ContextRescue3When REI announced #OptOutside—the company was closing all of their 140+ retail locations on Black Friday and encouraging their employees to go outside and enjoy the great outdoors. Closing shop on what is the busiest shopping day of the year flies in the face of all that is good and sacred: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, football, and getting up at one in the morning to buy a new TV for a massive discount at the nearest big box store. Many would view this as retail suicide—passing up a chance to move merchandise on a day that N. American wallets have been trained to open with little resistance and empty their contents in hopes of reaping deep discounts. If you think about it the move isn’t necessarily suicide—the brand is keeping true to their mission by empowering their employees, and you and I, to be active outdoor people.

There’s been much written in the ensuing day(s) of REI launching #OptOutside. I’ll spare you the recap—if you want to read an excellent article check out the one on Forbes. The one thing I want to bring up about REI’s bold move is the fact that it’s not happening in a vacuum—it’s contextually relevant to the brand, the time of year and creating the opportunity to capitalize on the brand’s scarcity a few days later during Cyber Monday.

#OptOutside is a stroke of contextual genius—since the stores were closed the casual tryptophan sufferer could still make purchases from their iPads and mobile phones. However, as an appeal to all of the nature enthusiasts, runners, bikers, hikers, climbers and yoga fanatics that rely on REI to outfit them, this move reminded them that the store stands behind them philosophically.

In the age of the sound bite, context is crucial—in its absence meaning can be skewed and messages destroyed. In his dream analysis, Carl Jung wrote that myths are not necessarily attempting to explain natural phenomena; rather they help contextualize the individual in that phenomena—it’s a way to make the story personally meaningful and fulfilling. Locating and contextualizing the individual in the story is at the heart of achieving relevance in today’s marketing landscape.

Context is also the bridge that unifies and connects data across channels and real world behavior. Context can take many forms in the marketing world. Let’s pretend you analyze open times and see a spike of opens from emails sent the night before occurring between 8 and 9am. The spike comes from an urban setting with good public transport. One can draw the conclusion that these opens are happening during commute hours and that delivering email during this window is a safe bet because the recipients in this geography may be riding a train or a bus to their jobs and glued to their smart phones—a common behavior in our hand-held world.

In the email below, National Geographic is using the fact that Daylight Savings will be ending soon as an introduction to an email offering a deep discount. The change to winter time, the changing of seasons, all of this is relevant as we’ve started the countdown to the holidays. The relevance of this message is present even in the setting sun implying that this deal is almost up, but more so, the change, where it applies, of time, makes this contextually accurate and more compelling.

National Geographic


5 ways to make your emails more contextually relevant 

  1. Get as much information about your customers: where they live, age, gender… perhaps number of children in the family, or if they have pets. Basically the information you gather has to be a) relevant to your brand and the products you sell and b) not be overzealous because you’re responsible for storing that personally identifiable information (PII) and protecting it.
  2. Be aware of the seasons, holidays and national and regional events—make connections between the data you’ve gathered and what is happening all around us to derive context and relevance. Selling parkas and cold weather gear to residents of the Florida keys might not be relevant.
  3. Time of day, day of week, frequency of opens, and opens across devices are all ways of helping you derive context. If you see an open on a mobile device in the morning, and then another open on a tablet in the late evening leading to a purchase, you might draw the conclusion that the morning email caught their attention but they’re more likely to transact on a tablet after dinner in the comfort of their home. Learn your recipient’s habits and use that to optimize your delivery windows and how many emails you send them. The worst thing you can do is burn them out—this leads to apathy, complaints and unsubscribes.
  4. If your brand has a mission, respect it, embrace it and make sure your customers don’t catch you going against that mission. Like REI don’t be afraid to make a stand—principles and ideals are important—putting your money where your mouth is can be rewarding even if it seems like a gamble.
  5. Don’t be afraid to experiment and be different. There are a lot of brands that simply ‘keep up with the Joneses’ this is the safe bet, but it does little differentiate them from the crowd. Don’t be afraid to take a stand and blaze your own trail, but be sure you have solid data, an authentic approach and by all means, test it along the way.


Contextual Marketing