Inferred and Expressed Contextual Advertising

The new Blue Man Group album, “The Complex,” came out last Tuesday, and I went into an actual store and purchased it (note: let the album play all the way to the end — there’s a hidden track after the last song). I’m in the store, and the first thing I realize is “The Complex” is not the only new release to hit the shelves today. Turns out some woman named Madonna also put out an album that’s hogging the spotlight from my coveted Blue Man Group disc. That’s OK. I’m sure they’ll sell far more Madonna albums today, and I can still find the album I want.

Here’s the odd thing, though. I get to the register, and the guy behind the counter asks me in that do-you-want-fries-with-that fashion, “Do you also want to get the new Madonna album?”

After leaving the store I came up with all these really great comebacks, but all I said to him was, “No, thank you.” It was clear he was offering Madonna to anyone who happened by. Untargeted advertising if I ever saw it. No collaborative filter would ever give me Madonna when I searched for Blue Man Group.

Which (finally) brings us to the point: contextual advertising.

If it’s possible to boil down the problems people have with communications in general, it’s too many messages bombard them. They’re faced with the often unwieldy task of separating the wheat from the chaff.

This is very true for advertising. Jupiter anticipates that within five years, people will be presented with over 800 marketing messages a day. If we view advertising as a pure probability game, you could say, all things being equal, any given message will have a 0.00125 percent chance of being noticed.

In the absence of technology, this sobering statistic drove agencies to become more creative with content and delivery of advertising messages in their effort to break through. Where this leads, unfortunately, is one of three places.

The first is the best-case scenario: Clever creatives and intelligent strategists devise ads that rise from the pack because they’re smart, appealing, and pleasantly surprising. The second option is ads push the boundaries of taste and discretion, garnering attention but no respect (respect always outlasts attention). The third is the ads insinuate themselves into the little cracks in people’s lives previously left commercial free: sidewalks, restrooms, telephones, dinnertime.

In the presence of technology, advertisers have a dramatically powerful ability. They can significantly diminish the sheer volume. They can either limit the raw number of ads a person sees or raise the probability each ad a person sees will be relevant to her current state. I say “dramatic” because I think this ability is the primary method by which interactive advertising will exert its influence on the broader marketing and advertising world.

We’ve only got to get clear on what it is, how it works, and how best to apply it. We need distinctions. Most important is the difference between inferred and expressed context. Expressed is more straightforward and the one that’s ultimately most valuable for advertisers. The best example comes from the search engine marketing vendors. When someone does a Web search for “ski boots,” he’s expressed the context in which he’s operating. An advertiser has a high probability of being relevant with an ad for (surprise!) ski boots.

However, if that same person visits a site that offers commentary about the snow conditions in the Sierras, he has only inferred his context is stocking up for the ski season. He may be an amateur meteorologist or a Web surfer who happened upon the page for reasons we’ll never determine (e.g., a friend told him the site has good photos and he’s interested in photography). The ski boot ad is better than any other random site on the Web, but it does not carry the same high probability of relevance as expressed context.

Expressed context may present a far narrower set of options for advertisers than inferred interest, however. Let’s say you market an SUV. You’d probably want to present an offer to that guy searching for ski boots. The problem is, a consumer searching “ski boots” and getting “SUV” will deem that result out of context. Of course, placing a product in a specific context is a pillar of brand advertising: establishing associations in the consumer’s mind.

The answer isn’t simple. But this distinction will help ensure that though contextual advertising is succeeding as a direct response vehicle, it will also do well as a branding mechanism, specifically by helping brands build those associations. If contextual advertising is sorted out in the interactive space, the lessons learned will be significant — not only for advertisers but also for consumers. Their landscape will be more intelligently commercialized.

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