sitting outside on the phone
PHOTO: Gaelle Marcel

Imagine 10 retail customers — men and women of varying ages, incomes and backgrounds — each in the market for different products at a single retailer, and each at a distinct stage in their purchasing process. 

Each visits the retailer’s website on a different device, with screen sizes ranging from desktops to smartphones. And each sees exactly what they are looking for on the screen. 

The content is targeted to their specific lives and needs, and the contextual offers they see make sense to them personally. 

This is what modern retail looks like, or it will soon.

Knowing Your Customer in the Age of Context

In the current “age of context,” the old advice that says retailers must know their customers has taken on even more significance. 

Brands are now equipped with a tremendous capacity to capture and utilize customer data. To remain competitive in this new content- and context-based landscape, it’s critical for today’s retail brands to know the customers they regularly interact with on digital. 

And that knowledge needs to go well beyond just their usernames and passwords. 

Brands ought to invest in technology strategies that grant themselves a valuable awareness of every customer’s purchase history, all of their past (and cross-channel) interactions with the brand, and a developed sense of the products that should interest the customer in their future shopping. 

A Clearer Picture of Your Customers

With this information in hand, a brand can provide each customer with personalized content relevant to them as an individual, and less as a composite of all buyers. Brands can intelligently segment their audience, defining user segments and the attributes a customer must demonstrate in order to be considered a part of them. 

A customer can be assigned a point for every time they shop within a certain department. For example, if a customer were to browse shoes in three separate sessions, they would then be assigned to a user segment that receives offers in that category. 

Demographic information such as gender, income and beyond should inform user segments as well.

Matching the context within which a customer is shopping means leveraging information beyond the questions of who the user is and what that user is shopping for – it’s just as important to answer the questions of how, where and why. 

How They Shop

To the question of how: a customer will shop differently and could require a different experience depending on whether his or her interface is a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Responsive design allows a brand’s site to morph to fit the screen size and device features (touch screen, etc.) available. Moreover, brands should track the differences in buying behaviors across device types and treat each as a separate domain where performance can be optimized.

Retail brands must also straddle the online-offline divide. But in our digitalized world, interactions in mobile devices can augment in-store experiences. 

Where They Shop

Geo-location can answer the question of where the customer is shopping. If they are inside or in-range of a store, a brand’s mobile app can recognize that context and provide appropriate enticements. The tools exist for today’s brands to create these powerful mobile apps without having to jump through a lot of hoops. 

Using proximity-based segmentation and push notification campaigns, an app on the device in shoppers’ pockets can act as barker for the store or even for certain products on the shelves, calling out for attention and offering specially tailored coupons designed to appeal to the unique customer receiving them. 

Geo-fences and in-store offers using these notifications to draw in business can be thought of as evolved cousins to the sign spinners on the street or those offering in-store product samples (now in their digital, algorithmic incarnations).

Why They Shop

The ultimate achievement in contextual marketing — answering the question of why a customer is shopping for an item — is probably the most interesting and valuable. Brands can define user segments, define the messaging each will receive, and refine that targeting by device type, city, time of day and so on. 

But when a brand has the insights to recognize that a person is making a purchase because they’re getting married, they’re having a baby, they always have a family ice cream party on Friday night, etc., that’s when brand messaging can get even more personal and helpful to the customer. 

A Win-Win Situation

By engaging in context management, keeping track of what is happening in a customer’s world, and running marketing campaigns based on actionable reports and engagement analytics that measure the results of contextual campaigning efforts and how they can be improved upon, brands can use their knowledge of customers to provide exactly what they need, and win (and keep) their business in a manner beneficial to all involved.