Why Context is so Critical

October 14th, 2009   •   no comments   

Context helps one understand where and how consumers purchase (Russian Market in Phnom Penh, courtesy of Larpoon)

We have all been caught in the wave one way or other. The rush towards speed and efficiency in business – partially abetted by the global craze over social media – has led many to forget about the foundational strategies of marketing. There is such an emphasis on tactics (10 ways to be richer, 7 tips to make your wife happy, 15 of the most important ideas in social media marketing…) that people forget about that all important factor.

Namely, context.
Context is the sum of the ecological, social, political, legal and cultural factors which affect the milieu in which one operates in. Context is the difference between the threat of terrorism say 10 years ago versus what it has become today. Context is about being current and sensitive to the relevant circumstances that surrounds one’s market at a particular point of time, in a particular place, with a particular group of people.

Context however, isn’t about motherhood statements, generalities or stereotypes. While it hovers at a high altitude and provides one with a holistic view of one’s operating condition, it also requires an understanding of the plain truths in one’s market. In contextual analysis, anecdotes matter a lot less than empirical evidence gleaned from studies that are statistically significant.

Put this another way. The perspective or view which you have just heard from a group of like-minded friends is probably wrong. Unless they are your target market, and brutally frank.

How does one gain a better understanding of the operating environment of one’s markets?

For a start, look at country – or even better – city-specific studies and reports which inform one about consumer buying patterns, tastes and trends. Don’t be unduly swayed by US-centric or Euro-centric market reports because consumer behaviours are radically different between regions.

Study how consumers use a particular product or service, not just from a hovering helicopter, but right down in the alleys and ditches. Yes, this will require you to mingle with the Joneses (or Lees, Muthusamys and Mohammeds) in order to see how they are used. Take off those prejudiced lenses of yours and spend a week or a month living life through your customer’s eyes.

Be aware of both cultural similarities and differences. While social media applications are growing tremendously around the world, the mode of usage can be quite different between regions, ethnicities, and even neighbourhoods. A person who lives in a 3-room HDB flat in Singapore probably thinks differently from one who lives in a luxurious bungalow.

It is also incredibly important to be updated with current tastes. Your antiquated knowledge of what makes for an irresistible product offer may no longer be relevant. Don’t ask your band of 40 or 50 year old golf buddies what teens like these days. Ask your sons or daughters instead. Note too how different life stages will change customer expectations of how a product or service interacts with them.

Finally, and very importantly, learn from the mistakes of the past. To many, history is a dull subject and poring over dusty files or tomes is the last thing people want to do. However, it is important to consider the age of one’s market and their relative exposure to new products or technologies before rolling them out.

In a world which values speed, efficiency and reach, the lure of embarking quickly on an entrepreneurial idea seems almost irresistible. After all, isn’t everything available on the Internet? I can just “google” it and cobble together a business plan which ready to go. Unfortunately, many of the studies, statistics and results on the web are probably not going to be directly relevant to your market. Many are heavily US or Western-centric, and are unlikely to be useful for an Asian marketplace.

To improve one’s odds of succeeding, it may be wise to invest in understanding the local environment of one’s market right now, at the places where you want to sell, and with the people whom you want to sell to.

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