How Contextual Marketing Turns Marketing into Service


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Content has always been critical in marketing, whether a 30-second TV ad, a long-copy infomercial in a magazine or an HTML email. It is the marketer’s tool of choice to talk to the customer about what they have to offer and hopefully, to persuade them it is exactly what they want. And as the Content Marketing Institute’s case studies show, good content works. We can all think of great marketing content that motivated us to look up something on the internet, to buy something when we were walking down the supermarket aisle or to click through to an enticing offer.

Great content is all well and good. But it is not a viable alternative to great products, services or experiences. The now apocryphal Bain & Co study on ‘Closing the Delivery Gap’ illustrates this only too well; although 80% of managers thought they delivered a superior experience to customers, only 8% of their customers agreed with them. This delivery gap is endemic today. But it is not marketers’ fault. The challenge for marketers is that all too often it is someone else upstream of marketing that decides what the product and proposition will be, and some one else downstream that is responsible for delivering marketing’s carefully crafted promises. Get it right and you appear in inspirational books like Smith & Milligan’s ‘Uncommon Practice’, but get it wrong and you are the talk of the social town, as United Airlines discovered when it broke Canadian musician Dave Carroll’s guitar.

Digital has the potential to change all of this. As customers migrate towards the mobile Internet their smartphones and even smarter tablets will become the new content battleground. Through the judicious use of ambient data collection tools like cookies, marketers gather reams of data about customers, their surfing habits and their online behaviour. And through the developing use of digital content delivery technologies such as real-time bidding and retargeting they can not only get their content in front of individual customers, but make it follow the customer around the Internet as well.

As content becomes increasingly dynamic and better targeted it changes its character. Rather than being something that is targeted at swathes of superficially similar (but individually different) customers at the convenience of the marketer, as is the case with targeted email, it can now be targeted at individual customers during just those touchpoints in their decision journey when they are most susceptible to the marketer’s content. Powered by detailed data about the customer, where they are and what they are doing, marketing will finally become contextually relevant, not only to the marketer, but also to the customer.

Some will look at the development of contextual marketing and see it as the latest weapon in the marketer’s armoury of interruption, hard-sell and exploitation. And many, perhaps even the majority of marketers will abuse its power to do exactly that. But marketers should be careful. As law professor Ryan Calo suggests in a recent article on ‘Digital Market Manipulation’, this may well lead to aggressive market regulation to protect customers from being exploited by unscrupulous marketers. There are already tentative signs of pending legislation in recent announcements by US and EU data protection regulators.

There is another way; one that enables mutual value to be created by customers as well as Cos. Rather than just seeing touchpoints as opportunities to offer crude sales prompts, marketers could use them to offer a blend of contextually appropriate support, service and sales prompts, or even to offer no prompts to the customer. In other words, for marketing to effectively become service.

This will not be an easy transition for marketers. It will require them to understand much more about the individual touchpoints in the customer’s decision journey and what value customers are looking for during each one. The recent growth in a more designerly approach to customer experience development suggests this has already started. It will also require them to empower customers to manage more of their own interactions on their own terms too. As Phil Simon suggests in his visionary book ‘The Age of the Platform’, this is already well underway. And finally, it will also require them to take a longer-term view of customers as valuable assets and to become custodians of the evolving customer relationship, one touchpoint at a time. As Rust, Moorman & Bhalla suggested in a recent article on ‘Rethinking Marketing’, there are tentative signs of this too.

These are early days for contextual marketing. It is up to marketers to ensure that it doesn’t go down in the annals of history as just another chapter in the tragedy of the marketing commons, but rather, that it heralds a new era where marketing = service = marketing.

Marketing is dead, long live contextual marketing.

Graham Hill


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