Context counts above all else

J Walker Smith and David Bersoff

The context in which consumers experience advertising and marketing is more crucial than ever, giving rise to unprecedented opportunities and challenges for marketers

The challenge facing marketing research is the same as that facing marketing – one of context. The social influences and reference points that constitute context are more central than ever to the practice of marketing, yet they remain a stepchild of marketing – research in particular. Nothing matters more, though. Not new types of data. Not new methods of data collection. Not new ways of fusing datasets. Not new tools for visualisation. Unless the challenge of context is addressed, all else is a waste of time, energy, and money. One study in particular illustrates why.

Columbia University sociologists conducted a web-based experiment in which respondents were first asked to listen to and rate unknown songs by unknown bands, after which they were given the opportunity to download as many of those songs as they liked. One group of respondents made download choices independently. The other group of respondents made download choices after first being informed, in stronger or weaker ways, of the download choices of previous respondents. The findings were unambiguous – for the download choices made, the influence of others was far more important than an individual's own opinions. What mattered most was context.