If Content Is King, Then Context Is Queen

Last week I spoke on a panel at MediaPost's Digital Out-of-Home Summit. The focus of the event and much of the discussion was very much on the video end of the spectrum, both interactive and otherwise.

The growth and prevalence of screen-based media in our lives has of course opened up significant new opportunities to reach out and touch consumers in an ever-expanding range of locations.  We're all familiar with the increase in the number of TVs in the average home and its impact on viewing patterns; the rise of the computer as a ubiquitous home and workplace medium; and, of course, the emergence of the cell phone and other mobile devices that act both as communications devices and media (not to mention playthings).

All of these -- with the arguable exception of TV, which in terms of user experience remains by far the most primitive screen available to us today (loads of choice but poor interactivity and scope for personalization even with the program guide or a DVR, relative to a PC), have had a huge effect on how we use media, our relationship to media providers and our expectations and tolerance of the various characteristics of different media.



As we become more accustomed to controlling the nature of our interactions with media through time-shifting and place-shifting facilitated by an array of options ranging from DVRs, DVDs (see the TV series when you want without ads), VOD, online downloads, video on cell phones (still early days but emerging) and so on, determining the where and when of media consumption becomes more like second nature to an increasing proportion of the population.

Add to this the fact that an ever-larger number of people have never known a time without computers and the Web (and those of us who have known the technological dark ages have assimilated our newfound interactive powers much like newborn babes take to oxygen) and it comes as no surprise that we are no longer a species that happily consumes whatever we are spoon-fed by the big screen in the corner of the room.

But not only do we enjoy exercising control, we also have the remarkable ability to "screen out" that which does not appear relevant, informative or entertaining to a sometimes mind-boggling extent.  Anyone with any depth of usability experience will have seen many times how users are perfectly able to peruse a site for information -- and completely ignore anything that looks like an ad or that is placed where they might expect to see an ad, even if it's been designed to catch the eye and is in fact the icon that they need to find.

All of which brings me to the critical issue of context.

We are all, no doubt, familiar with the well-worn cliché that Content is King.  Popularized (or -- depending on your perspective -- worn out) in the dot-com era, the overriding importance of content is a truism that drives all volitional consumption of media.  Even the idlest of browsing or channel-hopping is driven by the desire to find something of interest or relevance, and such browsing stops at the point where the desire is satisfied - at least temporarily.

This has become ever more the case as we assimilate the various forms of choice, control and convenience (the Holy Trinity of modern media) that consumers are increasingly able to exercise in ever more varied ways.

As the importance of content and its impact on both attention and delivering an audience to advertisers continues to grow, so grows the importance of context.

Not only do we see this in the much-heralded promise of addressable advertising (which is all about context), but it is also evident in the many ongoing about which content and advertising is right for which platforms, audiences, occasions etc., as all content goes multi-platform in pursuit of audiences (and the revenues associated with them).

Contextual relevance can be defined in a number of ways, ranging from the audience for which it is intended, the time it is made available, the screens (and their size) through which it is delivered, the duration and format of the content, the functionality of the content (what can I do with it), the location of the content and so on.

Many of these elements are factored into the communications planning process as it is developed.  Fewer of them find their way through to the media plan -- and fewer still to the media buying process, due to the difficulty of operationalizing insights driven by the planning process.

However, as we see more place-based digital media in our daily lives, the issue of which content works best for which location or screen becomes even more critical.  For the relatively short periods of time we are exposed to many of those screens, our attention needs to be grabbed by a story that demonstrates relevance and saliency - maybe there's a call to action in the mix as well.

The locations where screens are popping up are so incredibly varied, that it is impossible to address this issue with broad brush strokes.  Contextual relevance is to a large extent determined by the consumer, after all.  My attitudes towards screens at retail locations, the extent to which I pay attention to them and -- most important -- how I utilize the content they carry to aid my shopping will vary from the next shopper.  This is the case already with the vast array of in-store promotional media, and will be no different for screen-based media.

In many ways this relates to Mitch Oscar's comments in the TV Board yesterday concerning the value of owning the "place" in place-based media.  This of course, is not simply about securing the footprint, but about delivering a user/viewer experience that provides something of value relative to the location itself and the dominant mindsets and need-states that prevail there.

Various of the emerging digital out-of-home media propositions are beginning to come forward with research that delves into these issues.  This sort of work will ultimately underpin the metrics that will be delivered across the sector in due course -- so we will have a better view of not only how many people can be reached with a campaign, but how best to leverage that exposure by ensuring the content they are exposed to is as contextually relevant as possible.

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