“Face it,” writes Carlton A. Doty (@carldoty), “Your brand is defined by the interactions that people have with it. While that’s not what we typically think of as marketing, it ought to be.” [“The Power of Customer Context,” Forrester, 14 April 2014] Doty is correct; in the past, marketers have been a lot more concerned about content than context. Both content and context are important. Laura Click (@lauraclick), CEO of Blue Kite Marketing, insists, for example, that content remains essential. She writes, “The concept of content marketing has been around for a long time, we’re finally reaching a place where it’s becoming mainstream in the digital space.” [“Why Content Marketing is So Powerful for Business,” Blue Kite Marketing, 18 February 2013] She continues:
“Blogging and digital content is no longer a ‘nice to have’ option. It’s a must for businesses that want to succeed in the digital age. Content marketing – also called inbound marketing – focuses on attracting prospects to you like a magnet instead of pushing out a message and hoping it sticks. In other words, effective content helps people find you when they’re looking for information or to solve a problem. Being able to provide that information when someone is ready to make a buying decision – especially for B2B and service-based businesses – is incredibly useful.”
But for all its utility, Doty insists that content market and associated marketing campaigns are only part of the picture and that they pale in importance to context marketing. He explains:
“For all the activity you try to catalyze through campaigns, individuals more commonly interact with your brand outside of those campaigns. They may learn about your product or service prior to purchase. Then they’ll use your product, connect with others, and even organize activities around it. They spread word of mouth, positive or negative — and that, whether you like or not, is your actual brand image. The context of all those interactions determines whether they will engage and, more importantly, transact with your brand again. Marketing’s job now is to identify and use context to create a repeatable cycle of interactions, drive deeper engagement, and learn more about the customer in the process.”
One of the first examples of good context that Doty provides involves a use case with which my company, Enterra Solutions®, has been intimately involved — McCormick & Company’s FlavorPrint™ initiative. Doty writes:
“McCormick & Company’s FlavorPrint engages customers through everyday interactions. The FlavorPrint site has a simple promise: Tell it what you like, what ingredients you have, and what cooking equipment you have, and it recommends recipes. Those recommendations become finely tuned to your context as you continue to interact with the site. This works so well that since the site was launched, users have doubled repeat usage; they’ve increased the time they spend on the site ninefold; and McCormick has seen double-digit growth in spice purchases for FlavorPrint users. FlavorPrint will soon incorporate users’ social networks, McCormick’s retail partners, and third-party services like Foodily, creating more relevance to draw consumers back.”
Context marketing requires a new mindset to match a new set of circumstances and a changing business landscape. Adam Heimlich (@adamheimlich), a digital marketer and data scientist, asserts that history shows that “new media influences people in a new way.” [“Digital Marketers Should Aim For Influence, Not Branding,” AdExchanger, 7 May 2013] He notes, “Radio ads differed from newspaper ads, and advertisers who’d built their brands on the page had to learn a new language before they could thrive in the television era (One of the least-noticed themes of Mad Men is the generation gap between the advertising approach of print experts like Don Draper and his staff of electrified young boomers).” As advertising moves into the digital age, marketers have also had to learn new techniques that both draw on past and embrace the future. As the headline of his article indicates, Heimlich believes that one of the biggest changes to which digital marketers must adapt is that what they are now selling is influence not brands per se. McCormick’s FlavorPrint initiative is a great example because its first aim is to enhance a customer’s eating pleasure not sell its brands. By stressing influence first, McCormick establishes itself as a flavor partner not just a product provider. McCormick understands that its products are used in the context of dining and that by helping to increase a consumer’s dining pleasure its own prestige is enhanced. McCormick’s website content is important but understanding the consumer’s context is critical.
While many companies understand the argument presented by Doty, he insists that their budgets indicate that their understanding has not yet motivated them to take action. “Even if you’re intrigued by this continuous interaction model,” he writes, “your budget most likely tells the true story: You think that campaigns are where the action is.” He explains:
“Campaigns remain important because hitting your number means finding the right customer segment in the right channel with the right message. But campaigns, even when enhanced by scaling, optimizing offers, improving measurement, and carefully tuning the mix, don’t deliver competitive advantage anymore. Why? Because your competitors are just as skilled as you are at the campaign game. Change your focus from customer acquisition to interaction management and from media schedules to customer moments.”
I would argue that not all competitors are equally skilled right now at campaign management. The digital path to purchase is still being defined and, therefore, not all companies have managed to master it or the Big Data analytics that drive better campaign management. Nevertheless, Doty’s broader point — that companies need to focus on interaction management — is an important one. He continues:
“Your customers engage for deals, but they also use technology to learn about new products, get loyalty rewards, gain exclusive content, or just associate with you. If you don’t respond, they’ll move elsewhere. As Andrew Foust, director of digital business development at McCormick & Company, told us: ‘Digital engagement is going to be completely different in three years. If we wait too long, someone else will capture our customers’ [attention]. Being first to market allows you to learn and adapt, ultimately allowing you to win.'”
Patrick Hadlock, Shankar Raja, Bob Black, Jeff Gell, Paul Gormley, Ben Sprecher, Krishnakumar (KK) S. Davey, and Jamil Satchu, authors of study commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and conducted by analysts from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Google, and Information Resources Inc. (IRI) agree with Foust. The study concluded, “No company is immune to the changes under way. The experience of other sectors, from media to travel to retailing, repeatedly demonstrates that early movers often establish tough-to-trump positions and advantages. Experience also shows that many companies that are slow to adapt do not get a second chance.” [“The Digital Future: A Game Plan for Consumer Packaged Goods,” bcg. perspectives, 22 August 2014] A study conducted by analysts from Sanford C. Bernstein came to a similar conclusion. “Latecomers to this game,” they wrote, “may need to overcome significant first-mover advantages of the incumbents in order to compete, which entails large upfront investments and often leads to limited results.” After discussing the conclusions of the Bernstein report, E.J. Shultz (@ejschultz3) asks, “Why have big brands been so slow to implement e-commerce strategies?” [“Packaged-Goods Marketers Wade Warily Into E-commerce,” AdvertisingAge, 16 September 2014] And Doty would remind them that when they do finally implement an e-commerce strategy it must be interactive and context-focused.
The technology that makes McCormick’s FlavorPrint interaction possible — cognitive computing — will benefit interaction strategies of any company that wants to take the next step. Accenture’s latest technology vision entitled “From Digitally Disrupted to Digital Disrupter,” makes that point. It states:
“Using Enterra Solution’s Cognitive Reasoning Platform, McCormick’s FlavorPrint site asks customers to rate a variety of flavors in order to learn taste and, from that, creates unique taste preference profiles — or what it calls FlavorPrints. If customers provide additional information, such as cooking preferences, equipment, and typical pantry items, they can receive better personal product and recipe recommendations. As far as these customers can tell, they’re providing just a few raw facts in return for a great deal of personalized value about taste — something almost everyone feels strongly about yet finds hard to quantify or specify. From McCormick’s point of view, learning customers’ taste preferences leads to better insights, product decisions, and, ultimately, ability to serve its customers.”
Content marketing is still important. Customers still need content in order to make informed decisions. But companies that fail to account for the context in which content is provided and used will never achieve the competitive advantage they desire.