"The better we know our customer, the more effectively we can market to them." This has been true since cavemen traded animal skins for berries. But it was with the advent of the Internet that marketers suddenly had the tools to truly understand their consumers in real time. First it was websites and email marketing, followed by social media marketing. More recently, marketers have turned to inbound marketing, in which they gently "prod" customers with valued content, until the customer signals they are ready to engage.

Now there’s "context marketing." Context marketing, in the words of one marketing firm, “uses technology to glean insight on the person behind your persona, and deliver customized messages in a way that most appeals to that individual.” But what do we mean by context?

What is Context?

Anind K. Dey, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute explains that when humans talk with humans, they are able to use implicit situational information, or context, to increase the richness of their interactions. But transferring the understanding of situational information to a world where people interact with computers has been very difficult.

This is now changing. The technologies built into smartphones and tablets, social networking sites and commercial cloud services are generating a goldmine of marketing data. These data can be then mined to achieve new levels of situational awareness. But what exactly are the technologies behind context marketing?

The Technologies Behind Context Marketing

Four new technologies are providing the ingredients necessary to understand situational awareness; they are:

  • Cloud services – consumer services like search (e.g. Google, Bing), news and music (e.g. Flipboard, iTunes), shopping assistants (e.g. Amazon, Red Laser), and even productivity tools (e.g. Evernote, Microsoft Office Online) accumulate a wealth of user-related data that can be mined to understand users’ behavior, preferences, and habits.
  • Mobile devices – sensors in cellphones and tablets log data about the users’ movements, including how long they spend in each location. A 2008 study showed that even a small sample of mobile phone GPS records allow researchers to make highly accurate predictions about subscribers’ future whereabouts. When coupled with geo-data like store locations, marketers can infer much about what people are doing during the day.
  • Social networks – patterns of friend connections on Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Twitter, SnapChat and other social networks provide insights about influence dynamics between friends and colleagues. When coupled with understanding the content being shared and discussed, marketers can obtain a rich view of a user’s persona.
  • Big data analytics – each of the previous three technologies provide the building blocks for marketers to craft a consumer profile from data. But putting the pieces together is a daunting task and one that new "big data" analytics tools are only now addressing. While many forms of context can be understood from simple interpretation of user data (see the next section), it is only when marketers will be able to cross-reference data supplied by many sources that the full promise context marketing will be realized.

By themselves, each one of these technologies can provide a particular snapshot of consumer behavior and preference. Used together, the technologies allow marketers to piece together a highly-accurate 360 view of each and every one of us. To date, combining information from multiple sources has been challenging, since each vendor collected data independently across each channel. But this is changing.