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When Phineas Taylor Barnum (PT) founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871, it was widely lauded as a revolution in entertainment. PT called himself the greatest showman and the king of advertising, but he could not have done it without the help of his partner and protege Phillip Carlyle - born to an aristocrat and heir to a family fortune - whom PT roped in to join his motley crew of travelling entertainers. Making Phillip give up his uptown life was only possible with the sales pitch of the century.

In reality, PT’s interaction with Phillip, dramatized for the big screen Hollywood blockbuster “The Greatest Showman”, reveals that PT demonstrated pure genius in the use of the principles behind contextual marketing. Here’s how he used these foundational guidelines to reach his audience and to make the sell of his lifetime.

“I don’t want to chase you down, I know you see it”

Lesson one is knowing your audience - don’t chase them down. PT invites Phillip to come to him, to hear him out, to listen to an idea and to come to his own logical conclusions. In the same way, internet users of today exhibit the same intelligence and savviness in making buying decisions - respect that. Contextual marketing is not about inundating the target with a plethora of messages hoping that one gets across. It’s about understanding who that target is, understanding their circumstances, their preferences, their habits, and catering to those.

Appeal to the knowledge that they already possess, remember that in a Google era the consumer can find out information about you faster than you can give it to them. Contextual marketing is leaving them with a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a pot of gold, a cache of precious stones - as long as it is the exact item the target was looking for in the first place.

“Don’t you wanna get away”

The entire premise of PT’s sell is predicated on the assumption that Phillip was unhappy with his current situation. The savvy marketer will always want to make that assumption. Just as PT pushes Phillip to question the status quo, marketing should constantly question the consumers' current situation (after knowing it, as mentioned), and gently offer not an alternative, but an improvement.

Consumers are creatures of habit, and in contextual marketing, the first thing to do is to understand that habit. Just as Phillip betrays those habits in behavior and expression, the consumer betrays their browsing habits through search terms, site visits, video views and a myriad of data that marketers can easily find but so rarely utilize and optimize to truly know their target audience.

“From the same old part you gotta play”

PT’s method as we have seen thus far is a highly targeted effort. Knowing that Phillip’s initial response would be an outright rejection, PT situates Phillip in the larger perspective and shows what he could be in a bigger and more meaningful role. In our present situation, this translates to a behavior we are all too familiar with - clicking the close or dismiss button on an ad that appears. This is because it is a mistake to distract the audience from their primary task - be it watching a video, reading an online article, playing a game - none of these situations are ever going to land you a hit. The key, as PT demonstrates, is that you have to approach them when they are idle.

In the 21st century, we call it browsing time, time spent on social media, on mindless browsing of videos and content. These are the moments to capture and captivate the consumers. Plant a fresh idea, sow the seed of a new perspective and let the idea grow; you’ll find that in such an instance, it is the audience themselves that water this seed.

“Cause I’ve got what you need”

If you have been following his processes so far, PT has led Phillip down the road of first admitting to a pain point, suggesting that something can and should be done about it, and affirming that Phillip is smart enough to realize that for himself. Only then does he offer a solution. This takes time - the truth about meaningful and impactful marketing campaigns is that it takes some time and effort to cultivate. The more targeted you strive to be, the more research it takes, and contextual marketing is about retaining that human touch in reaching out to your customers. The irony is that the easier it becomes for an audience to turn you off or tune you out, the more desperate one tends to get with their outreach. And nobody wants their brand to come across as one that has to grovel.

“So come with me and take the ride, it’ll take you to the other side”

Congratulations! If you’re still reading up to this point, it means I still have your attention. And it means that you’re now likely equipped with a better understanding of how to get your audiences’ attention. Now that PT has Phillip on his side, this relationship must continue. In the context of contextual marketing (and it’s always about context), it is the ability to always make your ad-content to suit your customer’s ever-changing needs, wants, and demands. Traditionally, it is a gargantuan effort that requires a dedicated group of face to face marketers constantly checking with your clientele.

These days with the advancement of technologies, companies have the benefit of AI and data science to do that for them. But technology does not and cannot replace a few fundamentals - knowing who you are speaking to, understanding what they want, and this is crucial - allowing them to discover how you meet them.

This way, you don’t spend thousands of ad and marketing dollars on messages that go nowhere - that amount of resources can be channelled to a very specific method of outreach, one that technology now enables.

Kartik Mehta is the chief revenue officer at SilverPush