I have little epiphanies on a regular basis that I like to share in this column. This week, my epiphany was clear: Data without context is noise.
Data refers to the information you gather about the consumer. While much of that data is useful, if you look at data in a vacuum, it is far less valuable than when you factor in the context, which provides a dimension that gives meaning to the data which otherwise may not be clear.
Very little data can be considered valuable in a stand-alone format. Some might bring up demographics, but even with demographic data you need the context of time for it to make sense and be accurate.
For example, age and household income are considered standard demographic data, but these can change over time. Household income can change, as can the composition of the household. Age obviously changes over time, and age implies life stage, which has a massive impact on the insights gleaned from the data. The wise guy will make a joke that demographic gender data should or shouldn’t change, but in most cases gender data is implied and multiple people can use the same device, so gender is an educated guess and less likely to be accurate, thus less valuable.
What is most valuable are signs of intent and interest, and these are always in flux. Someone who is in market for a car now may not be in a month. Someone who is buying organic food now might change to gluten-free in three weeks. A consumer’s motivations and behaviors can change dramatically, and context provides insight into the “how” and the “why” of those changes.
Context, whether personal or global in nature, can have a massive impact on the ways consumers will go about their day and the types of decision they will make. Think about the political climate and how that can impact consumer behavior. Economic stability or instability affects the discretionary expenditures of a household. When a family gets a pet, that changes things. The time of day can have an impact on purchases.
There are tools in the market for layering context over consumer data, but the simplest way to do this is to examine global macro-trends that might have an impact and place them over any analysis you might be doing of your audience. You also need to ensure you revisit your audience profiles regularly — potentially on a monthly basis, and even more often if you have a short consideration cycle for your products and services.
Subtle changes in the market can affect not only who you are targeting, but also which message you decide to display. I often use the analogy that the customer journey is no longer linear, but instead represents as many options as you would have if you were driving from New York to San Francisco. You have many permutations of routes — and each stage of that route can be experienced differently, whether it’s day or night, summer or winter, or more. The context for that route will affect the path you decide to take. Most marketers have not yet advanced to the complexity of understanding the context as well as the audience they are trying to speak to, much less reacting properly to it.
What is the best way to understand context? Work with your agency analytics team to analyze those macro trends. Work with your key publishers to understand the trends affecting their audience. Work with your data provider to layer that information over the top of your campaign, and learn to optimize often enough to catch those changes in your planning process. If you do these three things, you’ll have a step up over your competition.