[Estimated read time: 6 minutes]
This was one of the first television commercials to ever air:
Talking to the camera on a mic was the obvious way to leverage television: after all, that’s how radio commercials worked. Now, advertisers could just put radio commercials on television. What an exciting new advertising medium!
As it turns out, putting radio commercials on television wasn’t really the best use of this new medium. Sound familiar? This seems awfully similar to the current practice of turning your television commercial into a YouTube pre-roll ad. However, the difference this time isn’t the media format, which is largely similar (YouTube videos are still video, banner ads are still text + image, podcast sponsorships are still voice, etc.) Instead, the difference is how people are consuming the content; in other words, the context.
A television commercial is a relatively static experience: 30 seconds of video placed within a few appropriate time slots, reaching people in their living room (or possibly bedroom). A Facebook newsfeed ad is a little more dynamic: it can be seen anywhere (home, office, bus, etc.), at anytime, by anyone, in almost any format and next to almost any content. The digital age has basically exacerbated the “problem” of context by offering up a thousand different ways for consumers to interact with your marketing.
But, with great problems comes great opportunity — or something like that. So, what are some ways to leverage context in the digital age?
Different channels have different user intents. On one end of the funnel are channels like Facebook and Snapchat that are great fillers of the empty space in our lives. This makes them well-suited for top-of-funnel brand advertising because you aren’t looking for something specific and are therefore more receptive to brand messaging (though you can certainly use Facebook for direct marketing purposes).
BuzzFeed, for example, has done a great job of tailoring their Snapchat content to the intent of the channel — it’s about immediate gratification, not driving off-channel behaviors:
This feels like you’re watching your friend’s Snapchat story, not professionally produced branded content. However, it’s still the early days for Snapchat — all companies, including BuzzFeed, are trying to figure out what kind of content makes sense for their goals.
As for Facebook, there are plenty of examples of doing brand awareness right, but one of the more famous ones is by A1 Steak Sauce. It was both set and promoted (in part) on Facebook:
Critically, the video works with or without sound.
On the other end of the funnel is something like AdWords: great when you know what you’re looking for, not so great when you don’t. This subway ad for health insurance from Oscar feels pretty out of place when you use the same copy for AdWords:
Getting intent right means that you need to actually experience your ad as a user would. It’s not enough to put a bunch of marketers together in a conference room and watch the YouTube ad you created. You need to feel the ad as a user would. This means watching your ad when you’re in the living room and just clicked on a friend’s YouTube link from Facebook to watch a soccer highlight (or whatever).
Situational context (is that redundant?) can be leveraged with a whole range of strategies, but the overarching theme is the same: make users feel like the ad they’re seeing is uniquely built for their current situation. It’s putting a YouTube star in pre-roll ads on their own channel, or quickly tweeting something off the back of a current event:
…or digital experiences that are relevant to the sporting event a user is watching:
There are thousands of examples of doing this right:
You might want people on Facebook to watch your video with sound, but the reality is that 85% of Facebook video views are silent. You might want people to watch your brilliant one-minute YouTube ad, but the reality is that 94% of users skip an ad after 5 seconds You need to embrace user behaviors instead of railing against them, like these smart people:
- Geico makes an “unskippable” 5 second YouTube ad:
How do you reach people who skip your commercial after 5 seconds? Make the ad 5 seconds long!
Understanding channel behaviors means not using channel features for the sake of channel features while still taking advantage of behaviors that allow for richer ad experiences. It means using the channel yourself, looking up the relevant research, talking to experts, and making informed decisions about how people will actually engage with your creative work.
A user’s location can prompt geographic-specific advertising (for example, Facebook Local Awareness Ads or in-store Snapchat filters). It can feel gimmicky when used needlessly, but can provide a compelling marketing experience when done right.
AirBnB’s slogan is “belong anywhere.” One of the ways to feel like a local in a new city is to have locals give you a personal tour — which is exactly what AirBnB provides by targeting people on mobile when they’re looking for directions:
Or you can just make use of location services in more straightforward ways, like how the Bernie Sanders campaign targeted his core demographics in New York before the important primary by using Snapchat Geofilters.
However, be careful about inferring location from device — only 17% of mobile searches are on the go.
Audience targeting is likely the most powerful form of context provided by digital marketing. You can segment your audience in a thousand different ways — from Facebook Lookalikes to Google Customer Match — that a billboard could only dream of. The more you customize your ad copy to the audience you’re targeting, the better off you’ll be. (There seems to be a running theme here…)
You could directly speak to the audience of your competitors by targeting branded keywords:
Or better yet, target competitor customers that are about to change services:
Retargeting is another powerful way to use audience context by changing your copy to reflect the actions a user has taken on your site (more great retargeting examples here):
Then, of course, there are all the obvious ways of leveraging audience, such as adjusting your value proposition, using a slightly different tone, or tweaking the offer you provide.
There’s a cliché that the digital age has killed advertising creativity. Forget about clever copy or innovative work, It’s all about spreadsheets and algorithms now. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Internet didn’t kill advertising creativity — it just raised the bar. Content in all its forms (video ads, blog posts, tweets, etc.) will always be important. It might be harder to buy engaged eyeballs for your 30-second commercial online, but content done right can reach millions of people who are voluntarily consuming it. More importantly, though, the Internet lets you engage with your audience in a thousand innovative ways, providing a revamped arena for marketing creativity: context.