In-Scope: You are the company you keep: How context trumps message

David Dalgarno is the Group Strategy Director for OMD Sydney, bringing actionable insight and strategic solutions to a wide range of client challenges.

Run amuck. Run a bath. Bonus ‘Run on’ of an outdoor campaign. The word “run” has 179 different meanings. It can be used in more ways than any other English word. Imagine you’re an interpreter trying to translate the intended meaning of a sentence with ‘run’ in it, without the surrounding context?

Speaking of running, did you know people are more generous if they aren’t in a hurry, as proven by monks in a rush? Or that colour influences our mood? Which is why, to calm aggression, prison drunk tanks are painted pink.

I’ve been doing some recent exploration of Behavioural Economics. It’s the study of how people make (economic) decisions. It’s relevant to what we do, because ultimately marketing is about changing consumers’ minds (for profit). That change could be changing the way they feel about a brand or convincing them to buy a product.

These behaviours are such truths of being human that they often become well-known sayings. One of specific interest to media placement is that you are the company you keep. The idea that context is more important than content.

 What do I mean by context? The surrounds, environment, or the mood.

Why is context important?  It helps clarify meaning and can be used in leveraging a mindset.

The impact of context is even more important to understand given shifting media buying approaches. Now our priorities can be skewed to the volume game, reaching mass audiences at a cheap rate. Or it could be stalking one person across the internet, which means we could be serving her a message within a political analysis article or a mummy blog. Choosing to focus on ‘many’ or ‘one’ can come at the expense of placement in a relevant context.

In what I like to call the 2005 ‘fake news’ test, Michael Deppe from the University of Münster, conducted an experiment to quantify the importance of media context. It showed that information is not processed neutrally. We are swayed by context.

Subjects were shown 30 news headlines, rotated into different news magazines to test the effect of the context on the credibility of the headlines. The credibility scores were significantly influenced by the magazine in which they appeared. Headlines that appeared in the most respected magazine were rated up to three times better on believability, proving context trumps message.

This nothing new in media planning, which is why we place clothing ads in fashion magazines. The surrounding environment, ‘the company you keep’, that bolsters the message rather than just the cheapest means of building reach should be more effective. However, with increased targeting opportunities we are prioritising delivering a relevant message to a specific consumer, ahead of the context.

So, how could we use data to not just reach the right person, with the right message content, but ALSO in the right context?

  1. Laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Laughter is contagious. Humour is funnier when consumed with others. It’s why sitcoms add laugh tracks. Data that can tell us when communal media consumption occurs as opposed to solo viewing can be very helpful here. If our clients ads are funny, they would be more effective when placed at a time when communal viewing happens.
  2. Idle hands are the devils workshop. They are also a sign you are bored and therefore would be more likely to click-through. Mobile Phone Researchers in Spain have developed an algorithm that can suss out that you’re bored based on how you’re using your phone. Bored phone users were more likely to click to read a BuzzFeed article when prompted by the app.
  3. The company you keep. Building on our first example of the ‘fake news’ test, a study by ComScore showed digital placement on “premium publishers” to be more effective in lifting brand metrics, such as favourability, consideration and intent to recommend.

Data can help us better identify the contexts, not just consumers, for more relevant media placement. Like our interpreter trying to translate the word ‘run’, data can help us leverage the behavioural bias of context. Data can help us with the company we keep.

If you are interested in learning more about this subject, an OMDer in the UK, Richard Shotton – Deputy Head of Evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD has just published The Choice Factory on applying behavioural science to advertising, particularly media.

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