Context: What Are Your Customers Missing?

Published On September 21, 2009 | By mbalogh | Uncategorized

As a Washington Post experiment Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made stood against a wall in a crowded Washington subway during the morning rush and played for 43 minutes.  1,097 people passed by.  Seven paused to take notice.  Three days earlier Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall where merely pretty good seats went for $100 each.  In the subway he earned $32.  This is the power of context.  What great things are your customers missing about you?

This experiment is a great metaphor for the weakness of, as Seth Godin put is, interruption marketing.  In the right context Bell’s performance would be a widely publicized and talked about event.  Many of the passers by would tell their friends, "I saw one of the greatest musicians in the world today."  Word would spread like wild fire and fans would flock to the scene.  Instead, nothing.

The difference here is potential customers were not in the right mindset to consider the options, no matter how rare and exceptional, which stood before them.  They were not ready to appreciate the fantastic offer they were passing up.  In fact, they never knew it existed.  And they were fine with that.  These are the same customers that completed their journey past your billboard, sat down at their desk, and deleted your email without a second thought as to what they might be missing.  And they’re fine with that.  Context is everything.

The trick here is that many people may have recognized Bell’s superior talent and even appreciated his music, but they were not ready to commit.  Catch them at a different time and/or place, and you’d have a full fledged, sold out concert where people stifled their coughs until intermission out of respect for not interrupting his performance.  Yet, in the subway, they seemed more concerned with how his performance might interrupt their commute.

Compare Bell’s metro experience to marketing the relationship and understanding customer behavior first, then marketing second.  It’s not difficult to imagine Bell performing at Symphony Hall, he’s had no problem filling seats in the past.  This would be our mark for 100% in context.  Advertisements go up month’s in advance and people attend for the express purpose of listening to him play.  The subway, in contrast, is 0% in context.  No advertising in advance and people are there for the express purpose of moving along to their final destination.

The same is true for your marketing.  If customers were given the option, would the see your ad.  A great example is TiVo and other digital video recorders.  Notice there’s no 30-second skip ahead button on the remote?  That’s no accident.  Innovators of these products conceded to network demands not to include this feature.  Why?  Because they knew people would skip the commercials.  For 60 years, from the 1930’s to the late 90’s, broadcasters controlled what we saw and when we saw it.  All of a sudden we were give the option to skip the marketing, and they knew we’d go for it.  What does this say about the content they chose to show us?

The same is true for all Marketing 1.0 media.  Given the option, most of us choose to ignore it.  Not given the option, the rest of us forget it.  We have little interest and nothing invested.  But that all changes when there is a relationship.  When the customer has an interest.  When products add value.  When marketing is done in context.

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