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Context is... don't say it

Opinion, 16 December 2014

For five years, every digital and marketing conference you went to had the same slide circulating. You know the one. The one with the crown image. And the text 'Content is King'. Well it's the slide that will not die. It's had a reboot. Now, everywhere I go it reads 'Context is King'.

It's a no-brainer that if you get the context right, your messaging will be better. More powerful. More engaging. It'll probably sell more stuff too. But most discussions on context focus on the promise of context. Instead of how you get there.

Marketers are already sold on the importance of context. The commuter who gets a coffee voucher as they walk past the coffee shop on their way in to work. Smart devices that will tell you when you're getting a cold so you can stock up on medicine.

Most marketers are waiting for the tech to emerge before dipping their toe into context. But the old rules apply. It's never about the tech. It's all about the planning. You can build a context model today that will serve your marketing now and into the future. First you need to build a planning model that is customer focused. It starts with the customer - not the campaign or the device.

And customer needs and desires are driven by their context, right? Context is driven by two factors: internal/personal context and external/environmental context. The internal/personal context is the stuff that's all about me. Who I am. My interests. How I'm feeling. How I think. The environmental context is all the stuff that's external to me. Am I sat at work in front of a PC? Or shopping with my mobile in the supermarket? How's the weather? Maybe there's a heatwave.

The two are interconnected. And, when combined in hundreds of different combinations, can create hundreds of possible outputs. If there's a heatwave I may need BBQ supplies. I may have a large family. So bulk buying is important. Or cost. Or quality.

The complexity doesn't stop there. Within each of the two areas of context - internal and external - there are static and changing factors. For example, when it comes to personal context my state is changing throughout the day (stressed at train delays, happy to receive a box of chocolates, tired on the way home).

Then there are personal things about me that don't really change. Like the fact that I'm a woman. My height. My age (there's no doubt about it; it will increase every year).

The reason you need to separate out the static and changing factors is because you'll need different approaches for each. They need different processes. And use different data sets. Once you know my age, for example, you can apply that to my customer record. That little snippet is there forever when deciding to send out a student special or an early-bird supper special.

And of course the kicker is that age is slowly changing over time. So you must be careful what you define as static and changing.

Being a parent is a great example. It should become a permanent fact (well for around 18 years at least). But from the moment you find out you're expecting a child, being 'a parent' is not an all-encompassing fact. The difference between pregnancy and the child's arrival is vast. As is the difference between having a newborn and a six-month-old. Or a six-year-old. Or a 16-year-old. And within that there are more layers. Sometimes I might feel overjoyed at being a parent. Sometimes overwhelmed.

Internal/personal contexts, such as emotional states, are tricky because they are moving frequently. So you need real-time data. Intelligent processing to understand what the data means. And a network of tech to be able to act. But if you can act on them, the effect of catching my need and mood and connecting me to your brand can be powerful. And profitable.

So the stages go like this…

First understand the context. This will give you deep insight into the customer's motivations and needs.

Then look for the opportunities for the brand to connect with the customer by meeting those needs.

Then use technology – platforms, devices, applications, data – to act within that context.

Rinse and repeat.

What I've outlined above is by no means easy. But, if that little slide with the crown is right, it's becoming more important.

Successful context marketing is your ability to organise and understand information. So it's the boring organising and analysis that will win out. Not new technology.

About the author

A former Forrester Research analyst who reads and writes about all things digital. She runs LDN Stock, a marketing agency specialising in creating branded content.