The Digital Marketer

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Take Note: Moving Beyond Personalization to Contextualization

This spring a handful of disappointed seniors at a small New England college were unable to participate in graduation exercises along with their classmates.  It wasn’t because they misbehaved or hadn’t completed their coursework.  Rather, they had failed to respond to a necessary email sent from the Registrar.  An outraged father of one of the students called a senior school administrator to complain, arguing that although his daughter had received several emails asking for the paperwork, none of them had been personalized.  As a result, she had not paid any attention to them. The administrator was empathetic, but also clear that it was students’ responsibility to read their communications from the school, even if they are not customized.

This scenario is a parent’s and student’s nightmare—as well as every marketer’s.  Our carefully crafted content is ignored because it fails to catch the attention of our prospects and customers.  To increase the chances of being seen and consumed, marketers are working overtime to personalize interactions.  Indeed, when marketers were recently asked to prioritize the most essential capability for marketing going forward, the highest-ranking answer was “personalization” according to a recent study from Adobe.

The Bar for Personalization Continually Rises

At first it was emails that addressed our customers by name; then it became content that reflected the most recent web behaviors of our prospects and customers.  Going forward the standard is nothing short of being able to deliver the right experience, to the right person, at the right time, and on the right device.  The ability to deliver this type of remarkable customer experience requires more than personalization.  It requires contextualization.

Forrester defines contextualization as “a tailored, adaptive, and sometimes predictive digital customer experience”[i] that meets customers’ needs, feels personal, and is delivered in the moment.  Here’s an example:  not long ago my co-author Larry Weber was walking in London on a relatively warm afternoon.  Seemingly out of the blue he received a text from Starbucks, inviting him in for a refreshing iced espresso and alerting him to the presence of a Starbucks just around the corner.  The relevancy of this text caught Larry’s attention.  It showed awareness of Larry’s drink preference (he will tell you that if it had been an offer for iced passion tea it would have had no appeal whatsoever) as well as his location (its right around the corner!) and his device (had this been an email its likely that he would have missed it all together while walking).  The combination, however, caught his attention, inspired him to stop in and purchase an iced espresso, and talk about his experience with literally thousands of people afterwards.

What It Takes to Contextualize 

Contextualization is today’s state-of-the art marketing capability (Starbucks was beta testing this capability at the time) and will be tomorrow’s standard fare.  To pull it off, we have to be able to create a context for each of our customers that is continuously updated with the following three types of data:

  • Situational data (the time of day, what people are doing, their geographic location, device they are using, where they are in the customer journey, the point at which they entered into connection with us, and perhaps image recognition) emitted from an ever evolving set of connected devices including wearables;
  • Historical data captured across multiple channels (past website behavior and purchases, social comments, searches, geolocation patterns, social network); and
  • Profile data (demographics, preference for channels, knowledge of our product and services, and key concerns).


This single customer view captures everything we know about that individual at that moment in time.   This feat of integration requires a close working relationship with IT and with other areas of our organizations that collect and store relevant customer data.  It isn’t enough just to collect and integrate customer data, however, we have to be able to transform it from the aggregate level (big data) to the individual level (small data) so that we can create unique experiences for each individual.  Analytics are critical to deriving insight from this data and to anticipate each customer’s next need.  Finally, we need to be able to operationalize this insight, using it to engage with our prospects and customers in an integrated manner across channels, platforms, and devices, and to evaluate and improve its effectiveness.

Contextualization Reduces Delta’s Customer Frustration

Contextualization makes it possible for Delta Airlines to improve its customers’ experience around flight delays and cancellations.  By understanding its customers’ current situation (where they are, where they are trying to go, the time of day, how long they have been traveling, and what device they are using), Delta can deliver real-time notifications of flight changes or cancellations directly to its passengers on their preferred devices.   What is more, Delta can anticipate its customers’ next need—book me another flight!—and offer the most friction-free method of accomplishing this.  Whether via their laptop or mobile device, Delta allows passengers to rebook cancelled or misconnected flights instantly, eliminating extensive waits on the phone or in lines at the airport.

In this situation, contextualization allows Delta to better understand and serve its customers by anticipating their needs, offering them solutions instantly, and enhancing their control and comfort.   This goes a long way toward improving Delta’s over all customer experience, today’s source of of competitive advantage.


DSW Takes Advantage of Inclement Weather with Contextualization

Last winter was brutal for many regions across the U.S. with weather adversely affecting retailers at different points in time. Contextualization allowed the shoe retailer DSW to capitalize on major snowstorms, by sending weather-related notifications to customers in affected regions, encouraging them to spend part of their day shopping online.  Contextualization here felt personal (DSW knew what its customers were experiencing) and useful, as items highlighted in the content were all winter footwear.  It worked.  I dropped a chunk of change.


Historical Behavior Allows for Customization

Capture and awareness of historical data makes it possible to adapt content on websites and mobile sites for customer segments or individuals.  When combined with predictive analytics, companies like Marketo can anticipate their prospects’ or customers’ next need and send relevant  messaging based upon their behaviors to date.  In this case, contextualization enhances the relevance of the content, and therefore, of the company, in their customers’ eyes.  (Unfortunately for Marketo, its messaging didn’t induce me to demo its marketing automation product as I was doing research for a book on their site, rather than researching for a purchase. Had I been in the market, I would have appreciated the outreach, however.)
lisa email

Macy’s Personally Greets Its Customers Upon Arrival

Contextualization is behind Macy’s ability to welcome a customer by name on her phone when she enters their Herald Square (NYC) or Union Square (San Francisco) stores and show her location-specific deals, discounts, and rewards based on her preferences.  A combination of iBeacon technology and the retail app Shopkick makes this highly-individualized shopping experience possible.  Macy’s can also tie at-home browsing data to the in-store experience by reminding her of products she previously “liked” as she enters the store.  In this case, contextualization can make shoppers feel known and assisted.

Take Care as We Up Our Game

As we find our way to offering this level of customer experience, marketers must take care to utilize contextualization appropriately.  Introduced too soon in a customer relationship, contextualization may feel creepy.  If our interactions are based off of incorrect assumptions, or inaccurate or incomplete customer data, we will miss the mark, serving up irrelevant messaging.  This will surely backfire, as it loudly communicates, “We don’t know you,” which is the opposite of what contextualization is trying to achieve.  But when it works, contextualization can make even the biggest business or a small New England college feel like yesterday’s hometown soda shop, that knew just how you liked that Raspberry Lime Rickey.

Take Away:

How might contextualization enhance our customer experience?  What patterns and happenings impact consumer behavior relative to our brands? What might be the most critical moments in our customer journey for contextualization (mobile)?  Which of our customers would value this level of being known?  Who might not? What is necessary for us to be able to offer this type of dynamic and predictive experience?

By Lisa Leslie Henderson