What’s Old is New Again: The Return of Contextual Targeting

The steady and sobering drumbeat towards the phase-out of third-party cookies can be heard around the world.

Determined not to be caught out, brands and agencies have kicked off the new year by actively shoring up customer privacy best practices and data partnerships that will help them move away from relying on third-party sources in favour of more sustainable data gathering and personalisation tactics. It comes as no surprise to many in the industry, therefore, that contextual advertising has once again become the darling of the ad world. This time, however, the opportunity for contextual to take centre-stage as a primary cookie alternative has never been greater.

In this exclusive article, Pat Heath (pictured below), director of solutions consulting, EMEA at Amobee, explains why marketers should explore contextual and outlines how they can make full use of this tried-and-tested targeting solution.


A look-back on contextual’s long, slow climb within the industry

While you’re likely familiar with the definition of contextual targeting (the practice of placing an ad on a website page based on the content), the difference between contextual versus user-based tactics comes down to intention. The intention for contextual advertising is to drive user engagement by serving ads that are relevant to the content being consumed, whereas behavioural is intended to show users ads based on their past browsing behaviours and interactions. Whether or not we realise it, contextual targeting is all around us - for example, you will regularly see ads for airlines in the Travel section of a newspaper or magazine.

However, contextual has often been overlooked as a digital advertising tactic in favour of cookie-based targeting, which comes with additional campaign optimisation and measurement capabilities. Yet third party cookies weren’t designed to be used in this way – their prevalence created and maintained advertisers’ reliance on what is essentially a hack. As an industry, we can and will do better.

In 2021, with the introduction of machine learning, contextual capabilities have become much more intelligent, resulting in a move beyond simple keyword, category, and inclusion list targeting. Advanced contextual platforms now ingest data from multiple sources and can dynamically update in real-time to really understand the most relevant content for an ad to run alongside. Historically, it was possible for an ad for a particular product to be placed next to a negative article related to the manufacturer of said product, but enhancements such as sentiment analysis have since been developed to ensure that such blunders don’t occur in the future.

Another exciting development is the integration of contextual technology with content management platforms. This allows you to use templates and rules to deliver different creative variations in the most relevant context, a step up from simply deploying dynamic creative delivery against behavioural audiences. For example, instead of delivering a family travel creative based on previously known attributes about a user, we can leverage natural- language and semantic analysis tools that will crawl an article’s keywords in the milliseconds-long RTB process to dynamically update the creative image and tagline to the appropriate contextual-driven messaging. Better yet, due to its assurance of anonymity, this tactic is highly unlikely to fall foul of regulators or technology giants – one built-in characteristic of brand safety.


Why is contextual so important in 2021?

Pat Heath, director of solutions consulting, EMEA at Amobee

The main reason contextual targeting had a resurgence in 2020 (and will continue to do so in 2021) is because it solves both privacy and identity challenges. No user data is considered when placing an ad, which means there are no concerns around infringing regulations such as GDPR and CCPA, and no impact from technological updates such as the deprecation of third-party cookies in Google Chrome and the recent IDFA app tracking updates from Apple.

This is the main reason advertisers have started to shift their dollars from behavioural to contextual targeting, but there are also a number of additional plus points to consider:

  • As the ad is relevant to the content of the page, it feels more natural and less disruptive to the end user, which increases engagement.
  • If you use contextual technology that understands the nuances and sentiment of a page, It’s brand safe and ethical from a data perspective.
  • The approach is tried, tested and available right now, as opposed to alternative cookieless solutions which are new and currently lack scale.
  • It can reduce ad fatigue as rather than following a user around the internet, brands can identify a relevant environment and deliver an ad within that content.
  • Shifting dollars from behavioural to contextual targeting was seen to improve ROI following GDPR, according to Digiday.


OK, so what next?

Now you understand why contextual targeting is so important and you know that it could be an effective tactic for your brand, here are five key next steps to set you up for a successful test and broader roll out:

  1. Progress beyond text - identify advanced contextual technology that uses artificial intelligence to move beyond keywords and categories to also consider elements such as images, video, audio and sentiment.
  2. Leverage your first-party data - gain a better understanding of the content interests of your customers and prospects to inform a refined contextual targeting strategy.
  3. Upgrade and align your creative - combining the best creative with your new, advanced contextual capabilities will deliver strong results by achieving the marketing holy grail of delivering the right message, in the right place and at the right time.
  4. Consider unique landing pages - contextual performance can be improved further by applying ad specific post-click landing pages to maintain relevance and deliver a consistent customer experience.
  5. Revisit your exclusion lists - many advertisers are guilty of not reviewing their exclusion lists with enough regularity, and this will limit the reach of your campaigns. The contextual technology you are deploying is already evaluating the content and sentiment of the page to maintain your brand safety.


Don't let opportunity pass you by

Although industry experts have predicted the current growth in contextual advertising, many marketers still choose to dismiss the opportunity to integrate contextual targeting practices into their media plans due to underwhelming experiences earlier in their careers. NOW is the time to revisit those opinions.

Even though 2021 is the year that advertisers migrate across to cookieless solutions, and alternative approaches may be more fashionable, many lack scale and accuracy. Using the tips above to help reimagine your contextual targeting strategy will enable you to turn the “cookieless world” challenge into a fantastic opportunity to gain competitive advantage.