There are more metrics to quantify audience exposure today than ever before. We have ratings, click-through rate, issue-specific, quarter-hours. One way or another we’re pretty good at counting exposures and interactions, even if we do not yet do so equally well across all media – in time we get there. But what is almost always missing in our understanding of the use of a medium is the systematic evaluation of the context in which all that content is consumed – and that is a critical shortcoming.

To enhance targeting capabilities by including key contextual factors, media researchers need to augment the prevailing metrics by factoring in the situational variables that influence our ability or willingness to engage with a message at different times. Demographic standards set in place two generations ago may help define a consumer, but used in isolation they dilute and simplify both targeting and measurement to a degree of absurdity. Effective targeting and measurement in the modern media ecosystem is highly dependent on a deeper understanding of the roles consumers are apt to be playing at the moment that messages reach them – the situational or contextual variables.

In the morning I may be a father letting his kids off to school, during the day a C-suite executive dealing with bulls and bears and a loving husband at night. And on weekends – an affable jokester surrounded by friends and family actively enjoying the outdoor life whenever possible. Contextual relevance removes the idea that consumption takes place in a bubble and opens the messaging to real life exposure to real life consumers. With such considerations in mind, the same products and services can be marketed to the same target consumers using slightly different core messages – all of which will resonate in the context of those situational variables.

USA TouchPoints, a syndicated study of American life, uses a smartphone app to survey respondents about their locations, social setting, media consumption as well as their moods and emotions. The data provides a landscape of consumers’ lives – half-hour by half-hour through their entire waking day over the course of a week. We turn to USA TouchPoints to help us understand the role context plays in how marketers need to expose consumers at the right time, in the right place, with the right message. We learned that while content may drive the consumption of media, the context of consumption has risen in its power to influence message receptivity and response.

Content remains King, but context has become the power behind the throne.

Receptive audiences make for more efficient reach resulting in better investment of media spend. So while measurement of audience levels is obviously important, the context in which those messages are received is paramount. Plans and campaigns based on this realization create enhanced advertising ROI resulting in increased value to marketers.

A media plan targeted to young women can use standard metrics to evaluate which media channels have the highest success in delivering reach throughout a day. This may be driven by content which attracts such an audience and that media plan will no doubt will reach these young women in some degree if standard currency measures are evaluated properly. However, in a case study in which the creative of the campaign was uplifting in its tone, the emotional synergy of emotions and moods of these young women helped improve the effectiveness of that communications plan.

In one such case, a beauty account used USA TouchPoints data to better understand emotional patterns of young women. During the week these women experienced a sudden and consistent emotional dip in the early afternoon. The account team then evaluated the media channels in which these women were exposed during those dips to push their encouraging and uplifting digital creative. The result was a more approachable target receptive to these uplifting messages yielding an increased affinity towards the brand.

Situational relevance is another form of contextual environment. Research reported in the Journal of Advertising Research has shown that one in four consumer conversations about brands involve consumers talking about the content they have seen in paid advertising. These conversations extend the reach of paid messages through the earned media, while increasing engagement with brands and ad content. Marketers have a much greater chance of their content entering consumer discussions if they reach consumers when they are most apt to be in a social context. The work of the word-of-mouth firm Keller Fay has led the way in furthering our understanding of this specific type of social context.

If a movie studio wanted to reach a large audience with their newest blockbuster trailers, TV seems to be an optimal solution. If that movie studio wants to drive attendance through buzz and word of mouth, measuring TV exposure alone wouldn’t cut it. The context in which that TV is viewed may be more effective and relevant should the media planner identify programming content in which audiences are more social while viewing. Whether being social is defined as talking or chatting with a spouse, social networking with friends, or interacting via text with family members – those behaviors exhibit a higher degree of contextual relevance to the goal of the studio than simply the gross number of eyeballs.

As media channels evolve and the means and contexts in which we consume content continue to diversify, the media and marketing industries have a choice. We can continue to evaluate and plan against these channels using increasingly “blunt” and aging metrics or advance to a more pertinent measure. The reality is that the optimal choice will be a combination of the two.

Rappaport, S. D. (2013). The Digital Metrics Field Guide.

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