What's the difference between Contextual Marketing & Personalization?

Ed Marsh | Feb 4, 2016


Subtle and invisible

We all know that our online activities are tracked. No news flash there.

If you've ever read and enjoyed a book that you wouldn't have known of without Amazon's suggestion, or watched and been moved by a movie that Netflix alerted you to, you understand that the tracking can enrich your experience.

The same is true when you're searching for solutions to a problem you have. But you've probably had the surreal experience of searching for solutions to a problem, well before you've defined it much less selected a solution - only to have your Facebook feed chock full of banner ads for some tangentially related product. Or experienced the frustration of punching info into an auto attendant only to be asked for all the same info again as soon as the "customer service" representative of the company that so much appreciated your call actually came on the line. (BTW - did you see that you'll spend 43 days of your life on hold?)

The point is that the way sites interpret your digital body language (or whether they even observe it) is critical to whether their response enhances your experience or is jarring and disconcerting.

"Dear <<firstname> ,"

Ever gotten one of those emails? We all have. Many of us have, to our chagrin, even sent them. They're a byproduct of personalization tools and cursory proof reading (the only kind, sadly, that I'm capable of!)

Personalization is an automatic find and replace of certain fields. Used expertly (e.g. in email subject lines) it can yield substantial incremental benefit. But it's not extraordinary.

There's some confusion in the marketing industry though, regarding just how far "personalization" extends. Karen Taylor's (@KarenWritesATX) recent article on the Kuno (@kuno) blog illustrates this confusion. She cites lots of great data and makes a number of very appropriate recommendations - but she conflates "personalization" with "contextual marketing."

While personalization is a pretty simple functionality, contextual marketing is an enormously rich capability with the potential to deliver step change results for industrial marketers. To put it differently, personalization is the topic of "how to" knowledge base articles - contextual marketing is a (#Buzzword warning) paradigm shift.

And importantly, you can incorporate contextual capabilities without having any personal information from your visitor. IP address is a powerful tool, for instance, to allow you to contextualize their experience geographically without any personal information. Their browsing device (smartphone, tablet, desktop) is another.

Contextual Marketing Certification

Who's talking contextual marketing these days? Lots of people - although they may use different terms of art. But one of the consistent innovators in this space is HubSpot. They've clearly been building features into their tools for several years with an eye toward a substantial contextual capability. 

From forms that didn't require duplicate information to a CMS that displays content depending on various combinations of factors, they've envisioned how it "could be" and committed development resources to get there.

Now the capabilities are so robust that they've actually created an entire curriculum and certification program around the contextual tools. (More detail here.)

But why are they so focused on this tool set? And how does it apply to B2B manufacturing and industrial marketing in boring old industries?

11 Practical applications

OK. I hear you. "Kind of a cool concept" you say, "but how does it apply to my business?" Fair question, and the answer is that the deeper companies dive into it the more they'll be able to find ways to use it. But here's a list of some possible applications for which I've used it that may illustrate some of the capability and stimulate some ideas.

  1. If you sell to different industries, provide industry appropriate content (images, text, USPs, etc.) - For instance, I once sold identical models of capital equipment into small greeting card design companies AND global pharmaceutical producers. 
  2. When a visitor is on their smartphone, show them a form that's only got a couple fields - on their desktop? Then include a couple more.
  3. Sell into different geographic markets? Then display appropriate content. If you're selling truck maintenance supplies, the needs in January will differ between Green Bay and Houston. And if you have international buyers, display not only language, but images and even units of measure and other details appropriate to their market)
  4. Translate what you learn of their stage in the buying journey (from the content they're consuming) into the ability to provide appropriate insights and content suggestions accordingly
  5. Progressively profile your leads - only ask them 3 questions at a time in any form, but ask new questions each time to stitch together a more complete picture of they're objectives
  6. When the visitor is one of your sales reps or channel partners, display inline coaching tips and important call outs along with primary content on pages
  7. Deliver completely different nurturing emails, automatically, depending on what you learned from prospects when they downloaded an offer. For instance, is their primary concern driving down costs? Send one series. Mostly worried about reducing downtime? Send a different one - automatically
  8. Many complex sales involve several steps of price analysis - from "ballpark" to precise as the process advances. Build on contextual capability to provide early stage budgetary pricing for users automatically by using forms to collect some modest number of critical high level factors - and SMART content to email a "ballpark" estimate accordingly.
  9. Have options that enhance the value of your product or service that are often overlooked? When a visitor hasn't hit those pages, incorporate special note of the options and their value automatically in the nurturing follow up. Did they visit, but not request the capability? Prompt your sales rep with a text message to ask why
  10. Here's a huge one - embrace your customers! Don't show them the same stuff that the first time visitor sees! Use not only the function of your online services, but the appearance and information of your site to reinforce the relationship
  11. Know that someone's considering a specific competitor? Build an FAQ page around common competitive questions - with SMART versions to display depending on the leading competitor

Of course there are nearly unlimited options. Intrigued? Want to brainstorm how it might fit for your company & industry? Call me.


Even though we all know we're being tracked, we don't like being reminded. Karen Taylor makes a great point about the "creepy factor." And it's easy to slip up here - I've have the sense I unnerved someone this week when I saw they were combing through old emails, presumably looking for something, and I offered to help them find it quickly. I meant well, but the terse reply indicated that they perhaps weren't conscious of my ability to observe every time they read or forward an email.

It's also, potentially, really complex. There's a trade off between efficacy and value, vs. playing with the latest shiny object. An 80% solution today is far better than a 95% solution in six months. So we can't let "chitter chatter" about what's feasible interrupt the "pitter patter" of progress that's attainable.

Immediate & practical application

There's a way that manufacturers can implement some contextual tools in short order to help overcome the challenge of sales & marketing alignment in a world where buyers lurk in the internet shadows.

Marketing automation can provide enormous value as sales leads are handed from marketing to sales by incorporating and presenting contextual insights. Interested? Check out the free eBook here.

Tired of the catalog website and brutal 7 year cycle of site redesign that you endure....without any clear return for the expense? Let's talk.

New Call-to-action