big jump between two rocks
PHOTO: Sammie Vasquez

My favorite marketing book, one I re-read every few years, was written in 1999. No, that date isn't a typo. It was 1999. The internet was entering its “tweens,” the first downloadable content for mobile phone (ringtones) had just made its debut, and the dominant marketing activity was “spray and pray” — direct mailing from generic customer lists. This was the year Seth Godin published "Permission Marketing," a book that, in my opinion, changed marketing forever.

Godin had a vision. He foresaw the power that emerging digital capabilities, channels and the attendant big data generation would provide to companies and consumers. For companies, he predicted that digital would provide the information and reach necessary to personalize communications with customers, at scale. For consumers, he envisioned the ability to take control of relationships with companies; to demand communications that are anticipated (people want to receive them), personal (tailored directly to the individual) and relevant (right for the exact time, channel and circumstances).

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Putting the Context Into Journeys

In 1999, Godin called this permission marketing. Today we call it contextual engagement. The Oxford Dictionary defines context as, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” Creating contextual customer journeys means understanding enough about each customer to ensure all communications over time are progressively more anticipated, personal and relevant. It means assessing immediate interactions in the context of the entire journey. It means shaping the journey, not to our marketing goals, but instead to customer needs.  

A recent Pointillist survey of over 700 customer experience (CX) professionals puts a modern spin on Godin’s original concept. The survey found that 73% of high-performing CX organizations say their journey-based CX approach is mostly or completely driven by data; data that extends well beyond the marketing department. This data falls into three different categories; each of which helps to illuminate a different type of context — all of which is necessary to truly shape customer journeys. 

The most basic data context category includes purchases, transaction history, customer demographics and on-site interactions (call center, in-store or branch). This category, the most heavily utilized, helps to understand relationship context — how does this customer typically interact with us, and based on that behavior what can we anticipate from them going forward? 

A second category includes social media activity and networks, complaints and emails, voice of the customer interactions, market research and psychographic information. Data of this nature points to personal context and highlights influence value, actual preferences and helps us to match content, channel options and products to what the customer values. 

The last context category includes web and mobile activity, location and GPS services, and beacon and sensor information. If captured and used in real time, this data can illuminate situational context — based on what the customer is doing at this moment and can help answer the question — is there something they need that we can provide?

Related Article: The Data-Driven Organization Is an Endangered Species

LEAP Into the Future — the Next Step

For high-performing CX companies that want to shape customer journeys in 2020 and beyond, we recommend implementing a mix of data, analytics and marketing actions that we call LEAP — listen, empathize, analyze and propel.


Our customers tell us about themselves in a myriad of ways. It is our job to identify, understand and remember what they are saying. This means tracking and understanding customer behaviors across traditional and digital channels including web interactions, mobile interactions, call center conversations and brick and mortar visits. It means understanding how customers navigate through their interactions with us — what content they view, what mobile apps they spend time with, what they tell us directly in conversations, voice of the customer feedback mechanisms, social media interactions and how they bounce channel to channel in their non-linear journeys. 


Achieving Seth Godin’s vision of contextual engagement for all communications to the point that customers look forward to our interactions requires more than simply understanding behaviors. We also must develop intimacy — we have to understand the emotions driving the behaviors, preferences, attitudes, expressed and intimated needs. We need to determine intent, develop a rapport and understand. In Godin’s day, contextual engagement was difficult. Today, emerging data categories such as social media, video, IoT and voice assistants provide a tremendous opportunity to understand the personal context that our customers bring to every interaction.

Related Article: Your Customer Experiences Won't Shine Without Empathy


Analytics has been, and will continue to be, the engine that drives contextual engagement and enables us to shape journeys. Analytics provides us the ability to combine traditional relationship context (product ownership and usage, personal and demographic details, historical transaction information) with the situational context we learn from listening and the personal and emotional context we gain from empathizing. Journey analytics helps us to predict behavior and improve channel integration by highlighting at the channel and customer levels how customers use combinations of channels. Sentiment analysis allows us to detect nuances of emotion in voice, video and text communications improving our ability to empathize. And next-best-offer analytics allow us to sift through immense amounts of customer, behavior, channel, social media and product data to identify the most relevant communication for any given customer situation — getting us ever closer to contextual engagement.


Putting it all together means developing the ability to detect and react to customer events as they are happening so we can propel our customer relationships along Godin’s continuum of strangers to friends to advocates. Delivering what we learn from listen, empathize and analyze to our customers in the form of real-time communications that address customer needs in their moments of now — when they want information, help, issue resolution or to purchase — in the channel of choice, is contextual engagement the way Godin envisioned it. This is the future of CX.