Context Marketing: Beyond Inbound and Content

contextEverything evolves and so does marketing. Today, things evolve faster. The pace of change in the ways we think about marketing goes hand in hand with the pace of technological innovations. Unfortunately, we often forget that the essence never changes: it’s about goals, customers, touchpoints and context. The multiple contextual dimensions of an integrated and customer-centric marketing view are so essential you will read more and more about context marketing in coming months. So, yes you read the title right: this one is about context marketing…in context.

Definition for contextualThe term context marketing is not new. Some speak about contextual marketing as well. However, it got picked up by more people after HubSpot’s INBOUND 2012 conference this summer where context and context marketing was among the main takeaways as so many people resumed them on their blogs.

Virtually all rock stars at the event of the marketing automation vendor, said how important context, content marketing and the customer are.

Why do we need love introducing new marketing terms all the time? Is it because everything constantly changes or because marketing thinkers just love to come up with new jargon that serves them well? You know the answer: it’s both.However, I can’t remember a time since we started talking about marketing with such a constant avalanche of new marketing lingo. And I can assure you it’s not because everything evolves.

So, what’s the thing about context marketing? At Inbound 2012 HubSpot announced the new version of its’ marketing software, and it’s not bad at all. For the record, I’m a HubSpot partner (but essentially vendor-agnostic). HubSpot also coined the term ‘inbound marketing’. Unless you have been on a very long vacation, you know what it is: an umbrella term for tactics aimed at getting prospects, decision makers and their networks discovering you. Or better (in my definition): finding what they are looking for. A few reasons behind it: the changing behavior of people when preparing to buy, less trust, decreasing impact of interruption, disgust of marketing BS and monologues, media proliferation, etc.

As buying is often a group process and we now have social media and that other umbrella term, social media marketing, marketers start putting not only their customers first but also the networks of trust and influence of their customers. It’s essentially about value and information chains. That’s nothing new, it’s just more visible and powerful. One of the ways we try to attract new customers is by using content (marketing). Good content responds to customer needs, preferences, emotions, reasons, purpose and stages. Sometimes a simple manual is better than a series of blog posts, trust me. Bad content doesn’t respond to anything except reach. That’s why we need to get rid of the pure publishing mania.

Content serves goals and whether they are about branding, informing, enabling being found, strengthening existing customer relationships and whatnot: it needs to be relevant in a very contextual way. That’s not new either as you can read here. When launching version 3, HubSpot emphasized how inbound is a good mix of content and context. The term context marketing got picked up.

The danger of umbrellas and the purpose of marketing

I have nothing again umbrella marketing terms as such, on the contrary. However, I despise them when they are glorified and people don’t see the bigger and very simple picture of marketing anymore. HubSpot pointed out some important evolutions and convinced many marketers to think differently by using the term inbound marketing (it also helped business of course), content marketing has improved the way many marketers nowadays work with content, etc. Along with social media marketing, these sets of tactics and strategies all helped stress the fact we should look more at what people want, decision processes, value, influence, conversation and so on. That’s what the ‘good’ experts learned from it, thus joining the ranks of marketers who understood it’s all about optimizing and designing for the customer (experience) and results since long before digital, let alone social, even existed.

So, I have nothing against the terms until they become misunderstood, misused or the center of all attention. Marketing is not about social media. It’s not about content. It’s not about being found. And it most certainly is not about just tactics and channels. However, that’s how all these umbrella terms are looked upon by the majority of ‘experts’. Some people build businesses they call inbound marketing agencies or worse, Twitter and Facebook marketing shops.

We can use these terms to grasp the underlying realities and understand the best practices and cases of what we know as content marketing, inbound marketing etc. That’s good. That’s great. As long as it serves a purpose.  Being found is a means to an end, sharing valuable content too.

The purpose, however, is not doing content marketing, social media marketing, inbound marketing, omnichannel marketing, touch point marketing, social business, digital business, Facebook marketing or whatever terms we have to describe a set of marketing and/or business tactics, strategies and views. The purpose isn’t creating and sharing content neither. It isn’t combining channels such as social media and email. It isn’t getting juicy links. Hell, it isn’t even getting  clicks or traffic (and certainly not fans).

Marketing is about making sure the business makes money, the customer is happy, and the profit goes up. To make that happen you use a mix of strategies and tactics, whatever you call them.

