Wired, Tired, Expired- Context Ousts Relevancy and Personalization in the Marketing Buzzword Wars

Apr 23, 2015  Customer-Experience Jason Klein

 Wired, Tired, Expired- Context Ousts Relevancy and Personalization in the Marketing Buzzword Wars


Personalization is under attack. Not the act of personalizing messages to be more relevant and valuable – just the word itself.

This article originally appeared in Only Influencers on April 16, 2015.

Personalization is under attack. Not the act of personalizing messages to be more relevant and valuable – just the word itself. A recent Buzzfeed article reports that brands like Walmart, Macys and Gap are eschewing the term "personalization" in favor of "relevancy." Why? There are a couple of reasons. First, with the amount of contextually relevant data now available to marketers, the term personalization seems dated, limited and even "invasive and robotic," according to the article. Second, brands are very aware of not crossing the line between relevant and creepy. 

Deep down, consumers likely suspect that brands have a lot of their personal information and are using it to market to them, but they don't want to be reminded of it through overly obvious ploys. Even the word "personalize" leads consumers to think of "personal data," which they've been trained to guard closely to avoid being the victims of identity theft. As a result, most marketers today are more likely to talk about relevance than personalization. And it's not just because "personalization" has become tainted.


Relevance Replaces Personalization

The idea behind relevance is that it goes beyond simple personalization. For many marketers, personalization is linked to the largely static data found in CRM systems, which is often used without careful regard of whether the data provides value to the recipient. Recent research referenced in "The Forrester Wave: Email Marketing Vendors, Q3 2014" shows that 85% of marketers are using personalization, but more contextually relevant tactics like open-time personalization and microsegment targeting still have limited adoption.

Email innovations interest marketers

Unlike personalization, relevance connotes that the marketer is actively selecting information that will deliver value to the recipient based on a multitude of factors – whether browse behavior, buying patterns or life stage. Relevance is more one-to-one marketing and less broad market segmentation.  In short, just because a message is personalized doesn't mean it's relevant and appreciated. And as a marketer that is the key to building and maintaining maximum customer lifecycle value.

Of course, relevance is not a new term. Marketers have been using it for ages. It's just that it is gaining more importance as brands get wary of the word personalization and what it implies for the type of relevant marketing they are trying to conduct. In essence, personalization and relevance are both marketing buzzwords, and buzzwords have a shelf life. And while marketers will never abandon "relevance" entirely, its status as the top buzzword in digital marketing is being threatened by another one in ascendancy – context. 


Context Threatens the Reign of Relevance

Over the last 18 to 24 months, "context" has taken digital marketing by storm. Marketers are embracing the term as their go-to word to describe marketing that is "in the moment" and "hyper relevant” with a focus on delivering value to consumers. With all the real-time data now available to marketers (device-type, location, weather, inventory, etc.), "relevance" just doesn't cut it anymore.

Contextual marketing moves beyond promoting an item based on demographic information and past purchases, taking into account dynamic data attributes that are changing all the time. At a time when consumer attention is scarce, respecting their time and delivering significant value with messages based on their current state or situation is imperative. In essence, it's a new marketing contract with the consumer. It's one that promises to always deliver value based on their current circumstance: where they are, what screen they're looking at, what they're interested in, and what's happening around them. All this data is rapidly becoming available to marketers, thanks to constant connectivity, connected devices and marketing systems that can understand and act on it.

Some marketers may shrug off "context" as another marketing buzzword. And I understand the inclination. Marketers are good at coming up with buzzwords. SoLoMo, Hyperlocal, Programmatic. We're coming up with new ones all the time. And this isn't the first time that a new buzzword has displaced an aging one. Remember when multi-channel was hot until cross-channel came along, whose short reign was supplanted by omnichannel? As marketers evolve their craft, the terms that describe the increased sophistication evolve along with it. Context is a buzzword, but introducing it to provide distinction from relevance has merit.


Wired, Tired, Expired

I propose that marketers standardize their definitions for personalization, relevance and context. And that these definitions should fall along a maturity curve as marketers embrace real-time situational data to better deliver value to their customers.  To that end, here is a starting point:

Personalization – The basic customization of marketing messages to include static or slow-changing profile data commonly stored in CRM systems: demographic, sociographic, psychographic, purchase history, life stage, etc. This is the low bar of marketing.

Relevance – Individualized one-to-one messages that go beyond simple personalization to include more dynamic data attributes such as browse behavior, call center activity, channel engagement, device type, etc. Relevance is where more advanced marketers are today or are actively working towards.

Context – Situational messages that automatically refresh in real-time based on changing consumer and business circumstances. Changing consumer data includes location, device type, sentiment as well as external factors like weather and traffic. Changing business data includes inventory, pricing, store location and hours. Context is the high bar of marketing that is focused on delivering value to customers through highly relevant experiences at the point of interaction.

As I think about the progression of marketing from personalization to relevance and context, I'm reminded of the meme that Wired used to include its magazine – "Wired. Tired. Expired." If you're not familiar or would like to reminisce, here's a gem from 2005.

Evolution of digital marketing

I think this format provides the perfect way to sum up the evolution of digital marketing – from base-level personalization that fits to a company's promotional calendar to contextual relevance that delivers value no matter the customer's situation. Without further ado, I present a Wired, Tired and Expired for Context, Relevance and Personalization – with a few others just for fun.

2015 digital marketing buzzwords

Context is here to stay. The data that enables it will only get better, and consumers will gravitate to brands that use it best. Circling back to the Buzzfeed article, there's a quote from Helen Vaid, vice president of customer experience at Walmart.com, that sums up the transition we're in quite well:

“It’s funny because people use the word personalization, and I always use the word relevance. You have to give the relevant experience to the customers at that point in time, and it should be relevant contextually.”

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