Contextual Intelligence: The History of Contextual Intelligence (Part II)

The history of Contextual Intelligence

In the Madmen age of mass market advertising, the goal wasn’t to understand the individual or the moment, but to look for the most common, and often the lowest, denominator. Marlboro went after young men who wanted to see themselves as independent, strong and macho. Tide appealed to women who, in part, wanted to be perfect home makers.

Over time, one-size-fits-all mass market advertising, evolved the direct marketing age. Brands were able to target segments of similar people based on demographic data publically available. Marketers sent offers in the mail targeting specific zip codes, household income, the presence of children or a history of purchasing the same or a similar product or service. It’s likely you still get coupons for pizza delivery and dry cleaners in your neighborhood.

Then came Amazon. The era of digital personalized marketing began. Every time you visit amazon.com, you receive dynamic recommendations based on your past purchases and what other people who look like you, buy. Amazon has created the algorithms to automate the process and generate a virtuous circle of machine learning to make the next set of recommendations even better.

Facebook offers advertisers the opportunity to target precise audience segments. They incorporate interests, friends, viewing history and even image recognition. Facebook claims to have the ability to understand and predict behavior, allowing online advertisers to finally reach the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the problem is not the science, it’s the context.

If you are shown a display ad reflecting a recent visit to Zappos.com when you are in the middle of looking at your niece’s wedding pictures or when you’re reading a compelling article about politics, religion or your favorite cable series, You’re not likely in the mood to think about shoes.

You may fit the profile. You may even plan to buy the shoes, but they got the timing wrong. You were presented the ad in the wrong context. And so, in the end, the ad was wasted, the money was wasted and in some cases people feel intruded upon and may walk away with a negative attitude about the brand. You will no longer feel as positively towards the Zappos brand and be less likely shop there in the future.

In search of Contextual Intelligence

Ask a professional ethnographer and they would say, “If you want to understand a tiger, you have to go to the jungle, not the zoo.” Too often marketers rely solely on focus groups or surveys of existing customers. They don’t go out into the jungle to understand what real people are thinking or how they are actually behaving. Moreover, they don’t focus on the language, the tone and the archetypes within which customers communicate and engage. It is the meaning within the language where the “contextual” in Contextual Intelligence comes into play. It’s called semiotics, the study of the signs and symbols of communication.

If you are a retailer, should you hold a focus group or walk around your store and talk to customers? Isn’t it better to know what people are thinking about, what was important to them and what is the best way to engage them. It happened almost 100 years ago with a man named John Nordstrom. After founding a shoe store in Seattle in 1901, he formally retired in 1920, but continued to walk the floor in the Nordstrom flagship store until his death in 1963. Mr. Nordstrom understood that customers valued most a mutual relationship of respect and trust. John Nordstrom translated that into his policy of accepting any returns, based solely on the word of the customer.

Company lore has it that Nordstrom once accepted a set of tires as a return, even though the company never sold tires. Whether it’s true or not, the ethos of this lore, that you will win the hearts and minds of customers if you treat them well is the cornerstone of Nordstrom. If you understand what customers value and engage them within the context of the moment you will succeed.

This is Part II of a series. Read the rest of the series here.

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