From the Window Seat The Cult of Context By Arnie Weissmann / November 25, 2013 Share 1 -- Among the outlined principles of the "Cult of Context" -- the theme of last week's PhoCusWright Conference in Hollywood, Fla. -- is "Consider the customer first." On the surface, this sounds obvious, but it's becoming increasingly clear that who the customer is, and what the customer wants, is no longer as straightforward as it once was. Consider, for example, the first two presenters at the conference's Travel Innovation Summit. Every year at the summit, 30 entrepreneurs each have 11.5 minutes to describe their products or companies to a panel of judges, on-stage critics and an audience of travel executives, media and investors. The opening presentation was by CheckMate, a technology that enables consumers to check in to a hotel before arriving. The second presentation was by Ve-Go, which provides a similar capability. Because the audience, judges and critics listen to a pitch rather than testing the product hands-on, they rely on the presentation to evaluate the innovation's merits. I do not know which of these two services actually provides a better user experience, but based on what I saw and heard, I do have a good sense of which presenter has a more contextualized understanding of the word "customer." Ve-Go explained the opportunity at hand, initially describing the market size and the enormous world of potential hotel partners. The CEO walked through how the product worked and suggested that it was perfect for the anticipated rise in millennial travelers. CheckMate, however, spoke less about features and more about benefits, and its CEO detailed the advantages for three customer bases: guests, hotels and the online travel agency (OTA) that took the booking. Whether true or not, the impression Ve-Go left was that it found inspiration in a rather abstracted context -- a potentially big market populated by large companies -- and its target customers were viewed to a certain extent as manifestations of broad generational behaviors. CheckMate is likely aware of these environmental conditions, but its founder clearly articulated that he understood the deep needs of its three customer bases: individual consumers who would appreciate time-saving conveniences; OTAs that need to deepen loyalty and extend their relationships with travelers; and hotel companies, which could save time and money, possibly increase revenue (with upgrading and pre-booking features) while also providing their guests a convenient way to check in. It's entirely possible that Ve-Go provides all these benefits to the same three customer sets; perhaps the presenter believed the benefits were too self-evident to detail. But I came away with a distinct impression of which company was guided by a "consider the customer first" approach and also clearly understood the overarching "Cult of Context" theme. I've lately been seeing more and more instances of companies looking at the environment in which they operate in deeply contextualized ways, and as a result, developing products that serve the needs of multiple customer sets. I saw an example in a completely different industry segment two weeks ago at the Pure Life Experiences trade show in Marrakech, Morocco. An exhibitor there, Marine Conservation Expeditions, is essentially a tour operator. Its principals' previous experience and passions included filmmaking, conservation, yachting and scuba diving, and although they had no previous travel industry experience, they took their understanding of the needs of the communities behind these disparate interests to come up with a remarkably innovative travel product. The (for-profit) company enables wealthy travelers to make short documentary films about specific environmental threats to ocean life in various parts of the world. Prior to departure, the company matches the client's concerns with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is trying to address the problem locally. The traveler not only becomes executive producer of a video on the subject but is taught how to operate underwater cameras and participates to the extent possible in writing and editing the video (everything needed to complete the project is available onboard the chartered ship). At the end of the traveler's vacation, a completed, high-quality documentary is presented to a grateful NGO and, with the client in the audience, is shown to a community affected by the problem. Online or off, thinking broadly about context almost certainly results in better products and an expanded customer base. The "Cult of Context" is not only for startups; its principles can spur innovation in any existing business -- any business, that is, that's willing to relinquish membership in the cult of conventionality. Email Arnie Weissmann at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.