Context Is Not King or Queen; It’s Just Necessary

Since the heyday of web 2.0 in the mid-2000’s the amount of content online has exploded exponentially. It started when blogging platforms and discussion forums made it easy for anyone to put content online, without having to know how to code HTML. In recent years, with the rise of social networks and mobile devices, it’s even easier to put any kind of content, from images to videos to short status updates online at any time and from anywhere. So more and more users are communicating online and creating content in publicly visible places.

Context Is Necessary

This has therefore caused the amount of “noise” to rise so dramatically that often it drowns out the useful “signal.” For example, when there are tens of thousands of reviews for sushi restaurants in New York City, it’s a different problem than when there were not enough. Now, most people don’t have time to go through all the reviews to find which is useful; they just need someone or something to tell them which sushi restaurant to go to “right now” when they need the information.

Even though search will help you find content, now that it returns hundreds or thousands of results, it’s less and less useful. What users need is a way to judge the accuracy or trustworthiness of the content that they do find – i.e., users need context.

Modern Users Are Much More Savvy

Context comes in many forms. A shout-out to Charles Scrase of Google for the following example: 1) someone searches for “pizza” from a mobile device around noon, on a weekday in the city; 2) someone searches for “pizza” from a desktop computer, with broadband connection, around 6 p.m. on Saturday night in the suburbs. The search results that are useful to the first (a lunch spot for “right now”) are very different than the search results for the second (local pizza home delivery service). The context can be derived from the situation, even though the search term “pizza” is exactly the same. As more users look for information via mobile devices like smartphones or tablets, these bits of context can be used to make the information returned to them more relevant.

But, in general, as users themselves get more savvy, they look for clues and context in and around the content itself. For example, on Amazon, if a user sees an HDTV with 423 reviews vs. another with only five reviews, which do you think she will trust more? (See Context is King.) On Yelp, users will look at the recency of the restaurant review to determine if it is even still valid – i.e., a review from a year ago probably isn’t accurate any more. A great example of where this kind of context is used to prioritize news is on, where it shows how many times a news item has been socially shared by users – via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. The most shared items are bubbled to the top. Note that not all forms of thumbs-up or thumbs-down work to provide context. Just check out the front page of and ask yourself how many of those “top trending” topics are actually relevant or even interesting to you. The fact that thousands of others gave a news item a thumbs-up may still not mean it is relevant for you.

Democratization of Authority and Trustworthiness

Users now look to input and recommendations from peers who have actually purchased and used a product and then written thoughtful reviews to share on Amazon, etc. Of course, not everyone writes reviews, let alone thoughtful ones. But enough do. And if enough of the rest of the community votes up the well-written and useful ones via “Was this review helpful? Yes | No” then every user has something relevant and trustworthy to use when making her own purchase decision – because it has been corroborated by others in the community.

Along with this shift of authority and trustworthiness to the community of peers and away from “central sources of authority” like Consumer Reports, ZDNet, Zagat, NY Times, etc., the abundance of information and the immediacy of access via mobile device means considerable power and control has shifted from the advertiser or retailer to the consumer. Each user will inform her own purchase decision with as much or as little input as she desires. Some will do a lot of research; others will not. And this also depends on the nature of the product – e.g., soup and soda probably deserve very little research, while cars and computers will.

You Know What Lacks Context? Ads

Given what we just said above – the explosion of content leading to the need for context and the consumer getting so savvy that she constantly looks for useful data points to judge the trustworthiness of the content she is seeing – where do ads and other forms of marketing fit in? More likely than not, they don’t. Instead, they fall into the “noise” bucket. And for good reason – a modern user can smell an ad from 100 feet away; it’s not coming from a peer who is objective or who has even used the product; it’s coming from the advertiser trying to sell her something. And no matter how personalized the ad, it still lacks the necessary context for the user to judge its usefulness, relevance, or trustworthiness.

In fact, personalization doesn’t necessarily mean relevance and relevance doesn’t mean personalization. For example, the fact that I searched for baby clothes on Amazon for a gift for a friend’s baby has led Amazon to “personalize” my landing experience with tons of baby-related products. But I didn’t have a baby and I already bought what I needed. So all that personalization is completely irrelevant to me. And when I search for computer hardware like hard drives on, the next thing I see is a dynamic banner ad on with the exact three items I looked at on Newegg minutes ago. Useful? No. Creepy? Yes. And don’t even get me started on what ad purveyors call “contextual advertising.” They’re not. Because it’s not the context of the user; it’s the context that the advertiser thinks.

Change Your Perspective: From Targeting to Optimizing

So what can we do as advertisers and marketers trying to get more users to come buy our stuff? When users come online to look for something they want, we have to approach advertising or marketing differently. In fact, we may just have to do it in the exact opposite way. In the past, advertisers “targeted” ads at people. More recently advertisers are using more and more data to personalize the ads to the user. The very word “targeting” conjures up a picture of the advertiser shooting an arrow at the user tied to a target. It reinforces the concept of one-way, outbound, push advertising.

What if we turned that completely around and thought about optimizing instead? The word optimizing suggests that we’re looking at metrics to see if something is useful, relevant, or actually used – i.e., did the user use it, buy it, share it, talk about it, etc.? If she did, we should do more of that. If she didn’t, we should do less of it. The concept of optimizing helps us break out of the mentality of “shooting” a message at a person and instead finding out if our content was actually useful or used and optimizing further from there. In this way, users’ context comes first and guides how we serve them.


So context is hugely important, and quite possibly central to all advertising and marketing. And the additional data we can get from digital, social, and mobile channels should not be used to target more ads at users, but instead should be used to figure out pertinent “contexts” of those users so we can better optimize what we deliver to them and how we deliver it. And if we do a good job of this, we advertisers will be rewarded with more commerce – truly “content that provides the context for commerce” as I wrote in 1998. Now it is entirely possible, given the technologies and the changes in consumer habits.

Crown image on home page via Shutterstock.

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