Context is a gateway to empathy. To imagine yourself “in someone else’s shoes,” you first must know who is wearing the shoes, where the person wearing the shoes is, and what they are doing. This requires an investment of time to be able to simulate a different point of view, and the willingness to come to new conclusions.
Context has been a hot topic in marketing for a few years and its importance will only continue to grow. Advances in machine learning and creative algorithms make it possible to fuse location data, preferences, search history and other inputs to predict intent. For example, if I search for “good restaurants for dinner” in the morning on my laptop, a layer of context would be able to know that I likely do not wish to eat dinner now and am more interested in researching my options. However, if I were to make the same search query from my mobile in the evening, the contextual layer would predict I am looking for a place to dine now, and give me ideas that seem best matched to my preferences.
Yet, while brands are making great efforts to understand and leverage context in digital, it is amazing just how little context is considered in real life. In 2014, NPR ran an April Fools’ Day experiment. They posted an article to Facebook with the headline “Why Doesn’t Anybody Read Anymore?” People liked and shared the article, commented on what a shame it was, and quickly pointed their fingers toward eBooks, cell phones, the short attention span of kids today. Some also remarked just how many books they read on a monthly basis. In fact, it seems most answered the question of “why doesn’t anybody read” with answers that summarize the worst suspicions and stereotypes about the downfall of society. They did everything but read the article. There are countless studies to attest to how many people share content on social media without reading it. In fact, the whole phenomena of fake-news and social media echo chambers is significantly propelled by people who share and comment without reading.
Fast-forward to 2017 when two travelers were not admitted to a United Air Lines flight for wearing leggings. Allegedly, it was a bystander who overheard a portion of the gate agent’s conversation that quickly spun up into a PR nightmare for the brand, despite the brand enforcing well-understood policies. The effected parties were not even the ones complaining.
When it comes to context in the post-truth era, brands would do well to remember the following things:
1. Critical thinking is in short-supply, and it’s far easier to tell people what to think than take the time to teach them how. In cases where public opinion is at odds with your brand, do not expect people to dig deeper to understand the brands point of view.
2. Some people are looking to get offended, most often on behalf of others. This provides opportunity to virtue signal to others by calling attention to an alleged injustice, and receiving praise by other members of a group for having the moral high ground. Because the praise triggers a dopamine response, this is highly addictive.
3. Trendy topics are most ripe for offense. Brexit and Trump have helped highlight perceived injustices, especially around immigration, religion and women. At this year’s Superbowl, many of the world’s biggest brands got in on the trending topic action. Audi used their time to extoll the unlimited potential of women, despite no women having a board-level position at Audi. They did not consider the context of how their message would be received.
Context and empathy take time. Just as it is important to layer context into how a brand engages with customers, it is equally as important to factor in context (or anti-context) in how consumers understand the brand. It seems a consideration of both is necessary in the age of disruption.
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