For a long time, media planning has been about matching the right message to the right person with the right need. This is usually accomplished by first figuring out who we’re trying to reach.
To accomplish the goal of matching person to message, we usually seek out media sources with audiences that match the demographics we’re trying to reach and subject matter that matches their needs. Socially-conscious middle-aged, upper income folks looking for cultural events might be targeted with NPR sponsorships. Fashion-conscious 20-somethings looking for more bling might be targeted with glossy ads in fashion or lifestyle magazines. People seeking travel deals might get banner ads on travel sites. And everyone, for some reason, seems to respond to inexplicably dancing women hawking mortgages.
Obviously, this broad demographic/psychographic/topic matchup doesn’t always work as well as it should. We hope our ads get into the attention stream of consumers when they’re looking for what we’re selling. As John Wanamaker pointed out a long time ago, we know half our ads don’t work, we just don’t know which half.
Critical Factors in Studying Consumer Behavior
The ability to gather information online about consumers has changed the game a little. Now we can study behavior and then target based on the assumption that if consumer A goes to sites X, Y, and Z, they’re probably looking for a gift for their spouse.
Similarly, linking algorithms that look at the content of the site someone’s reading, we can hopefully match our ads to the context of what our target consumer is doing. Reading an article about erectile dysfunction? Slap up a Viagra ad!
Unfortunately our algorithms aren’t always all that smart, leading to contextual advertising goofs like this Swatch ad juxtaposed with a CNN story about a disastrous earthquake or behavioral goofs like the ones we all experience in our Amazon “recommendation” lists after doing our Christmas shopping for Auntie Mabel who likes cats, doilies, and bodice-ripping romance novels. And I’m sure that Thomas Edison State University wasn’t exactly thrilled when its ad showed up in this nifty ditty freestyled by the “Wal-Mart Gang.”
Media placement models that look at only demographics, subject, context, or behavior all ignore the multiple dimensions that affect consumer media habits, behaviors, and how (and why) they respond to advertising. While they grossly might take a swipe at matching medium and message, they forget that we’re not passive media consumers without real lives. It’s not just who somebody is and what kind of content they’re reading (or listening to or watching or playing with), but where they are when they’re doing it and why they’re doing it in the first place.
These factors are critical in our increasingly-networked world. It may have made sense in the old days for a TV ad to implore us to “pick up the phone and call!” because you could assume that someone was at home passively watching the television. But today they’re just as likely to be surfing the Web at the same time, or even watching that commercial on a mobile device.
Similarly, most online advertising demands that we click through or interact with it when it’s presented to us. But whatever task we’re engaged in usually makes it next to impossible for us to interrupt our attention stream to follow that link, no matter how alluring it may seem.
Why Search Marketing Works
Search marketing isn’t extremely “creative,” and the targeting isn’t necessarily based on demographics or media placement (in the old sense). But it’s effective because it’s primarily based on understanding the task contextuality of the consumer who responds to it. The paid search ad responds to the information they’re searching for.
It’s not the be-all, end-all of advertising, but search marketing breaks out of the old mold of trying to thrust something that’s unwanted into the attention stream of the consumer. It’s got task contextuality and content contextuality, quite a powerful combination.
Using This in Other Advertising
Examine multiple dimensions about your consumer to figure out how to match the message and the creative to the task the consumer’s engaged in, the context they’re engaging in it, and the amount of attention they have to spare to pay attention to your message. A mobile ad that might work fantastically well when someone’s walking in a strange city at lunchtime in search of a restaurant will bomb if you’re feeding that ad to someone who’s stuck in rush-hour traffic and on the way to a business meeting. A pop-up for a new vacation spot is an annoyance if you’re looking for import/export ratios for Fiji for a sales pitch, but might be welcome if you’re looking for an island vacation spot.
We’re looking for task contextuality. While the technology might not exist to automate the process, asking yourself a series of simple questions when planning your next campaign can help you break out of the old paradigms and efficiently create plans that take the full range of media into account:
- Who are you communicating with? The more you can learn about them the better.
- Where will they be when they see your message? At home? At work? In transit? Relaxing on the beach? Locations affect how people respond to your message, and how that message resonates.
- When will they see it? Spotting a billboard for a new bar will mean something different to people on their way to work than on their way home. An ad for your business blog will probably be more effective delivered to someone at work rather than at home at 11 p.m.
- What are they trying to accomplish? Putting ads for toys or luxury items in front of someone searching for factory equipment will make your ad an irritation.
- Why are they trying to accomplish it? Are they buying a gift for themselves or for their kid’s teacher?
- How much attention do they have to spare? Someone sitting on a bus on the way to work will have more time to watch your nifty video ad than someone who’s speeding down the highway and late for a meeting.
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