How To Be Contextual | PHOS Creative

How To Be Contextual

Written by Jon Saxton

Note: this is the fourth in a series about how to stand out and be a light in a saturated digital space. Read the introduction to the series here.


Context is about delivering the right message to the right person at the right moment.

That may sound like a tagline for a marketing agency. In fact, I believe it is… for several agencies.

There’s a reason it sounds like a tagline: it sounds really important, and if you don’t know how to do it, it sounds almost an unreachable goal.

So why is it important to have your brand and your message in the context of your audience’s life?

The opposite of a contextual message is a blanket message, and blanket messages feel like marketing. When it doesn’t fit in the life of the customer, it feels like an interruption.

People are getting better at recognizing marketing. For the most part they’re ok with it, and they understand it. But when it feels like an interruption, they’ll make an active effort to tune it out.

Worse, when a brand is out of context, it can be jarring. Enough to jar someone out of the relatively harmless mode of tuning it out, and into associating negative feelings with the brand. That’s a hard hole to climb out of.

But a single, more relevant message leads to a more welcome reception. Over time, continued relevant messages lead to positive brand associations, and a more natural path from the message to the desired action.

How To Be Contextual

Seasonality is fairly easy to predict and plan for. What’s more interesting is how a brand can intentionally place itself in the context of a consumer’s season of life.

Timing on a large scale, such as seasonality, is at least straightforward. It requires proactivity and lots of planning, but it’s straightforward.

Taking that a step further means personalized timing.

Think about how much more effective you could be if you could talk to your audience when you know they’re in a time in their life, or in their business, when they’re ready for the solution you provide.

That’s a powerful possibility. The difficulty, though, is two-fold: how to know when that time is for each client, and how to accomplish personalized timing at scale.

Seasons of Life

Travel sites have a huge variety of use cases, or at least a variety of motivators. People may be booking flights or hotels for any number of reasons – family vacation, business trip, visiting friends, out-of-state interview, romantic getaway, etc.

With such a range of motivators, nailing one brand message can be tricky. Statements like “plan your next trip with us” or the more compelling “wherever you’re going, we’ll get you there” are broad by necessity. In theory, someone who’s considering options for any one of those types of trips can hear that message and apply it to themselves.

But can we narrow that down, make it more personal? More relevant, or contextual?

Facebook allows you to target users for advertising based on life events. One such example is anniversaries. Advertisers can put their message in front of users who have an anniversary coming up in the next 30, 60, or 90 days.

It makes sense – I have my anniversary on Facebook, a lot of people do.

Create one ad that says “Bring your wife to the beautiful beaches of Cancun. Start planning your anniversary getaway.” Target it to males in the US, within a certain income range, with an anniversary in the next 31-90 days. Run it all year long.

As the advertiser in this scenario, you don’t know who the user is. You don’t know their name, their wife’s name, their anniversary, even what state they live in. You don’t have to. Facebook knows it for you.

And as simple as that, you’re positioning your brand with a targeted message that fits perfectly within your customer’s life – thousands of times a day, across the country.

Personalized timing, at scale.

A few examples of ways you can create similar personalization:

  • People who are close friends with someone with an upcoming birthday.
  • People who are newly engaged or newlywed.
  • People who recently started a new job.
  • People who recently moved.
  • People who recently moved and used to live in Sweden (or any country).
  • Parents with toddlers age 1-2.
  • People who returned from traveling last week.

The opportunities aren’t quite endless – but they’re getting pretty close.

A Personalized Message

“Marketing automation” is a buzzword that’s thrown around a lot. There are huge companies that are built around marketing automation.

Companies like HubSpot, SharpSpring, Marketo, and increasingly companies like MailChimp offer software platforms and features that enable marketing automation.

In large part, these solutions hold email automation and sequencing as a focal point, then build to secondary, supporting features such as web forms and list management.

From there, they may add on tertiary features that allow consolidation of marketing and broaden the scope of data collection, including tracking campaigns across various channels, tracking website usage, tools to manage on-site content, etc.

The idea is that by integrating all these tools, the software can track a user’s behavior online, at least as it relates to your brand. Over the course of a month, if a user clicks one of your digital ads, interacts with your website, downloads a PDF, opens a few emails, and likes a few social posts, the software can build a profile of that person.

Finding the Context

The software maps behavior to each contact, creating a record that builds upon itself with each subsequent interaction.

The sheer quantity and timing of interactions can tell the program how engaged that potential customer is – and if they’re highly engaged, it can notify the sales team that this customer is one to reach out to.

Along with that notification, the sales team can look back on that record and see how that person has interacted with the brand. That’s the next level, where context comes into play.

A sales team can be armed with the knowledge that a potential customer has looked at the pages for service A, and downloaded a PDF about service A, but largely ignored service B. That way, in a discovery call, the salesperson can focus more on service A, knowing that it’s of more interest to them. That personalization will make the message the salesperson presents hit closer to home for the potential customer.

The primary value of marketing automation is contextualization. It’s in more powerful messages, resulting in more successful outcomes, powered by the collection of more context.


Just as your message should be about them, not you, context is about making everything surrounding the message about them, not you.

Timing is important, but it’s not everything. Timing is only the means, context is the end.

Context has two barriers: recognizing the right timing and the right message for each consumer, and doing so at scale.

The solution involves planning – a lot of it. And tools like online advertising and marketing automation systems can help recognize the right timing and message based on the audience’s online behavior, and create much more impactful messages at scale.

Context is the secret sauce that can take a message from good to impactful. Don’t add context to your message. Start with context, then add your message.


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