Contextual Marketing

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by: Mark Rogers

Google has reported that the UK population as a whole now spends more time online than they do watching TV. This is an epochal change for marketers. It means that they must finally get to grips with a medium (the internet) that has remained largely resistant to their wiles.

Think of an online marketing campaign that has impressed you. I bet you that you can’t. Think of the online products that you use and value: iTunes,, Skype, Google. I would bet that you did not find these products as a result of a marketing message. Someone recommended them to you. You may have followed a link on a web page. And if you did I bet that link was contextual. It was not an advertisement.

Old school advertising is good for awareness, but it has not been a major part of the success of internet-era marketing. Internet era marketing is about testimonials, about peer recommendations, about serendipity: stumbling across something interesting whilst looking for something else.

It is no surprise that the way to internet marketing success has been shown by paid search. Paid search has the huge advantage of being contextual. Advertisers choose when to give you their message. They give you their message only when they think you are likely to transact. They are only going to communicate to you if they feel their communication is welcome.

But there are other products waiting in the wings behind paid search. These products, too, will depend on marketers opening a conversation only when they know that a consumer is responsive. It is one reason internet marketers are using our products at Market Sentinel. They want to find out what is being said online in ongoing conversations, conversations that are (or could be) relevant to their product. And then they want to join in with those conversations.

And that joining in process is one of the hardest things to pull off. Years ago, when I was at the BBC, I was one of those responsible (with my current colleague Sheila Sang) for launching the BBC’s message boards. It was an invaluable opportunity to learn about how communities worked. One thing I learnt good and early is that if an outsider comes into a community with an irrelevant marketing message, they will be shunned. It is as if an insurance salesman were to wander into a snug bar and suddenly pitch into a sales spiel in front of eight surprised drinkers. Such a conversation only works if it is relevant. If someone is discussing where to go skiing, and you happen to mention that you know a good place, they will be keen to listen, particularly if you seem to be impartial.

That is why we work with our customers to identify where the appropriate conversations are taking place online, and to identify the authorities. That is the beginning of understanding where a conversation can begin. Is there a strategy for beginning a conversation that always work? No. Conversations of this kind are like pick-up lines, nothing quite works twice. But honesty helps: “Hi I know you like my product because I noticed you talking about it. I am keen to hear your reaction to some new features I am planning to introduce.” This is the strategy that Intuit used to get their QuickBooks blogging strategy underway.

You might call it contextual marketing, and, as a science, it’s in its infancy. We are taking baby steps to figure out how it should work. As ever in this new world of marketing communications, it is going to be all about permission, about honesty and about relevance.

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