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Human Experience

In a media-saturated world, persuading through interruption, repetition, and brute ubiquity are increasingly ineffective. To engage consumers, advertisers must focus on where and when they will be receptive. This requires strategically embedding ads in four spheres of human experience.

Each sphere has varying levels of effectiveness for driving desired behaviour such as awareness, purchase, and loyalty. Advertising successfully in each of these domains requires that messages offer value, and that consumers trust and welcome them. Marketers have long placed advertising in each of these spheres, but often unwittingly or not strategically. By explicitly mapping their programmes and messaging to these four domains, they can engage consumers in effective new ways. Rather than focussing first on communication strategy and marketing mix, they should begin by considering how consumers live their lives and under what circumstances they will prove receptive to messages in these domains.

The public sphere

Advertising in the public sphere typically engages consumers during moments of downtime when they’re moving between one point or activity and the next and have attention free for new inputs. In the virtual realm, real-time bidding and dynamic execution enable marketers to buy online ad space and serve up any of hundreds or thousands of variations of an ad tailored to the consumer’s profile and location within milliseconds.

As the targeting of such ads improves in the public sphere, they become less the intrusion they’re considered now and more a source of welcome messages. Mobile apps and services that build on these capabilities are a powerful way to reach consumers between activities or in transit, because that’s when people reflexively turn to their devices.

Effective public sphere ads follow one or more of the following principles:

  • they are relevant in context, that is, the message aligns with the consumer’s experience at the moment she encounters the ad;
  • they help people reach personal objectives. It’s advertising conceived as problem solving;
  • they are branded interventions. Entering the lives of consumers in targeted and useful ways when and where they’re desired or needed;
  • they provide engaging, refreshing, or compelling experiences.
    Ads in the public sphere typically address a specific practical function, but they can also exert influence in the remaining three spheres.

The social sphere

Advertising in the social sphere helps people forge new connections or enrich existing ones. It can turn social interactions themselves into carriers of ad messaging. Like public sphere advertising, it must appear in the right place at the right time with the right message. To that end, it must be relevant in context, align with social goals, address a social need, and facilitate interaction in innovative ways.

Central to this sphere is reinforcing existing relationships while also reinforcing the brand. Any advertisement that consumers are inspired to pass along serves this purpose. Another form of social-sphere advertising uses a promotional event to help consumers achieve social ends.

Effective social sphere ads follow the following principles:

  • relevant in the social context;
  • addresses social needs or solves a social problem;
  • facilitates social interaction.

The tribal sphere

Whereas the social sphere emphasises broad, diverse networks, the tribal sphere is the domain of more focussed social engagement; here marketers can use or help create consumers’ identification with groups. Advertising that leverages tribal affiliation must suit the character and values of those involved; address desires for identity, self-expression, and membership; provide a social signal or status maker; and empower the individual.

A good example of this is a cult brand like Oakley, with its high performance sunglasses, goggles, and apparel, which relies heavily on tribal positioning. Not only do customers wear branded Oakley products; they also display the logo separately – e.g. sticking decals on their cars. The brand name, detached from the product, signals inclusion in a tribe dedicated to extreme sports and athletic excellence.

Tribal sphere advertising is of course not limited to the masses. Luxury brands commonly use conventional mass media advertising while relying on their customers to deliver the most powerful ad messaging of all. They depend on consumers’ desire to signal their social status – their group affiliation – by showcasing logos and brand names.

Effective tribal sphere ads follow the following principles:

  • addresses individual desires for self-expression or identity;
  • performs as a social signal or a status maker;
  • provides a form of affiliation;
  • empowers the individual.

The psychological sphere

This is the domain of language, cognition, and emotion. Obviously, all advertising ultimately operates here in one way or another. But ads optimised for this sphere are designed to insert words, phrases, or emotions into a consumer’s psychological processes, where they serve as shorthand for complex concepts, inspiring action or triggering positive feelings.

Principles that guide successful advertising in the psychological sphere are:

  • provide new ways to articulate new ideas;
  • engender habit formation;
  • guide reasoning;
  • elicit emotion.

Although advertising in the four spheres has similarities to conventional ad campaigns, it takes a customer-centric rather than media-centric approach. Instead of focussing first on which media to emphasise in a campaign, marketers should start by determining how the envisioned advertising can integrate into consumers’ lives in ways that deliver value and win their trust. The notion of a conventionally finite ad campaign becomes less relevant. Advertising in the spheres is designed to establish a sustained presence that ranges from branded utility to instrument of thought.

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Jeffrey F. Rayport advises corporations and private equity firms focused on retail, information, and marketing services. He is a founding faculty member of Omnicom University and the Managing Partner of the digital strategy firm MarketspaceNext.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.