What would you think if you walked into the car dealership where you had bought your last two cars, knowing the model you wanted to drive out with, and your longtime friendly dealer started trying to persuade you to spend the money on a Tuscan timeshare? What if you were intrigued to learn more about the local cheeses at your neighborhood farmer’s market but the woman behind the stand answered your questions by talking about the proper way to care of a parakeet?
At best you’d be bemused at having been transported into your own Monty Python skit, at worst you’d head, annoyed, for the nearest rival purveyor of cars or cheesy comestibles, perhaps while posting an unflattering account of the experience on your Facebook page. Not the reaction most business are looking for from a prospective customer.
Yet, as the marketers who are supposed to be attracting customers to these businesses, we frequently act like these hypothetical misplaced car or cheese salespeople. We bombard people with ads, often with little informational or entertainment value, that frequently have nothing to do with the needs, desires or mindset of the humans we interrupt with them.
There was a time when this approach was understandable. In the absence of information about the people we were communicating with—other than that they had sought out the content we placed our ads alongside—our hope was to create desire for the object we were trying to sell, regardless of whether the recipient of the ad’s message had any interest in that thing.
It didn’t matter that you’d never set foot out of Kansas, we told ourselves, you might now be persuaded to spend a few weeks a year in a villa in Italy. We knew we were wasting some of the money we spent to do this, but we also knew that historically results had sometimes justified the means (especially in the post-war to ’80s era, when we were often selling things people had never had before rather than upgrades to things they already owned.)
Today, though, we don’t have to fly so blind or so wastefully. We have oodles of information on the cultural and business context in which we operate. We know what people feel and think about businesses, products and services. They tell us every day in a host of ways that can improve the ways we inform and inspire the stories we tell. Even if we are introducing something radically different to anything that has existed (and that is rare today) we can test different ways of communicating about it to learn the best way for the right people, just as our friends in R&D test, learn and optimize to get to better products.
Similarly, we have a trove of information about most of the ways brands come in contact with people today. We know whether they are in lean back, relax and ‘be entertained’ mode at the moment in question, or whether they’re sitting forward, actively trying to learn about or even buy something. We know what subjects, products or services they’re trying to find out about and what they’re trying to find out about them. We know where they go for different types of content, and how they interact with it when they are there. Even TV—until recently a relative black box in terms of understanding viewers’ mindsets, interests and behaviors—is fast becoming addressable.
Most excitingly, we have the means to create content specifically for those contexts and moments of contact in which we operate. That means we can respond to a quick question about our product, service or subject of expertise, with a quick, authoritative answer; provide shareable morsels to someone in snacking mode; or tell the type of longer-form story that we know an audience member loves, when they are in lean back mode. In this way, we can improve a person’s experience of our business, which is way more likely to make a sale and build a sustainable relationship than telling them about things they don’t care about at moments when they’re looking for something entirely different.
This kind of people-centric brand-building and selling isn’t a futuristic fancy; it is entirely feasible today. Yet few marketers seem to be truly marrying context, content and contact. The same people used to think about all three of these things when I arrived on these shores (in 1996), because most brands did most of their business with a ‘full-service’ agency. That changed with the unbundling of media agencies, which are generally the owners of contact plans today, and later was compounded as some marketers also chose to park content with a different agency or media company.
I was one of the architects of unbundling when I worked at Y&R and helped to found what is now known as Media Edge, or MEC, and it was the right move. The media world was getting more complicated (and has only continued to require more expertise), and media needed to be respected and professionalized. So this is not an argument for re-bundling agencies per se. But in the roles I’ve had since, such as founding and running The Media Kitchen, or building Naked’s U.S. office, I’ve seen opportunities missed because business thinking, creative development and channel planning were misaligned, or even operating in isolation.
That’s why, in a recent role prior to Canvas, teaching digital storytelling at Columbia University’s Executive Education program, I was so excited to be supported by the Business School, the School of Arts and the School of Data Science. It’s unlikely you’re going to tell a good story if you don’t know how or why you ended up telling it, what it’s really about or who is in the audience. With the ever-fractured world of media, content and technology, this problem is more acute than ever.
Sure, it’s a little easier to unify business, art and science when you’re operating in the wonderful, but theoretical, world of academia, and I don’t profess to have a flawless solution for doing so in our very real and ever-more-complicated marketing world. But I do know that our industry has a huge opportunity to be more relevant, compelling and useful to consumers than at any time in its history.
But, to take it, we’re going to need to work out how to close the often-yawning gaps between context, contact and content.