In 1996, Bill Gates predicted that Internet fortunes would be built on providing content to entertain and inform. “Those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products – a marketplace of content.” And of course, he was right. Throughout the digital revolution content has reigned supreme, with businesses and organisations vying with each other to provide the most engaging content and capture the biggest audiences.
But in the last few years, as digital technology has increased in sophistication and customers simultaneously raised their expectations, the ground has shifted. In 2015, nearly 20 years after Bill Gates declared ‘Content is king’, internet entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk countered ‘Content is king, but context is God’.
So, what’s the reason for this shift in focus, and what is the meaning of context in this instance? Ultimately it’s about finding ways to provide fully personalised, best-in-class customer experiences. Whereas content is what a business or organisation brings to the customer, context is everything that the customer brings with them in that moment of interaction. The Cambridge dictionary defines context as ‘the situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it’. By understanding the full context we can provide experiences that resonate with the particular circumstances of an individual’s life and offer genuine value and meaning, rather than just being broadly relevant. Only by having a 360° understanding of each person’s unique situation – the ‘why’ around their visit – can we genuinely serve them better.
Of course, context doesn’t exist without content; a user visits a site for the content they find there. It still has a clear purpose: to entertain and/or inform. But if we understand the context for each individual user, we can shape that content uniquely for them, optimising and personalising it so it works harder. Context also means being able to anticipate customer needs at any given moment, reducing the amount of effort they themselves have to make to reach their goals. This is why context has become the holy grail, the differentiating factor in markets with hundreds or thousands of different players, all vying with each other for the user’s attention.
Global analyst firm Forrester Research describes the contextual user experience as: “a tailored, adaptive and sometimes predictive customer experience that combines and extend existing segmentation and personalisation techniques with in-the-moment details.”
There are numerous different aspects to consider. Someone interacting on Twitter will have different motivations to when they visit Instagram, so each digital platform has to be considered separately. Then there are basic factors like geolocation, the weather and the local news. But what’s especially valuable is more personal information about a particular user, like their life stage and whether they are in the midst of any major events – a house move, a baby, retirement. These will be major factors behind their decision-making process. How far along they are in that life event, whether planning, actioning, or in the aftermath, is also highly relevant. Of course, this kind of data has to be used tactfully and respectfully; responses that are too intrusive make people uneasy and are likely to send them running to the competition. Having only partial information is another issue, for instance assuming someone has taken a fun holiday because they’ve been on a long-haul flight and serving up content accordingly will be poorly received if, in fact, they’ve been on a business trip, even worse a funeral.
Tracking and managing it is a complex business but there’s no doubt that having accurate, holistic contextual user data provides powerful insights. Giving customers what they want and need at that particular moment in time will have them returning to a business or organisation time after time, while companies that merely broadcast out what they want to sell will lose out. If you want to stay focused on customer needs and provide a great customer experience, there’s no better way than turning your attention to context, as well as content.