- 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.”
Not all contextual ad experiences are created equal, Allibhai continued.
“Imagine a podcast host reading about a product and speaking extemporaneously about the product’s benefits and their own experience with it mid-program, in the host’s own voice. Compare that with a produced ad that has been artificially stitched into the same podcast, and it’s clear that there is a level of authenticity that differentiates the greatest placements from the rest,” Allibhai explained.
Related Article: How Retail Media Is Powering Smarter Contextual Marketing
Contextual Targeting Takes Many Forms
Marketers are reminded that contextual targeting exists in various mediums, not only within digital display advertising, Nolan said. They should think of how one might expand targeting strategies to embrace contextual in all visual and audio formats, inclusive of CTV, music and podcast consumption.
“As with many decisions in marketing, carefully evaluate the relationship between scale and precision,” Nolan advised. “Contextual targeting can be an excellent complement when used in combination with other tactics. Those who are new or experimenting with contextual targeting might want to provide it as one component of overall media mix, and test and measure in order to validate efficacy against core KPIs.”
Marketers should also go beyond their assumptions when creating contextual efforts, Nolan said. For example, what information, tools and analytics are available to help inform a contextual media and creative strategy? Many content creators can provide robust information to help marketers better understand specific cuts of content. That will help marketers understand more about the composition of that audience, even if they don’t target those audience members explicitly.
“Probe, so that you can evaluate and make the best informed contextually relevant decisions,” Nolan stresses. “A few things to keep in mind are: the scale of content and how it might fluctuate seasonally, audience attributes, and track record of meeting performance KPIs. You’ll also want to mitigate against cluttered environments and the potential for unsavory adjacencies.”
The Impact of Cookie Reduction
Google has made a business decision to deprecate cookies from use of its Chrome browser at some point in 2024, Nolan noted. A significant percentage of US browsing occurs on Chrome, and this is a great source of cookie-based data signals. But Google has stated it is phasing out cookies at the end of 2023, with the goal of eliminating them in the second quarter of 2024.
“It’s important to note that Google has pushed back the deadline for this action amidst industry pressure. Once cookies via Chrome activity are no longer available, there will be far less currency for cookie behavioral targeting,” Nolan said.
For decades, cookies have played a key role in the ability to target and measure digital audiences. With the deprecation of cookies will come the need for marketers and publishers to deploy different approaches, Nolan said.
“Buy-side and sell-side are evolving their strategies to reach their desired consumer, and contextual will play an increasingly large role,” Nolan said. “With escalating concern and scrutiny around consumer privacy, contextual strategies also provide increased comfort for those looking to pivot from behavior signals, or those tied to increasingly scarce identifiers. Because contextual targeting does not harness individual data signals, contextual targeting is a privacy forward alternative appealing to those seeking signal light solutions.”
“Privacy-forward, real time impact, and increased creative canvas are among the top benefits of contextual targeting,” Nolan added, “but ease of execution and high measurement are additional benefits of the strategy.”