Sean Ryan

Sean Ryan on how JCPenney plans real-time social marketing

“I don't look at what we do as ‘real-time.' It's more about how we're executing our plan in the moment.”

JCPenney Director of Social and Mobile Sean Ryan says, “If you go into it with a plan — because yes, planning is required in real-time marketing — you have to know your brand, how your brand is perceived, your audience, and what platform you're talking to them on.”

In his presentation at's Brands-Only Summit, Sean explains why their strategy for conversation-led marketing depends on three things: relevancy, timing, and tone. To show why that works for JCPenney, he shared a handful of case studies on how planned, real-time marketing helped them diffuse a potentially bad situation, establish a clear voice, and steal the spotlight during some important events.

We hear most often about the real-time marketing that causes PR disasters, but for JCPenney, it actually saved them from one.

When a Redditor noticed a teakettle on a JCPenney billboard closely resembled Hitler — Sean's team had an unusual, yet real crisis on their hands. When the story broke, they were getting ten tweets a minute about it.

But instead of issuing a press release, they responded directly to about 20 influencers on Twitter with a clear, yet lighthearted, message:

“We didn't post it publicly to all of our followers, because why let all of our followers that have no idea about this get clued into it?” Sean explains.

And luckily for JCPenney, their quick response was covered on the Today Show the next day as a positive take on a potentially awful misunderstanding.

Speaking of misunderstandings, what happens when the world thinks you're drunk tweeting?

Sean says there's one campaign that everyone asks him about when he says he works for JCPenney in social: their infamous #TweetingWithMittens campaign. In case you missed it, JCPenney posted a series of typo-filled tweets during the Super Bowl, later revealing it was because they were tweeting with their popular “Go USA” mittens during the cold game day.

“I have lots of friends and colleagues whom I respect a lot that thought this was the dumbest idea ever. I have other friends and know a couple of people who thought it was brilliant — like my mom,” he says laughing.

He says it's all about knowing your audience and closely monitoring the conversation so you can pull the cord when you need to.

According to Sean, they knew questions would come up about them being drunk, hacked, or experiencing an intern slip-up. But they had to change their original plan when people and brands on Twitter started asking what JCPenney was drinking/smoking and reveal the hoax early.

But, he emphasizes, it was all carefully planned — not a last-minute opportunistic move.

“We didn't want to sit around a wait for a ‘lights out' moment. We wanted to go into the Super Bowl with a planned narrative for how we were going to participate in the conversation.”

The results? Articles like “How JCPenney accidentally won the Super Bowl.”

Even without official Super Bowl sponsorship, they were the second most-talked about brand and fifth most-mentioned Twitter user during the game. And according to Sean, while the stunt certainly earned them some negative attention, 300,000 positive media impressions and $6 million in earned media outweighed the bad stuff.

The best part: some pretty clear ROI.

Sean says, “This is my trump card when I'm talking to our merchants about taking risks in social. Sales of those mittens increased by 105% the day after the Super Bowl.”

Say hi to Sean on Twitter and ask about his favorite presentation at CES this year. Sean's been a member of since 2012. You can check out his full presentation at's Brands-Only Summit here.