Context: The Key to Relevance, Engagement and Conversion


We all live highly contextual lives.  What’s important and relevant for us changes in the blink of an eye, a quick keystroke or any of a million distractions we face everyday.  For us to pay attention to something, especially as random as advertising or a branded marketing message, it must be relevant and to be relevant it has to be personalized according to the context of the moment.

Ten years ago, personalization was the hot new thing.  Nowhere was this more evident than in email marketing. As bulk email proliferated, open rates dropped, and everyone started talking about spam.  Electronic mail was simply seen as a cheaper way to deliver direct (junk) mail.  The mailbox was simply moving from the street to the desktop.

The first generation of personalization was as simple as “Dear John” or “Welcome back, Mary” replacing “Dear valued customer.”  Its success didn’t last very long, and it wasn’t seen as particularly relevant to the recipients. While those days are well behind us in theory, in practice they form the most common forms of personalization today, which is one of the reasons why it has somewhat of a bad name in marketers’ minds.

One of the biggest reasons personalization wasn’t more is that ten years ago there wasn’t the technology to dynamically produce and distribute truly personalized content.  Email campaigns bred customized landing pages, which bridged the gap between open and click through.  But, they were expensive to build and maintain, and they were limited to a finite set of segments.  In other words, they were still built on a one to many push or interruptive model of advertising.

Today marketing technology has gotten significantly better.  It can scale to handle even the most heavily trafficked sites, and it offers the flexibility to combine components in almost infinite combinations to deliver real personalization and to approach the goal of contextual relevance.  In addition to delivering the right message to the right person at the right time, we can now add the complexity of right channel, right device and right platform.  Additionally, right time no longer just refers to day or time of day but aligns to the context of the experience itself.

In the end, what makes the difference between content being ignored and seen as being irrelevant or even spam?  At its simplest, there are three pivots that define the difference between being relevant and being instantly forgotten about.

The first is purpose. Why is the consumer coming to your site and what do they want from the experience? Do they want to learn about a new product, buy it, get service for it or comment about it, either positively or negatively?  For example, a customer could be calling their cable provider for many different reasons at a given time. They could want to add more premium sports channels, cancel their service or just let them know how they’re doing.  Purpose is pivotal to the experience.  It sets the expectation on the customer side of a fair exchange.

The second element is identity.  Are they anonymous, repeat or fully authenticated customers?  How much information has the customer shared about themselves will have a tremendous impact on how personalized the experience can be as well as setting the expectations.  If they have given you their name and email address during a previous experience, they expect you to remember and recognize them.  If they clicked on a search term about pie recipes instead of tablets, they expect you to know apples from Apple.  And, if they’ve spent a great deal of money with you, they expect premium service.

The last and most important element is the context of the experience itself. Some elements of context are self-evident.  If I’m searching for “taverns” on a mobile device, and it is 11:00 pm on a Saturday, I’m probably not looking for the history of a village tavern in 18th century England.  If I’ve just left the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of a potentially terminal disease, I will be looking for a very different type of content than if I were researching the same condition late in the evening for a college class.  The difference is what we mean by context, and it can be different based on time, location or state of mind.

Ultimately, it is the combination of all three pivots that determine relevance.  If you present me with a display ad for the product I purchased last week, it’s not relevant.  If you offer me a discount coupon for a restaurant in another city, it’s not relevant.  And, if you show me the latest Ferrari, when I searched for Italian Fiat 500s, I simply won’t do business with you.  You would have failed the relevance test.

If on the other hand, you acknowledge our past relationships, learn from the way I navigate your website and provide me with a frictionless, effortless journey to accomplishing what I came for, I as a consumer, will reward you with my attention, business and loyalty.  This balance is what we call the Fair Exchange and the model for superior customer experience.

What are the practical aspects to relevance and contextual personalization? How can I get beyond theory and effectively build and deliver contextual experiences?  In my next article on FutureCX, I will explore the practical and operational side of context and relevance.

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