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Audience Engagement Advertising Branding

Why context is as vital as creativity for a brand’s ability to communicate

By Ian Wharton, Group Creative Director

August 3, 2016 | 6 min read

Among other vogue vernacular, ‘engagement’ is perhaps the single most relevant word for the digital age – and possibly the most misrepresented. In pursuit of the occupation or attraction of someone’s interest or attention, we have the capacity to yield enduring success or irrecoverable intrusion.



It’s rare for people to make instant declarations of loyalty to a brand. Or to anything. Yet many would suggest the majority of advertising executives remain stitched into the shirt, convinced that brief exclamations can alter behaviour. The more progressive brands and marketers appreciate that equity is earned over time. Engagement, therefore, is simply the accumulation of hundreds, if not thousands, of small decisions to interact with a brand. And the only way to consistently influence those passing moments is by having a profound respect for context.

When there is a misinterpretation or miscommunication of context – something that happens easily, routinely – we are left with poor judgment, friction and detachment.

A process of thought that helps serve these moments is state and influence. Its application examines how the conditions that form the setting for an event or idea, and the terms in which they can be fully understood, shape people’s behaviour.

State refers to the discovery of context for an individual or group of individuals at any given moment. Among the questions we can ask are: What is the direction and level of their intent? What time do they have available? What distractions do they have? Have they made any prior investment? What are the standard behaviour patterns of the channel where interaction or consumption of content happens? What is the frequency of similar communications from elsewhere? We should even interrogate how the value of something is perceived in that moment.

The Joshua Bell experiment is one of many demonstrations to prove there is no such thing as absolute value, only relative value.

Critically, it calls on acknowledging that behaviour formed in one context often isn’t transferred to another. Consider someone trying to stop overeating, they may join an online community or attend weight-watching meetings. New behaviour is reinforced in that setting, with set messaging and social convention. The moment that same person enters a different social context; a dinner party, or night out, behaviour patterns from the meetings will likely be overridden. Context bias happens throughout the day and is something to be interrogated as close to real-time as possible.

Influence then refers to the steps we can take, knowing everything we do from state, to help someone make a decision in that moment. Not to deceive – admittedly entirely possible, although short-sighted for obvious reasons – but to contribute meaning.

For example, once we know intent, we can present something which matches expectation and fulfills their experience, or serve them something incongruous to catch them off-guard. Both have value, yet used incorrectly and interest is lost.

Take the expected purchasing behaviour of someone considering a new luxury sedan in the US. Early in the decision-making process, this person will flick between comparable models online. The brand that puts the car in the world of the user is the one that may win – narrowing the gap of seeing themselves behind their badge, and how the car might influence their lives. In the simplest form, this means presenting the car visually in Los Angeles if the user is there, or New York, Dallas or Chicago respectively. It means tailoring the writing of content for product features.

For New York, auto-braking safety features refer to the 21,000 cyclists in the city. For Los Angeles, semi-autonomous technology refers to the average commute time on the I-10 and freedom that can be reclaimed. An intelligent system will then try to combat context bias by producing an artefact of the behaviour from customising a car alone online, which is then carried through to the dealership.

Perception of practicality of a certain model will vary in both. One ill-informed question from a sales rep could halt the process. Were all communication to become wholly individual however, we risk losing a sense of community. Experiencing the same thing en masse, simultaneously, allows people to demonstrate how their intellect or creativity has interpreted things differently in conversation.

Consider the second-screen experience of Formula 1. This service enables subscribing viewers to compare drivers during a live race with car telemetry. The scoring model uses five sets of data: steering, throttle, braking, cornering and g-force. In this instance, state and influence informs us first of the behaviour of paying subscribers: those who consider themselves a ‘super-fan.’

These people have a sharp understanding of the sport, the rivalries and technology. They pride themselves on being perceived as well-informed among peers. If we want to create engagement, the super-fan must be given ownership of the data. Rather than offer too much information to detract from their experience, the ratings are stripped of interpretation. If ‘steering’ is scored at eight out of ten, signalling constant corrections to the wheel, does that mean a poor driver, or poor car setup for the track? Influence in this product is providing a super-fan the ability to infer their own story, which can then be shared with their social group.

If we seek engagement, defined not as incidental interactions but as meaningful connection, we are required to have a God-like understanding of the person and conditions which shape their behaviour. A brand’s capability for communication, particularly digital communication in products and services, is nothing without the circumstances to execute it.

Ian Wharton is group creative director at AKQA, he tweets at @ianwharton.

Audience Engagement Advertising Branding

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