The Gist

  • Contextual targeting. Efficiently engages customers, enhancing personalization and real-time impact. 
  • Data-driven approach. Leverages data like time, language and location, excluding personal information. 
  • Privacy forward. Offers a privacy-friendly approach, crucial with impending cookie deprecation. 

One of the most effective ways for marketers to engage customers is to share or promise “experiences” with them, not just products. One of the best ways to do that is with contextual targeting.

Simply put, contextual targeting is a strategy whereby marketers buy ads based on the broader publishing context of the ad. This means the primary factors deciding whether or not to serve an ad, and how much to pay for it, are not based on personal information of the reader or audience. Instead, the decision is based on the type of content that customers are consuming, explained Mo Allibhai, senior research analyst, adtech, at Forrester Research.

Examples could include targeted ads for outerwear serving to anyone checking the weather forecast in Patagonia, or for a theme park to someone comparing hotel prices in Orlando, Allibhai noted.

“One that never fails to capture my own attention is that when I do research around outdoor or natural photography, I’m advertised to visit Iceland,” Allibhai acknowledged.

Common Examples of Contextual Targeting

Contextual targeting is not hard to recognize. Just pay attention to how a product or service is placed, the background or other items in view, and even just the relationships of different things or themes that make up the full customer experience.

Mia Nolan, a data and media industry leader, cites the following as examples of common contextual targeting:

  • Antihistamine promotion while reading an article about allergy season
  • Cooking utensil or kitchen appliance ads within a magazine of cooking recipes
  • Internet service provider, lawn care or furniture ads while reviewing home listings
  • Beverages focused on hydration and electrolyte replacement while listening to workout focused music
  • Airline and hotel ads while researching vacation location and planning your itinerary
  • Nutritional supplements while listening to a wellness podcast
  • Credit card ad surrounding a personal finance podcast

“Contextual targeting can enhance personalization and engage customers with the benefit of real-time impact,” Nolan stressed. “Not only is the reader or listener interested in the content at hand, but the marketer has the opportunity to reach them with a relevant ad at the same time as content consumption occurs.”

Marketers also have the opportunity to leverage copy or images as contextual signals, Nolan explained. 

“There’s the chance to really muscle creative juices to create a compelling ad experience, and one that is truly complementary to the subject of interest,” Nolan continued. “In this manner, contextual ads have the chance to amplify the experience and yield positive brand perception.”

Context extends further than the actual placement itself, while not including information that could be construed as personal, Allibhai explained. Information such as the time zone, language preferences and even extreme weather events become part of the context that can be more easily inferred.

Related Article: Contextual Advertising: What You Need to Know

Best Practices for Contextual Targeting Strategies

Both Allibhai and Nolan offer advice on what are considered to be best practices for the use of contextual targeting.

“Contextual data serves as a base layer of understanding; in every case, augment it with more meaningful data,” Allibhai advised.

“The first time an advertiser or DSP wins a bid to advertise with a given publisher, the only information the buyer has is often contextual,” Allibhai said. “This semantic understanding can often be combined with time of day, geographical region and device type, to make much stronger inferences than with context alone.”

The combined data can make the difference between serving an ad or experience to a casual browser, rather than a purchase intender that may be farther along in the buying cycle — for instance, one user session taking place as an article is read on a commute rather than another in which a user is creating a pro/con list late in the evening, Allibhai said.

Marketers should also use contextual targeting for discovery, but aim for greater authenticity, Allibhai advised. 

“In a way, contextual targeting — especially in the open programmatic environment — is simply the stringing together of user intent and advertiser messaging. While this can often be an easy layup, like advertising branded team merchandise for sale on the score results page, it can also lead into more complicated territory, as the news itself ranges from problematic or violent to downright tragic. And it certainly isn’t all suitable for brands.”

The same can be true of user generated social media posts and comments, Allibhai explained. 

“Don’t consider contextual advertising to be a series of happy accidents,” Allibhai said. “Use contextual targeting for discovery, conduct further due diligence and testing, and deepen partnerships when there is clear symbiosis between your brand, a publisher and the publisher’s audience.”


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