To tell a story, explain something or win an argument you have to explain the context to your audience.

Let’s start with a non-commercial example – I want you to come to a music gig with me:

“hey, do you want to come to a gig with me in a few weeks?”

“sure, who’s playing?”

“it’s the band we listened to last weekend at the party with the heavy guitar sound and the female vocalist”

“oh yeah, really liked them, been listening to the album this week. Sounds great, let’s go!”

“cool, they’re playing at a venue within 45 minutes of my current location between 12 and 23 days from now. See you there!”

It’s obvious immediately that something’s missing from the closing section, even though our chat contains most of important information to get you interested.

You still see this sort of lopsided approach in a lot of buying journeys.

So what’s the difference between content and context?

In a lot of ways, the purpose of marketing is to give potential buyers the context they need to make a purchase decision. Unfortunately, it’s still possible to do most of the right things by way of the standard marketing playbook and fall short in terms of offering the information that consumers really look for.

There’s the exciting early stages where you’re trying to get someone’s attention with the most eye-catching aspects of your product, and you may well be hitting them with targeted offers based on their known interests.

This can mean heavy investment in CRM, re-marketing, TV advertising and focus groups. I’m not arguing any of this isn’t worthwhile – done right, all of these can be valuable tools in your arsenal. But the key is not to slack off when you get to the later portions of the buying journey.

Context: the good

The example I gave earlier reflects numerous experiences I’ve had moving from ‘interested’ to ‘I might buy this now’, where the sudden shift in the amount of compelling, accurate context being provided to me as a potential buyer is enough to give the user whiplash.

Imagine your user was casually browsing for trainers, doing the sort of online window-shopping a lot of us engage in when the sensible part of our brain says ‘wait til payday Jack, you have enough shoes already’.

A few days later, they’re reading something on their favourite news site, and a display ad pops up featuring a few of the shoes they were looking at, but now marked at a 40% discount.

Pretty compelling, right?

The shoe company has remembered your interest in a particular product and used its precious marketing resources to re-target you with an offer.

Straight away, that’s context on what interests you personally – that particular product – and on what all consumers love – a bargain. So far so good.

Context: the bad

But what about this scenario – the user clicks on the ad, and finds themselves directed to the shoe company’s homepage, where a general sale (let’s say 20% off on everything) is announced.

Worse options include the product page in question, with the item showing as sold out, or, maybe even worse still, for sale at full price, without the discount advertised. Well, imagine no more folks – this happens to me all the time (thank goodness my chronic shopping habit can be passed off as research now!).

Of course, this is hardly the first time someone has commented on the importance of creating consistent user experiences for potential buyers. But it’s worth thinking about context as the key ingredient because it often seems to drive a fear of being honest with consumers.

In both the dealing with you and with the shoe company, context has the potential to kill the deal.

If I tell you that the concert is 2 hours from your house, or on a day you can’t make it, I risk you not being able to come.

The same goes for the shoe company – if nothing has actually changed since I decided not to buy a few days ago, there’s no point in pretending it has.

This is where user-generated content comes in.

Think of it as a device for bridging this context gap – and for helping the consumer validate their choice to go with your brand.

If you anchor your attempts to interest potential buyers in the stories of real users – people like them – you’re a lot less likely to disappoint them once they make it to your site. The context you’ve created for the acquisition is about them, not just about you and your products.

How to put context into practice

For marketers, this probably means going beyond just putting your overall brand rating in the corner of your ads.

Look through the text people have entered with their review – they’re probably telling you loads about the way your product ended up fitting into their lives.

Imagine you dig out a review response like “This drill is perfect for general DIY use like hanging pictures or putting up shelves” and use it in your display ads, targeted to appear in home improvement magazines. In fact, you needn’t limit it to display ads – you can use this approach across your whole digital strategy.

Here are a few great examples of brands using review content to bring context to their display ads.

When people are looking for ideas, be there with a product suitable for them and a bunch of social proof to hammer the point home.

There it is – content AND context.

So next time you’re designing a user’s path from ‘interested’ to ‘your delivery is on its way’, remember to give consumers the context they crave. It lets people know they’re in the right place, getting the products that will actually satisfy their need.

How to bring context to display ads