Content marketing is great. Inbound marketing rocks. Social media marketing is a must. As long as you use it all for the right reasons and in a relevant way to fulfil your goals: not traffic and fans but the right contacts who want to become your customers when you do a great job. Or regaining the trust so many businesses and marketers have lost. Or finally start listening to what your customers want, sometimes explicitely shouting it out.

However, the absurd focus on channels,  new media, technologies and tactics we have been witnessing in recent years, is dangerous. Every single day I have to read marketers don’t see the benefits or ROI of social media marketing yet. Every single day I have to read about the success of channels or tactics A, B or C. It makes me sad because it doesn’t matter but most of all because real marketers are swamped and confused. They get distracted from what really matters.

Customer-centricity is contextual by definition

What truly matters is the goal and how you’re going to achieve and measure it. And, yes, the goal is making money (and having better margins and happier customers). The fastest route to achieving that is by profoundly understanding what your customers want, how they behave, how they inform themselves, what makes them tick, how their networks influence them, etc. The only reason you want to know that is because you want to make it relevant and remove the obstacles in the buying journey, customer life cycle and different possible online actions, whether it concerns shopping, sharing or seeking service.

That’s customer-centricity. It doesn’t mean you need to be the slave of your customers. It means you have to be smart, excellent and have a very deep understanding of the people that are your market: the customer and what makes him happy or succeed. And most of all the customer experience, across all touchpoints. It means putting customers first (and do define customers in a very broad sense) and, indeed, looking at the context.

Last summer Ray Wang wrote about context from an engagement strategy perspective, emphasizing the need to move to right-time as HubSpot does (see below) and he defined seven dimensions of context drivers (see graphic). Let me tell you: there are more and they matter in all forms of customer-centric marketing. Ray did a good effort. Now look at the context of your customers, touchpoints and business.

A customer-centric marketer by definition is a ‘contextual marketer’. Look at all the touchpoints. Look at the channels people use, the environment, they use them in, what content they need in which stage of their life cycle, emotions, whatever. You need to move towards that single view.

David Meerman Scott advised attendees of INBOUND 2012 to drop the campaign mentality. Great.  Gary Vaynerchuk preached to really, really, truly care for your customers and about people. Cool. Gary also said that if content is king, context is God. Fine but what’s new? Shouldn’t we know all that?

Then, what is context marketing and why does context matter?

Context matters a lot. People are at the center of all efficient marketing. That’s why good marketing is by default integrated and focused on improving touchpoints in an integrated way. The customer is one, understanding the context within which he moves, lives, buys and shares is essential, regardless of when, where and how.

Understand the realities behind the terms and look at your customer and their context first. This is how good marketing has always been done. If it takes a term such as ‘context marketing’ to get that, so be it. Someone has to write the book. And HubSpot has to sell its’ software.

So, what’s context marketing? Marketing. What is the context? Behavior, preferences, intentions, business goals, needs, triggers, life cycle stages, user experiences, psychographics, screens, preferred information channels, networks of influence and much more. What’s new? Nothing. It’s still about touchpoints and a holistic approach, revolving around the basics of good marketing.

PS 1: I have to disagree with HubSpot that context marketing is delivering the right content, to the right people, at the right time. If that’s it, then context marketing is just a mix of content marketing and good old customer-centric marketing automation with a twist of personalization. Or maybe just simply customer-centric and integrated marketing? Or what about dialog marketing or even conversion optimization: isn’t that about right content, right channel, right time? But, again, who needs the term? Really? There is a thin line between educating and inventing new words to sell your stuff. Context is everything and everything is contextual. It’s that simple. And difficult at the same time.

PS 2: Don’t talk about context marketing or contextual marketing in real life (or even content marketing or inbound for that matter). It isn’t important, the C-suite doesn’t care and your customers just want you to be relevant. Furthermore, I bet your colleagues will often confuse with contextual advertising.

Join us on June 10th in Antwerp, Belgium, for the Content Marketing Conference Europe. With confirmed speakers such as Jay Baer, Lee Odden, Mike Corak, Doug Kessler, Kelly Hungerford, Dado Van Peteghem, Tristan Lavender, Guido Everaert, Tom De Baere and Xaviera Ringeling (more to be announced), we'll take you across a learning experience leading to tangible insights and actionable inspiration, moderated by media expert Jo Caudron!

Content Marketing Conference Europe