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File photo shows shoppers at the Toronto Eaton Centre during Boxing Day, on Dec. 26, 2019. As digital culture evolves, motivating consumers will have more to do with thier immediate goals than getting their attention.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

June 24, 2009, was the Day Consumers Stopped Listening.

Don McLean didn’t write a song about it, as with the day the music died, when Buddy Holly and two other top singers were killed in a plane crash. But it’s a catchy concept, and worth paying attention to as the pandemic pushes more and more companies into digital marketing.

According to Matthew Sweezey, principal of marketing insights for Salesforce, that moment more than a decade ago was when his research shows private individuals – not brands, businesses or traditional media – became the largest producers of media in the world.

We all complain as individuals about noise – how we are bombarded with information. And businesses are struggling to get their messages across. But what he is alerting us to is the fact the exponential increase in noise is coming from individuals communicating with others, not businesses, be it in texts, YouTube, Instagram, or the many other modern avenues. Moreover, unlike previous spikes in business noise as we entered eras such as radio or TV this one is not levelling off at a saturation point.

The vastly different media environment, he contends, will require more attention to context. “Motivating consumers today has nothing to do with getting their attention and everything to do with understanding their context – that is, their current position in time and space and whatever their task might be at the moment. Today, helping people achieve their immediate goals is the only way to break through the noise and motivate consumers to act,” he writes in The Context Marketing Revolution.

That means you will have to change your approach, following five criteria that can seem abstract at first glance but are vitally important – available, permissioned, personal, authentic and purposeful:

  • Available: Traditional marketing forces messages about the brand experience to the largest number of people possible, hoping they will be a captive audience. Context marketing focuses on each individual in the moment, helping them with a specific task. How the experience is delivered also speaks to the trust you will garner.
  • Permissioned: People are more likely to engage with your message if they have given you permission to share it. That permission may be implicit, when an individual contacts your brand or leaves a shopping cart abandoned on your site, or explicit, a defined action saying, “Yes, you may contact me.”
  • Personal: Your brand experience should be tailored to the recipient but also you should try to reach them in a personal way, including enlisting your employees, fans and brand advocates to help send the message.
  • Authentic: You need the right voice and an empathetic attitude, among other things, to seem genuine or original.
  • Purposeful: If your brand seems to have a valuable purpose it will help customer engagement. This may involve acts of social responsibility or a brand-defining purpose that makes people feel better about you. “Purposeful experiences allow the brand to converse on topics beyond the product or service it offers, which creates deeper, more contextual customer relationships,” he says.

Let’s add to that approach with a suggestion from another expert on where you may be going wrong in trying to cut through the digital clutter. For a long time, companies have been told it’s vital they excel at SEO (search engine optimization), creating content around a handful of keywords in the hope that Google and the others will rank you highly on the results page. “SEO is sold like snake oil more often than you would believe by underskilled marketers who only want to take thousands of your dollars per month and give you unquantifiable activities that often can and should be done better inside your company,” digital marketing consultant Thomas Donohoe warned in his iconoclast book The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook.

He concedes that properly done SEO is important. But he adds it rarely should be one of the first half-dozen things you must do when creating your company’s digital marketing strategy and presence. Among its many flaws is you can’t be certain it will work because you don’t know what search engines will do with their algorithms.

Instead, you should focus on SEM – search engine marketing – a paid marketing strategy in which you bid to have your ad come up for certain search terms and only pay when somebody clicks on your ad. He says SEM is often the best route for gaining new customers, based on the volume generated and cost per sale or cost per new customer acquisition. If you’re not running such campaigns you’re doing marketing wrong, he insists.

It’s a new, evolving era and it will require different approaches. McKinsey and Co. recently noted that the COVID-19 recovery will be digital. So give these ideas some consideration and you carve out a new path.


  • Websites should be speedy but the Nielsen Norman Group reports that even though internet speeds have increased steadily in the past 10 years, loading time for web pages on desktops are essentially the same and for mobiles have worsened. Add that to your digital marketing list, by subtracting some of the superfluous gimmicks on your pages.
  • Here’s another figure that will jolt: For many people working from home their work day has increased by three hours. Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, says in citing those U.S. figures leaders need to recognize many people are struggling with their roles as parents and caregivers, in addition to work duties. And she adds: A recent survey found 14 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men are considering quitting their jobs because of work-family conflicts arising from the pandemic.
  • Should you opt for a four-day work week as organizations more generally move toward normal operations? Two professors at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel say given it appears to take three days before someone who gets the COVID-19 virus can infect another person, working four days and then having the next 10 days in isolation at home to check if the virus appears can reduce the chances of mass infection. They recommend splitting your team into two groups, each four days on and 10 days at home, to give you broader workplace coverage.

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