping through a copy, engaged in a thoughtful and opinionated discussion of the book's merits. No matter how busy we were, we could all find ten minutes to stop what we were doing to partake in this ritual and it was often the high point of the day.

I explained to the manager that this was the kind of conversation she should capture on the new store's blog. If it's worth the ten minutes of an ad-hoc staff meeting, it was worth a follow-up ten minutes at her desk to write two paragraphs about the new arrival, cribbing ideas from the staffer's conversation.

This is real time processing. Many of the most adept citizens of the new web culture don't sit down to write pre-planned blog posts. Twitter has taught us to capture the moment, to express the thought now and just move on. Merlin Mann just posted a great piece "Mud Rooms, Red Letters, and Real Priorities" and he's right: if something is really important, it doesn't go onto the to-do list as a priority.

Most of the ubiquitous "how to make money on Twitter" posts fail to make the difference between real-time and batch processing. If you're real time, you're part of a conversation and building a community that might be virtual and asychronous but is authentic in its own way.

Last week I posted an article on "Nonprofits and Social Media" on my own blog. A lot of nonprofits have a new-found glee for Twitter and Youtube (collapased endowments and slashed budgets might be one motivator). It's great to put up a Youtube channel but if you're going to use it to engage with an audience it has to be timely and frequently updated. The style of Web 2.0 marketing has to change with the medium: it's less slick and more intimate and direct. It's connecting with the audience rather than trying to manipulate it and gimmicks such as discounts for immediate sale become unnecessary. It will be interesting to see if traditional marketing professionals can make the transition.

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1 Comment

Good analysis, and I completely agree with the point you made in your blogpost regarding video - the power of visual + viral is so often overlooked byt profits and non-profits alike. I use a one laptop per child XO laptop, which I received through OLPC's G1G1 campaign two years ago. I am constantly fielding questions about who they are, where it came from etc, but the one thing that is truly lacking from the G1G1 build is the promotional video, showing happy kids around the world, *using* the laptop. It is a missed opportunity.

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