(Authored by Mark Asher, Head of Market Intelligence & Strategy at Adobe Systems, Inc. and a speaker at the upcoming MRA Insights & Strategies Conference)

Which customer contact offers the most potential?

  • “An anonymous user lands at your online storefront through a Google search. Basic analytics tell you they are using Internet Explorer on a desktop PC, the computer is located in Alexandria, Virginia, and there is no existing cookie from your website or advertising partners to identify the contact further.”
  • Gina Sherman has just entered the Twin Cities Mall as confirmed by her iPhone which just identified itself to the beacon at the mall’s entrance. Your campaign engine algorithm predicts that she is likely interested in back-to-school, new shoes, and has an upcoming baby shower to attend based on an instant review of her purchase history, loyalty card memberships, and recent browsing and app usage history from her smartphone, iMac at home, and PC at work."

The second scenario is clearly the richest, isn’t it? And this isn’t science fiction – so-called contextual marketing like scenario 2 is becoming possible as a result of a number of new technologies now available to marketers.

Why Should You Consider Context In Marketing?

Your customers (whether they are consumers, businesses, or both) are influenced by an increasing number of new digital inputs as they move down the purchase funnel, many of which only became available in the last 10 years (recall that the iPhone has only been in market for a short 6 years, the iPad for a scant 4 years).  Marketing organizations are increasingly able to identify and shape what Google calls “The Zero Moment Of Truth” where a purchase decision is made further upstream in the funnel, well before a consumer enters a store, clicks the buy button, or a corporate purchaser publishes an RFP.

Context enables marketers to influence the consideration phase of a purchase funnel through technologies such as beacons, smartphone apps, predictive analytics, and data science. This is a pretty big evolution forward from the historically transactional nature of marketing campaigns and represents an opportunity to connect with customers in much deeper, personal ways.

What is Context?

Marketing is no longer limited to broad-based, demographically driven approaches for reaching audiences.  Instead, much more precision is becoming available as digital channels produce data that enable marketers to collect, analyze, and assemble much more precise profiling.

As a result, the circumstances that shape a customer’s experience, both digitally and physically, can now be measured and molded to create an individual encounter that is optimized for that particular moment.  Here are two examples:

Walmart “In Store” Mode

Walmart’s mobile app is triggered to switch to a “store mode” when a customer’s smartphone connects to the in-store Wi-Fi.  The transition switches from list creation to assistance with finding the location of shopping list items, tallying your basket, helping you manage your budget, and then checking out/paying.   The in-store context also enables Walmart to present additional coupons and promotions based on shopping behavior, creating the potential for increasing revenue from each customer.

Walmart In-Store Mode Contextual Marketing
Walmart’s In-Store mode provides a highly contextualized experience to help customers navigate the in-store shopping experience.

Apple Augmented Retail Experience

Apple uses beacon technology (low-energy Bluetooth transmitters) to offer a similar “in store” mode for users who enter Apple Stores with iOS devices and Bluetooth turned on.  The beacon will augment the experience by, for example, checking upgrade eligibility and current trade-in value of the customer’s present iPhone if the beacon senses that the customer is at the iPhone display table.

Email Testing Marketing Research Conference
Apple’s In Store mode contextualizes the store experience for customers.

Context isn’t limited to retailers with brick and mortar locations. Contextual marketing principles can be applied wherever customers make contact with your brand digitally or physically. Here are a few more examples:

  • An online sporting goods retailer uses its first-party data collected from customer online profiles to present winter-sports enthusiasts with customized experiences that highlight their specific winter interests.
  • A metals fabricator analyzes the purchase history of its accounts to present a home screen for each account at login that is personalized to highlight “most frequently purchased” items.
  • A baseball stadium creates a mobile app that compiles the behavior of its fans to incentivize them with food and beverage promotions and seat upgrades. The app also uses GPS and mapping technology to assist fans with parking, directions to their seats, and can offer rewards for a user’s birthday, anniversary of their season tickets, etc.

Taking Your First Steps Into Contextual Marketing

Every marketing organization will need to develop its own strategy for implementing a contextual marketing approach that reflects the unique elements of their business and customers.  However there are some basic questions that all marketers should be able to answer in developing a contextual campaign:

  1. What existing data do I have about my customers’ interactions with our business? What channels does this data cover? Are there any channels (e.g. smartphones, mobile apps) that are missing but relevant to the how my customers interact with my business/my competitors’ business?
  2. Who on staff has a “native” understanding of digital channels?  We aren’t talking about a staff member who can map traditional marketing to digital, but someone who can create and manage a campaign that is wholly originated as a digital one.
  3. What objectives do I want to achieve by incorporating context into my marketing activities? Given those objectives, what data do I lack and what level of data analysis/science do I require in order to achieve those objectives? This gap analysis can help define a process transformation and technology investment plan needed to achieve the objectives identified at the beginning.

Contextual marketing can be a powerful addition to your marketing strategy that can increase the connection you and your brand have with your customers, ultimately influencing revenue and loyalty.  While not a turnkey effort, marketing organizations that have embraced context in their marketing activities have been able to deploy highly engaging digital experiences that weren’t possible before.  By evaluating your own marketing objectives through the lens of contextual experiences, you can develop a roadmap that describes the journey your own marketing organization needs to embark on in order to realize the benefits of a contextual approach to digital marketing.

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Join Mark Asher on Friday, June 5 at 9:45 a.m. at the 2015 Insights & Strategies Conference to learn how new devices and data platforms will impact our lives and fundamentally change the relationship between consumers and brands, forcing marketers to rethink their traditional strategies as they consider how to exploit these new technologies.

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