Why Relevance Rules Digital Marketing

Posted by Jonathan Gardner on January 24th, 2012 at 12:02 pm

When you look at the buffet of content available to us these days – from every conceivable source, on every established and emerging platform – you might think that content remains the manna of digital marketing that it once was.

It’d be an understatement to say that brands have embraced content creation as a marketing strategy. Branded content has become a staple of cross-platform, integrated marketing campaigns everywhere, as a nearly fail-proof way to engage consumers, and turn them into customers. As industry analyst Rebecca Lieb said recently, every single one of the major brands she speaks with is increasing its production of original content.

But am I alone in thinking that maybe it’s enough already? Sooner or later, some savvy startup or sprawling conglomerate has to realize that the long tail is losing its appeal. More isn’t always better, as Sheena Iyengar said in her awesome TED Talk. What we need isn’t customization, but relevance.

So how can we, as marketers, deliver the relevance customers want and need? How can we ensure that our content – whether it’s an article, an ad, or an image – reaches the right consumers in the most relevant and meaningful way?

Behavioral targeting gets part of the job done. Knowing what a potential shopper has recently done online, what sites they visited, what ecommerce channels they browsed gives us a sense of their past behavior, and some indication of what they’re likely to view, see, and buy in the future. But our online lives – like the ones we live in the real world – are complex, and to understand a consumer’s likely intent, we first need to understand his or her contexts.

That’s right – contexts, plural. As Tom Wentworth wrote on Mashable recently, if targeting is to deliver effective results, marketers need to understand changes in consumer context. His example? “You might be a 45-year-old technology manager who likes jazz and runs marathons, but you’re also a husband, a son, an uncle and a friend — and your purchases reflect all those different contexts.”

Smart marketing strategies need to combine behavioral – or “personal” – relevance with contextual relevance.

SoLoMo (social, local, mobile if you’ve somehow avoided it so far) is part of our buzzy jargon now. If you’re doing a social media campaign, think about the contexts. For instance, a young working mom on Pinterest is in the context of seeing popular recipes her friends are cooking, or she’s on LinkedIn researching advice about work/life balance, and on Facebook accepting invitations for a night out with friends. The content is being shaped, controlled, and shared by the user (consumer), but it’s the contexts that marketers need to understand to deliver a message that will resonate with the consumer.

Local creates amazing opportunities to look at context. When I check in on Foursquare, I choose to share my real-time, local context. Brands including Starwood Hotels and History Channel are experimenting with new ways to harness and leverage that data. Others will inevitably follow, as devices (wearable and otherwise) continue to get smarter.

Don’t forget that ALL of this – even the So and the Lo – is mobile. With mobile Internet usage expected to soon surpass desktop, nearly all media consumption is bound to soon be mobile. As a result, contexts will shift ever more fluidly.

It’s overwhelming, sure. But consider the possibilities, both for marketers and for consumers who welcome relevant, personalized brand engagement in the right context. We’re just beginning to glimpse a bit of what the future might hold. Ford and other auto companies are pushing forward with new telematics that can understand consumers’ health and wellness, and Google’s “self-driving” car concept is starting to seem not only sensible, but possibly inevitable. Soon our cars will know where we are, what we like to eat, and when we tend to get hungry. It’s not too hard to imagine our dashboard suggesting we pop off at the next exit for a top-rated BBQ joint.

Exciting, right? And all empowered by context. So let’s not forget that regardless of the platform, whatever the device, and however smart the strategy, content still matters – but relevance and context rule.

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