Recently we asked the question, what’s the difference between real-time and relevant marketing and provided an example comparing in-session and email marketing. While marketers often – and erroneously – apply the context of real time to email, they do so with a great deal more frequency and fervor when it comes to social media. Which leads us to ask: Is social media real-time marketing?

Social media certainly takes on more of a real-time context than email, as it is often represented by a live conversation between a customer and a brand. But like email, social media lacks the all important “in session” quality to make it effectively real time. Furthermore, social media is far more effective as a real-time customer engagement tool than is as a real-time marketing tool.

Let’s look at an example. You are a marketer for an online retailer selling Bonsai trees. The business is flourishing, resulting in thousands of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and you do your best to monitor their sentiments using a variety of social media tools.

Today you discover an irate customer on Twitter, upset because she was charged a high fee for shipping when she was under the impression that shipping on her order would be free. A call to customer service got her nowhere. You respond quickly, apologizing to the customer via Twitter and promising to make her situation right. You bring her issue to customer service’s attention, and her charges are reversed.

Is this real-time marketing? It is certainly real-time customer engagement to diffuse a situation. But a real-time marketing scenario might look like this: when the customer has assembled her order and is preparing to check out, a pop-up reminds her that the total qualifies for free shipping. To take advantage she needs to click the free shipping box. The end result of this in-session engagement is a happy customer, and more importantly no Twitter diffusion necessary days later.

Where do you draw the line between real-time marketing and real-time engagement? Tell us!