Contextualized Advertising: Just “Preaching to the Choir”?

The older I get, the more I recognize the inevitable cycles that occur all around  me, from fashion trends to areas of marketing focus. It’s the yin and yang of life I suppose; we naturally shift back and forth between preferences for one thing or another. And, it is likely true that there is nothing really “new” under the sun, just recycled or updated twists on things that have gone before.

Except, perhaps, in the world of online marketing. One of the latest trends–contextualized advertising–offers marketers the ability to almost “get inside the heads” of potential consumers to deliver messages to them based not only on places they’ve visited online, but for things that might be geographically or contextually relevant to them.

For instance. You’re walking down the street on a hot summer day and you get a text message telling you about a great deal on ice cream at a shop that is now literally 10 steps away from you. Or, you’re driving to a vacation destination and a special deal on a hotel at the next exit pops up. That’s contextual advertising and it’s all the rage right now. Although, of course, nobody quite knows yet whether it will really work and, importantly, whether it will really ever replace traditional advertising.

There was a very interesting piece in The Atlantic recently on the topic: Derek Thompson’s “A Dangerous Question: Does Internet Advertising Work at All?”  These sorts of provocative titles are always a great way to lure in readers and I was no exception. But his article was worth the read. In the piece he makes what I found to be a very interesting point. He writes:

“Let’s say I want to buy a pair of glasses. I live in New York, where people like Warby Parker. I’ve shopped for glasses at Warby Parker’s website. Facebook knows both of these things. So no surprise that today I saw a Warby Parker sponsored post on my News Feed.

“Now, let’s say I buy glasses from Warby Parker tomorrow. What can we logically conclude? That Facebook successfully converted a sale? Or that the many factors Facebook considered before showing me that ad—e.g.: what my friends like and my past shopping behavior—are the same factors that might persuade anybody to buy a pair of glasses long before they signed into Facebook?

Maybe Facebook has mastered the art of using advertising to convert sales. Or maybe it’s mastered the art of finding people who were going to buy certain items anyway and showing them ads after they already made their decision.”

I had a similar experience a few years ago. I’d heard about a great note taking tool called Livescribe and I went online to buy it. I had already made the purchase decision based on the recommendation of another consultant. My initial foray online was simply to buy the product. Which I did. But after making that purchase I was bombarded with messages about Livescribe at every turn it seemed. “Hey!,” I wanted to tell someone, “I already bought your product. Leave me alone!”

I’m guessing that many others also have had that same experience.

On the flip side, I have had the experience of searching for something online, visiting a few sites and not making a purchase immediately. Then, later, being bombarded by ads and sometimes making a purchase.

So, I tend to agree with Thompson’s point about whether or not online advertising really works likes “somewhere in the middle” and is “devilishly hard to accurately measure.”

Ultimately, of course, we (meaning we marketers) must be able to measure and report on the effectiveness of all of the marketing efforts we’re undertaking. That has always been difficult. Online advertising opportunities make this both easier and more challenging because, of course, it is rare that we are ever using one single medium to get a message to our audience. It is some combination of different channels at different times that eventually leads to action.

The real challenge–and the real something new–is that this combination of different channels is growing exponentially.

Are we preaching to the choir? In many regards I’d say “yes,” but that is exactly what we intend to do. From a marketing strategy standpoint what we are always attempting to do is find those who may have an affinity for what we have to offer and put compelling messages in front of them. So, yes, we’re interested in the people who are already predisposed to Warby Parker glasses. And, in some cases, they may have already acted (made the purchase). But there will always be some other, presumably larger, population of people who have not yet acted. That’s where our messaging comes in, whether online or off.

I don’t think that preaching to the choir is really such a bad thing after all. What do you think?




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