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Context-aware technology draws customers closer, but not too close

Companies must tread a fine line with context-aware content: They must demonstrate that they know their customers, and be able to anticipate and meet their needs, without being intrusive or creepy.

Building the proper content strategy is a long road. It takes a firm understanding of the organization's goals,...

and the desires of those who read and consume content in browsers and mobile applications. Once successfully developed, creating content and getting people to consume it is not the final step.

It's not easy to provide the right content at the right time to constituencies. It might seem easy to produce content that might be relevant. But the ability to send personalized content when it matters most is the ultimate goal of every successful content strategy. A context-aware technology strategy accounts for not only a person's preferences and demographics, but also his preferences at certain times of the day, which device a person is on and whether that person is browsing for personal or work-related reasons. There are myriad factors to consider.

At the same time, companies have to be mindful not to travel over the line from being knowledgeable about a customer to becoming invasive, intrusive or creepy. Showing customers you know them sounds easy, but a context-aware strategy needs to be well-tuned to their preferences, and to be pitch-perfect for that customer, that device and that moment.

Context-aware technology: Not just preferences

Today, companies of all types are tracking preferences. I've seen this at organizations devoted to enterprise information management, such as AIIM and the Association for Computing Machinery, and in many of the other associations I have belonged to during my career. Companies with large product lines take the same approach in trying to pinpoint your interests.

The problem is that these preferences reflect only the reality at a given time. Let's take an enterprise content management (ECM) vendor. If you visit a provider's website and check off a box that document management is an area of interest, the content you see will heavily lean in that direction. If you start attending webinars and reading articles on records management, the ECM vendor should update its internal profile to show that you care about records management and information governance.

By tracking your content consumption, event attendance and the topics with which you interact, a company can learn to focus attention on the items you care about. Maybe you care about document management. But that preference also means you're interested in records management. As a result, the content you see needs to focus in that area.

Location, location, location

The greatest spying device ever created is likely within 3 feet of you: It's your smartphone. Every app has to gain permissions to use the various sensors in your phone, but most people ignore those settings and just hit Accept. For those who are conscientious about the permissions they grant apps, their device's IP address can still provide a general geographic location.

Location is everything, as it allows companies to identify patterns and exceptions in customer behavior. Amazon may determine that I am not in my home city, and decide not to show me home goods when I visit its website. It may wish to verify delivery addresses if I place an order while on the road. It may decide to see whether I've shipped anything to the area before, and offer related items for me to purchase in case I need to find a gift for someone who is local.

Knowing where a person is and tying that into the customer's past behaviors can allow for focused communications.

With more fine-tuned location tracking, organizations can personalize experiences even further. Companies such as OnCell are helping clients develop apps that can provide those custom experiences. OnCell is the base technology that helped Cultural Tourism DC, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of history and culture in Washington, D.C., convert multiple audio walking tours into an app that provides context-aware information about what happened in that location in the past. This concept is easily extended to museums and augmented with beacons to provide tours that not only follow the path desired by the visitor, but also remove the burden of managing a technology inventory so that guests can take a tour.

Hotels can use this to their advantage, as well. If you use an app to check in, the hotel knows when you are on premises, and can send information relevant to your stay. Happy-hour and breakfast specials are sent not just because you are staying there, but also because the hotel has already noted your tendency to grab a light breakfast in the morning.

Knowing where a person is and tying that into the customer's past behaviors can allow for focused communications.

Don't be creepy with personalized content

As more information is collected and processed from multiple customers, predictive indicators can be researched and used to create and send evermore contextually relevant content. The danger is in letting people know that you know more about their personal lives than even close family.

An excellent example of going too far took place a few years ago. Target identified a collection of items that indicated a woman was beginning the second trimester of her pregnancy. It used the information to send targeted coupons to prospective mothers to get them to visit Target and make appropriate purchases.

A father of a teenage girl saw the coupons for diapers and wanted to know why his daughter was a recipient. When a Target manager called the father to apologize, the father explained that his daughter was indeed pregnant; he just hadn't known.

Target then shifted to shipping coupon books that mixed targeted coupons with randomly selected ones. Focused content became less blatant. Target was subsequently able to drive more sales, because instead of alienating customers, the chain was converting them.

Study and apply the benefits of personalization

There is a lot of data out there, and the advantages that can be gained are sometimes not so obvious. Target began by realizing that many customers are more likely to change their buying behavior when they have kids. The chain then worked to identify new parents, and looked in their history to see what they had in common. From there, Target was able to identify others who matched the profile.

By starting with defining the type of person you want to reach, you are beginning with your goals and outcomes. Then, you can look back in the data to identify them in order to target them with content that helps convert into customers. After connecting with a customer once by providing a relevant stream of content, they may begin to accept your efforts as part of their routine.

Experiment with context-aware technology, measure and learn. Then, you can truly exploit great content and ensure that it makes it to those who care about it most.

Next Steps

Benefits of location-based technology still being weighed

Location-based apps pose a double-edged sword

Context brings real value to mobile strategy

Web upgrades open doors for customer experience strategy

This was last published in March 2016

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How is your company using context-aware technology to personalize your marketing strategy or other communications?
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It’s pretty much like a good waitress - she’s attentive to your needs and enhances your dinning experience without being in the way and interrupting.
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Context awareness is teetering at the very edge of creepy. The entertainment industry has long used it, but in aggregate, almost never down to the fine details. Half of our company feels this granular knowledge helps us do our work more efficiently. After all, it lets us aim our product where the customer is standing. Half of our company finds it overbearing, intrusive and unnecessary. Interestingly, our products succeed about as well (or poorly) no matter which approach we take.
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