J Walker Smith and David Bersoff write:

We’ve just had a piece published in Admap where we argue that the challenge of context is the biggest challenge facing marketing – and until it’s addressed, everything else is a waste of time.  Research at Columbia University  illustrates why. In a web-based experiment respondents were asked to listen to and rate unknown songs by unknown bands, then given the opportunity to download as many as they liked. One group of respondents made download choices independently. The other group of respondents made download choices after first being told, in different ways, choices made by previous respondents. The influence of others turned out to be far more important than the individual’s own opinions.

The implications? As the Columbia team noted in their summary, most studies “view the individual as the relevant unit of analysis”. But “when individual decisions are subject to social influence, markets do not simply aggregate pre-existing individual preferences”. In other words, when context is missing, the research results are wrong. Both marketing, and marketing research, will have to change to keep up.

Fragmenting technologies, and fragmented markets, have disaggregated the audience for marketing, and the mass market has splintered. But we’re still using models that were developed when mass media was dominant. Now that people are ever more deeply embedded in narrowly drawn networks of information and influences, contextual reference points play a bigger role in moulding choices. People are surrounding themselves with input they have chosen. The result: people get more of exactly what they want, but are closed off to other ideas.

What this changes for marketers is that they must actively manage both ads and the context for ads, and managing context becomes a primary consideration, not a secondary one. In turn, this calls for an attribution-based marketing model, not to displace persuasion, but to nest it in the bigger picture, like Russian dolls inside one another. Attribution works by shifting how people think of themselves, rather than how people think of brands.

Attribution-based marketing aims to make people attend to alternative aspects of themselves. When people see themselves in new ways, they adopt new reference points for calibrating their opinions, and then behave in ways consistent with their new sense of self. Persuasion must still get the brand message right; attribution sets the context within which a brand message can succeed. The implication for research is that it needs to understand its users’ reference points as well as their opinions. It doesn’t do this well at the moment. It’s a big challenge, and also a huge opportunity.

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