By Rachel Moore

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Picture this: you’re searching for a new pair of shoes on your lunch break. You’ve heard great things about Brand A (let’s call them “HappyFeet’s Happy Shoes”), but you’ve already got a couple pairs of Brand B (we’ll call them “Pretty Pretty Good Shoes” (aka PPGS)) in your closet and they’ve suited you just fine before. You mosey over to HappyFeet’s website and find a couple things you like, but nothing seems to be in the right color (magenta) or right size (8 women’s).

Your lunch break is already halfway over by the time you land on Pretty Pretty Good Shoes’ site. Since you’ve bought shoes from PPGS’ site before (specifically magenta womens’ shoes, size 8), the first thing you see on their homepage is the latest version of the exact shoes you’re looking for. Facing the idea of either buying another pair of Pretty Pretty Good Shoes and still have a few minutes of your lunch left to heat up and scarf down 10 Bagel Bites, or using the rest of your lunch break to continue the hunt for magenta shoes, you place an order on Pretty Pretty Good Shoes’ site and never look back.

Later on, you find that HappyFeet’s Happy Shoes also had the same pair of magenta shoes you just ordered. By then, though, it’s already too late – your pink kicks are already on their way to you from PPGS’ warehouse. How did Pretty Pretty Good win the business in this scenario? By using contextual marketing.

 What is contextual marketing?

TechTarget defines contextual marketing as online marketing model in which people are served with targeted advertising based on terms they search for or their recent browsing behavior.

I’d take it a step further, though. In recent years, contextual marketing as a marketing tactic has outgrown its roots in display advertising and now includes a wide range of on- and off-page strategies to connect with visitors. Beyond that, contextual marketing has expanded from search history and browsing behavior cues to now include targeted and user-specific messaging based on a range of information users have provided (both implicitly and explicitly) to an organization. This includes things like past purchases, but also demographic information like age range and geographical region, psychographic information such as likes and dislikes, and biographic information like educational background and job status.

All of these things together allow marketers using contextual marketing to create highly personalized website experiences for all users – and as such, increase the likelihood those visitors will convert or ultimately become customers.

How does contextual marketing benefit your strategy?

At its most fundamental level, contextual marketing is really about providing value to the customer by offering them the perfect message at the perfect time and place.

And there’s no time in recent (internet) history where this is more important. With users’ search results, inboxes, social media feeds, and favorite sites drowning in a sea of advertisements, bite-size content, listicles, videos, and more, the signal (i.e. what you care about) is getting harder and harder to separate from the noise (cat videos, solutions “disrupting the industry,” and “One Weird Trick” lists).

So how does contextual marketing help? In a world where consumers are used to seeing too many messages that aren’t relevant for them, it surfaces highly personalized and appropriate content at exactly the right time – just like in the example you read at the beginning of this post.

Not convinced yet? Here are a few reasons why I believe there’s a place for contextual marketing in every comprehensive inbound strategy:

Contextual marketing is customer-focused.

Inbound marketing subscribes to the belief (nay, truth!) that the buying process has changed to put customers in control. Where salespeople once acted as the gatekeepers for all relevant information someone might need before buying a product or service, the internet has now put almost everything at buyers’ fingertips. As such, a significant portion of the sales cycle (anywhere from about 40% all the way up to 90%, depending on the study) is already complete before buyers ever even speak to a salesperson.

While that stat does cover a wide range, the exact percentage is somewhat irrelevant – what’s important is what it signals about the way consumers do business online. They expect to do research on their own, and they expect to be informed by the time they actually speak to a salesperson. In essence, they expect to drive a sales process that’s customized to their wants and needs – not simply take part in some scripted repartee solely to get their hands on some actual information.

This belief – that prospects should, can, and will personalize the buying process to suit their own needs – is fundamentally intertwined with what contextual marketing is all about. In fact, a customer-focused buying process can be greatly aided by contextual marketing strategies, which can be used to surface the most relevant information for people at the right times. If someone’s just coming to your site for the first time, contextual marketing would allow you to show them a high-level awareness content offer suitable for most of your personas. Once that same person downloads an offer and some information is available about them, it would then allow you to show them the perfect Consideration Stage offer for their persona (if their behavior has indicated they’re in the next stage of the Buyer’s Journey) next time they’re on your site.

It fits into mobile-friendly world.

The data are clear: with 80% of Internet users being smartphone owners and the time spent per day accessing digital media on mobile devices now surpassing that spent on desktop platforms (51% versus 42%), mobile devices are often users’ first choice for accessing the internet. Part of the reason why? Because mobile devices are just that – mobile. Why comparison shop a product ahead of time when you can do so in while standing in front of the in-store display and searching the item price on Amazon.com .

Contextual marketing is well matched to the increasingly mobile-dominated world. Pitney Bowes explains why:

Contextual messages, tightly targeted marketing messages, sent to individuals at the right time, in the right place, and retrieved from whatever device they want, can be extraordinarily successful, driving customer retention, creating new sales and adding depth to our omnichannel world.

Moreover, the growing prevalence of location-based services on phones open up whole new world of possibilities for contextual marketing – from things like promotions that are texted to users when they enter stores, to grocery lists that pop up when you get to the store, and beyond.

Contextual marketing helps you stand out from the pack.

While talk of adblock software “killing the internet” for companies and publishers is understandably terrifying to the marketers who rely on ad networks, it’s also of concern to inbound marketers, as well. 

As companies struggle to differentiate themselves, consumers are getting smarter and less tolerant of ads and promotional content – or anything that looks remotely like it. That means your website CTAs may be getting the cold shoulder because they look too much like advertisements, or your blog posts’ internal links may be getting ignored because they look like a paid keyword placement. In a world where consumers are taught everything can, and may be, an ad designed to steal their money, it’s an inbound marketer’s job to show that not all ads (or even lead generation content of any kind) are one-sided tools that only benefit the producer – that they can be helpful and welcome, as well.

It’s no longer enough to just have great content. In order for that content to actually resonate, you now need show it to the right person in the right place at the right time. That’s where contextual marketing comes in. As part of a comprehensive inbound strategy, contextual marketing can help your website and content stand out from the pack by surfacing the precise messaging that will best resonate with each visitor each time they visit your site.

How to get started with contextual marketing

While marketing software is helpful when it comes to executing a contextual marketing strategy, to be anywhere near successful with it you’ll need to start with the basics: knowing who you’re marketing to, what they’re interest in, as well as when and where they’ll see your message. If you’re interested in getting started with a contextual marketing strategy of your own, check out one of these great resources:

Have you used contextual marketing? If you’re on HubSpot, do you use Smart Content? What has worked for you?

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Rachel Moore

About the author

Rachel Moore was formerly a Senior Consultant and Team Leader at SmartBug Media. A HubSpot alumna, Rachel uses her 7+ years of experience as a marketer and neuroscientist to help clients develop innovative strategies to achieve and exceed their business goals. Read more articles by Rachel Moore.

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