Contextual Relevance Isn’t Sexy, But It Is Necessary

Several years ago, a former colleague wrote a Forrester report on adaptive brand marketing that called for companies to rethink their approach to brands in the digital age. In the almost-six years since Lisa wrote that report, it’s become even harder to manage brands and customer communication in the world of “always on” marketing that this digital age demands.

And as I settle down from running the industry conference gauntlet in June, it occurs to me that so much of the industry conversation continues to center on identifying the next new thing: the widget or feature that will offer something new in how we interact with customers. Yet, most marketers continue to approach marketing and customer interactions with outdated processes. It matters little what new widgets we buy if we simply employ them to do the same thing in a slightly new way.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s important to plan, analyze, design, and execute campaigns. It’s equally important to measure results and collaborate across teams to manage timelines, tasks, and approvals. But if we continue to do so in a traditional, rigid process, we will fail to keep up with the expectations of our customers, and eventually they’ll turn us off.

As marketing moves to become more contextual – that is, taking the consumer’s disposition and situation into consideration, as well as the brand determining the relevance of any given interaction – there will, of course, still be a need to plan, manage, and measure interactions. But to successfully embrace customer context, we must move from a process where data is leveraged at the beginning of the process to one where data is ingested – and informs or adjusts the interaction – at any point in the process.

Every additional piece of information we learn about the customer – their environment, mood, or social situation – allows us to be more relevant in what we say and how we interact. And that requires us to recognize the customer at any stage of the process.

We should use interaction media, not just as an outbound tool to target the customer, but also as one that tells us something about the customer, such as where they are, what device they’re using, or what time of day they are interacting. That additional piece of information gives us an extra window into the consumer and their situation that allows us to re-­contextualize the interaction, infer what would be most relevant, and decide on a better path of interaction to enhance the consumer experience. And we need to do that in nanoseconds.

So if I were to put my old analyst hat back on and give some advice, it would be to take a break from looking for the next new technology, and take an honest look at your current processes. Determine whether they are up to date for an always-on consumer. If you are trying to be more customer-centric, which brands increasingly tell us they wish to be, evaluate whether your processes enable you to recognize a customer in real-­time, to identify his or her situation, and to adapt to that intelligence in such a way to deliver value.

It’s not easy and it’s not sexy, but it is necessary. Unfortunately, that new widget or feature alone isn’t going to get you there.

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