Content or context: which matters more?

What a violin maestro playing on the Washington Metro should teach us about advertising strategy

October 25, 2018

Content or context: which matters more?

At 7.51am on Friday January 12, 2007, a man in an ill-fitting jumper and baseball cap made his nondescript way to a grimy corner of the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington D.C. He positioned himself against a wall, next to a garbage bin, unpacked a violin and bow, opened his case ready to take donations, and started to play. He played for 43 minutes. During that time, over 1,000 commuters passed within a couple of feet of him. People having their shoes shined or in line to buy a Lotto ticket listened to him perform entire pieces. In all of that time, only seven people stopped to listen, and only twenty more paused to give him money. The lady running the shoe shine stand considered complaining to the police about the noise. A woman passing by wondered why people bothered busking in this way. The violin player made just over $32.

Two weeks earlier, that same man had stood on a stage at Symphony Hall in Boston. There was no jumper and no baseball cap. He wore a sharp black suit and was surrounded by supporting musicians in white tie and tails. An expectant crowd, decked in their finest, strained to hear every sound that he would make. After all, they had paid a minimum of $100 each to hear him perform.

This was Joshua Bell. A man considered by many to be the greatest violinist alive. A man whose playing has been described as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” In both locations, he had played the same beautiful classical music on the same insanely expensive violin – and yet the response from his audiences could not have been more different.

Context vs content: a hard reality to come to terms with
Joshua Bell’s twin performances had been arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment into the influence of context on human perceptions – and the findings shocked plenty of people at the time. Heads of National Symphony Orchestras, in particular, found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that no crowd of people formed in response to Bell’s playing; that people couldn’t recognise the beauty; that, between 1,000 of them, they could detect no more than $32 in value.

The response of music lovers is understandable. In fact, it’s eerily similar to the reaction of many marketers when you try to convince them that the context in which their ad appears might be more important than the ad itself. When you are so invested in your message, it’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that the message itself might not matter – or at least, that it might matter a lot less than you thought. More than a decade after Bell’s DC metro gig, plenty of advertising strategies still assume that, provided you’re reaching the right audience with the right content, it doesn’t matter where you reach them.

Advertisers’ early use of programmatic buying was often based on the assumption that targeting trumped context. Being able to target people wherever you wanted allowed you to reach them far more efficiently. Since ignoring context lowered costs, it must be an improvement. Many strategies still apply the same logic, especially when it comes to response. If you can get enough people to click on an ad for a low enough cost then it doesn’t matter where your ad appeared, or how many other people saw it, in order to get that response. It’s tempting to use ever more advanced analytics to optimise marketing ever more efficiently around these outcomes. However, that would be a huge mistake – and the Joshua Bell experiment helps to explain why.

How context dominates our response to advertising
Context influences our response to advertising in powerful ways, on several different levels. It’s not just an instinctive response or a conscious judgment – it’s both. Human beings use context in sophisticated ways to make extremely quick decisions about the value and credibility of what’s being presented to them. As a result, it’s impossible to consider an ad objectively, without being influenced by where you’re seeing it. The context in which people see your brand will have a big influence on their judgment of your brand, both in the moment and in the future, and this applies whether they click on it or not.

It’s tempting to write off the people in the subway station that morning as snobs, unable to see quality if it wasn’t dressed up to the nines, but that would be unfair. The commuters were using a rule of thumb that reliably told them the violinist wasn’t worth stopping to listen to. It’s the same rule of thumb that marketing audiences have relied on for over a century, to determine what a brand’s advertising really says about the brand.

Context and quality
Bob Hoffman, author of the fantastic blog The Ad Contrarian, explains this superbly. He draws a distinction between what marketers communicate in an ad (the “message”) and what the ad actually says about them (the “signal”). According to Hoffman, the type of ad format you are using and the place where that ad appears contribute far more to the signal of what your brand is really about than the content of the ad itself. When audiences decide which brands to trust with their time, interest and money, they automatically use context to make the assessment. In the same way, commuters assume with confidence that musicians who play on the subway aren’t the best musicians in the world – but musicians who play in expensive concert halls might be.

As Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group has long argued, this was the real value for brands in advertising on TV in the 1980s – and it’s still the real value in Superbowl ads today. Audiences know the ad slots are expensive. A brand that pays to use them must intend to be around for a while, in order to recoup the investment. This signals credibility and trustworthiness far more effectively than the message of the ad itself. Contrast this with a direct response ad that follows you around the internet and clearly cares only about persuading you to click as cheaply as possible. It sends a very different signal about what the brand stands for.

Context and relevance
Besides signalling whether a brand has quality and credibility, context also signals whether it’s relevant. There may well have been some classical music fans in the metro station that morning, but they didn’t give Bell attention enough to appreciate his playing because they were focusing on something else: getting to work. They weren’t in the relevant context to engage with the kind of content Bell was creating – and therefore they didn’t engage with it.

Recent research from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business confirms that the same signals of relevance control how audiences respond to digital marketing. Placement is an important part of how people interpret what they encounter online, and marketers who ignore context when planning their campaigns suffer as a result. An insightful piece of in-depth B2B content looks more relevant, interesting and valuable on the website of The Economist than on The Daily Mail, in a professional environment than in a non-professional one. I’d argue that the same applies to the environment of different social platforms too. “We often focus on the piece of art, but that piece of art and how we interpret that piece of art will be influenced greatly by how it is framed,” says Michigan Ross Professor John Branch. “In marketing, we often focus on the message, whereas the framing, the context, can also play a huge role.”

How context changes the brain – and the experience
Signals of quality and relevance were definitely mixed in with the sounds of Bell’s violin on that morning in the subway station. However, it’s possible that something even more influential was happening too; something that didn’t involve any conscious or unconscious judgment on the part of the passers-by at all. Researchers from the INSEAD Business School and the University of Bonn recently discovered that a higher price for a bottle of wine actually changes how drinkers experience the taste of that wine. Once they are primed to expect to drink something of superior quality, the regions of their brain associated with pleasure and enjoyment spark up in advance, predisposing them to enjoy and appreciate it more. Researchers admit that a lot more studies are needed in this area – but it offers a fascinating insight as to just why the influence of context is so powerful. We don’t just expect to enjoy things more in certain situations – we actually do enjoy them more! Something very similar might well happen when we encounter ads and content in different environments online.

The idea that context matters in advertising is nothing new. Marshall McLuhan first argued as much over 50 years ago in his famous phrase, “The Medium is the Message”. If anything, McLuhan understated his case. Research now shows that the environment in which somebody encounters an ad doesn’t just influence how they experience it – it can completely rewrite its meaning, and signal something very different to what the advertiser intends.

Digital channels provide us with a broad range of different tactics and techniques to choose from when it comes to targeting advertising and content. We can use these tactics and techniques to be precise and specific about the contexts in which we reach them – or to ignore that context altogether. The maestro on the metro should remind us which is the smarter approach.