Marketing: 'Context will eat the software industry'

Content may be king, but the future of marketing lies in engaging users based on the context of their interactions.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

For years, marketers have used the phrase "content is king" to signify the importance of substance and depth in selling to both enterprise and consumer buyers. Meaningful content is a foundation of marketing strategies, influencer programs, and other efforts to attract eyeballs in the digital world.

Of course, content as a driver of engagement and value is not new, as Bill Gates wrote in an essay from 1996:

Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.

The best content speaks directly to the reader, listener, or viewer. However, creating great content requires a nuanced understanding of the audience, which precisely explains why most enterprise content sucks. Content without empathy misses the target and quickly falls into the trap of jargon and sameness.

To see the effect of bland content marketing, try a test. Examine marketing materials for directly competing products from the major enterprise software vendors and try to discern significant differences in messaging and positioning. You'll likely discover that the major vendors tend to look similar; remove the product name and see how the competitors all sound similar. I tried a variant of this test and the results demonstrated how bland enterprise marketing become as it regresses to the least common denominator.

Also read: Enterprise software and the curse of vendor sameness

During a CxOTalk conversation with the Brian Halligan, CEO of marketing software company HubSpot, the subject of content arose with great emphasis. HubSpot sells software to help companies attract customers by delivering engaging and personalized content over the web, through email, on mobile devices, with social media, and so on. HubSpot's concept of "inbound marketing" rests on using content to attract buyers to you, rather than chasing buyers with traditional methods such as mailing lists and cold calling.

Importantly, Brian made a profound point about contemporary marketing: the ability for small companies to amplify and leverage their message using technology:

In marketing today, success is much more about the width of your brain than the width of your wallet.

"Content is king but context is God." The conversation with Brian brought up the growing importance of context as the next refinement for content, as he expressed it in that provocative quote. Here is an edited summary of the conversation with Brian Halligan, in which he offers thought-provoking ideas about context:

The Bill Gates essay I referenced above discusses micro-payments over the Internet as the obstacle for personalization, at that time:

A major reason paying for content doesn't work very well yet is that it's not practical to charge small amounts. The cost and hassle of electronic transactions makes it impractical to charge less than a fairly high subscription rate.

Modern app stores, PayPal, and other payment systems have removed small payments as a barrier to intense personalization. In this technology environment, personalization has evolved into systems of context. Personalization shifts to context when an app or website uses data to present information that is highly and immediately valuable, based on precise detail about the user's activities at a particular moment in time.

The shift from personalization to context is a continuum, making it difficult to establish a clear distinction between the two. My friend, Vijay Vijayasankar, a top enterprise technology executive, summarizes the challenge of context:

Data without context means nothing. And this is especially true in the world of analytics. A given set of data can mean many things to many people

Although defining context is hard, great examples are easy to find:

Google AdWords defines context on a large scale. As users browse search results, AdWords presents context-sensitive advertising based on narrowly defined terms and keywords. The large number of advertisers allows the system to present finely grained results that are different for every user, personalizing the results to a granular level.

Waze aggregates traffic status from users to suggest routes that bypass traffic jams and are therefore fastest. By allowing users to enter traffic updates, Waze does a remarkable job with real-time suggestions. As conditions change, Waze updates suggested routes; it's a remarkable system that I use frequently.

Pandora has a database that stores music along with component definitions of song and artist styles, moods, tempo, and other attributes. Based on music you select as a starting point, the system then automatically selects and plays music you might like. 

Amazon recommendations bring together information from millions of users to suggest product ideas, based on your own search history combined with purchase data from other customers. The result is an uncanny ability to suggest products and alternatives, which change as you shop and move through the site.

All these examples use data to present meaningful choices to every user, based on the context of their current activity. Marketers should always remember that contextual information only become meaningful when it is highly focused and directly relevant to the user's activities at a particular moment in time.

Personalization becomes contextual when it speaks to users' immediate activities, interests, and goals they want to accomplish right now. Dearest marketing friends, that's how to transform engaged users into fanatical, wonderful, and loyal brand advocates. 


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