My husband and I were watching the Daily Show the other night on our DVR, fast forwarding through commercials as we usually do.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the text “Palm Pre” and yelled, “Back up!” to my husband. I hadn’t yet seen the Pre and was interested in Palm’s latest ‘Hail Mary.’

A head-in-the clouds (literally) waif spoke in an ethereal voice about days when all the streetlights turn green. I could kind of see a glimpse of the product behind her well-coiffed head. Finally, she held the phone up so I could see it and zipped through three unintelligible screens. The commercial ended suddenly with the phone’s slick black case closing–hiding the whole interface–and the text ‘Palm Pre.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIknaMyJhvw&feature=related.

I’m a big fan of the song they chose, which is the ONLY reason I enjoyed any of the commercial.

Minutes later, an ad came on for the new iPhone. I could see the phone. I saw the apps in action. It was no mystery why the phone they were showing was impressive. After 30 seconds, I was both more interested and educated.

These ads were sandwiched between others for movies and life-style cars–lots of darkness, big action, and sexy people. Especially in fast forward, one smart phone ad stood out. The other didn’t.

I felt sad…really sad for Palm and all the hard-working people whose interesting product remained utterly mysterious to me, a potential early adopter and evangelist.

Relevance Requires Context.
Products need to be relevant for people to pay attention, and that requires setting the proper context. If you don’t understand your customers’ context–how messaging appears relative to everything else around them–your marketing won’t work.

A recent Stanford University study found that our hunger for connections is what creates huge audiences for stories about Jon and Kate’s marital woes or Michael Jackson’s death. It gives us social currency and connects us to a larger national conversation. Even ‘experts’ on a subject, tend to talk about things everyone knows to establish a connection.

Successful marketing requires knowing what’s in the national conversation, and I don’t mean current events.  It’s hard for products to seem relevant if its marketing isn’t. This ranges from understanding cultural context to the visuals and messaging competing for people’s attention. Technology marketers tend to be intellectual snobs about mass media, but at the end of the day, everyone–even your most elite customers–downshift their brains.

Watch Cable TV and Read Pop Culture Magazines.
Choose something targeted, which provides both more to study and usually more relevant competition context for technology marketers. But also read People magazine or look at entertainment headlines because the glitzy stuff is what’s getting people’s attention. Think about how and if you can tie your product into what’s culturally relevant.

YouTube is also great to browse through because you can see exactly how much traction and audience something has found. Study what’s working and you’ll start to find common threads.

Create a Hook.
Like good pop songs, good marketing needs a hook “P-p-p-poker face, Mum mum mum mah…” (if you don’t know that reference, you need to get out more.) Especially if you’re trying to differentiate in a crowded category, your marketing must quickly communicate why people should pay attention. Hooks can be stories, a cool feature or innovative visuals. Regardless of the hook, be sure to SHOW not TELL your product’s ‘hook.’ Watch this phone do this amazing thing vs. “Look at our amazing phone!”

People believe what they see and can judge for themselves. This is why infomercials and direct marketing never die–seeing is believing.

How to Show Relevance Beyond Pop Culture.
Critical reviews, identifying categories or their attributes, analyst reports, third-party studies, success, blogs, comments or commentary, and stories all set context. Become a student of what grabs your own attention or what seems to be getting others’ and apply this knowledge as you create or measure your own marketing.

So yes, cruise Twitter even if you hate it. Spend idle time on Facebook. Get caught reading People magazine. Watch reality TV.

It is not just a guilty pleasure. If you’re in marketing, it’s part of your job.

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