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“Context is worth 80 IQ points.” (Not my words – they belong to renown MIT professor and serial inventor, Alan Kay). His famous quote is particularly relevant for marketers today.  As digital channels have evolved, they’ve opened up new possibilities for reaching customers and prospects.

As marketers, we already know who our customers and prospects are, where they live, and what they like, and now we can garner more transient contextual information.

Contextual marketing is the next step for marketers as we move from mass marketing to segmentation, to personalisation and now contextualisation. We’ve all been on the receiving end of it. Many mainstream news websites run contextual advertising to match ads to the articles being viewed. Social media websites and blogs use keywords in members’ posts and comments to trigger contextual ads. Last summer, an ice tea brand used Facebook to advertise its drinks in areas of the UK experiencing particularly warm weather.

It seems our awareness of contextual marketing isn’t an issue. A recent survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by SAP, found that seventy-three per cent of west European marketers say they routinely collect information about customer behaviour. So if we’ve been on the receiving end of contextual marketing and most of us are routinely collecting it, why aren’t we seeing more of it?

Turns out most companies aren’t doing anything meaningful with it. The same survey found that only thirty-seven per cent use it for marketing purposes. While the proportion of marketers making some use of contextual information is high, much of the data is just sitting there. Why?

One of the main reasons is that inside many organisations customer data is scattered across multiple disparate systems. This makes is hard to find, almost impossible to pull together in a timely manner or respond in real time with the relevant marketing messages.

The company knows the data has been collected, it just can’t aggregate it or apply it very easily into one-to-one personalised and contextualised messages back to the customer.

Yet with every search, browse or email opening, your customers are telling you exactly what they want. They’re making your job incredibly easy by giving you signals of their intentions and interests so you can connect with them directly at the right time, through their nominated channel of choice and with the right set of messages. Why would you want to miss such a wide open window of opportunity?

One of the other reasons marketers aren’t fully leveraging contextual marketing is because their channels are too narrow. Most organisations are still relying on first generation digital channels to collect contextual information (think company websites and email).

Newer channels, such as social media and mobile apps are often overlooked or used less frequently by marketers for contextual gathering. But these newer channels have the potential to offer more fine grained contextual insights than conventional channels. In other words, mobile apps can reveal precise locations or current activities of prospects, while social media channels give unique insights into an individual’s mood or wider social network.

If you’re not able to easily gather, harness and monetise the contextual data that your prospects and customers are offering, you have a very big hole in your marketing strategy. I’d strongly urge you take a fresh look - not just at what type of data your organisation is collecting and from which channels - but how it’s being collected and centralised, and whether or not you’re actually able to act on it.

Start now by reading The Economist Intelligence Unit summary report, Beyond personalisation: a European perspective on contextual marketing.

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