Back to the future with contextual targeting

With advertisers facing a cookie-less future, the industry is once again turning to contextual targeting, says The Grove Media's Ciaran Deering

With advertisers facing a cookie-less future, the industry is once again turning to contextual targeting. In recent months, several research studies have indicated that 50% of advertisers — and in some cases more — are looking to embrace contextual targeting.

This is not surprising. The imminent Chrome cookie depreciation, along with other factors such as GDPR, changes brought about by iOS14, have inevitably led to agencies and marketers reappraising forms of targeting that had previously waned in popularity.

And, let’s face it, context is the oldest form of targeting in media. Back in the day, it was pretty much all print publishers had to rely on. And as marketers seek alternatives to cookies — having become over-reliant on the short term fix of remarketing and intent-based targeting opportunities — publishers are also seeking to mitigate the impending loss of cookie-based behavioural solutions they have been monetising for several years.

In the early days of internet advertising, context was king

Most ads were sold targeting keywords or just direct to a contextually relevant page. And, for a time we had brands paying ‘portals’ big money to feature their content within relevant categories.

But with the return to contextual targeting, we are not going back to contextual 1.0 of print-based context and online keywords. And we are moving on from contextual 2.0, which is focused on interplay of video, image and text on a page. Arguably we are going back to the future, with contextual 3.0, where we can use new technology to understand both virtual and physical contexts.

Algorithms and artificial intelligence are now helping us to understanding the meaning and sentiment of content and pages. And machine learning is enabling us to optimise conversions and help fill the gap left by the use of third party cookies. And as we move into the metaverse, contextual 3.0 will enable us to decode virtual environments. This goes beyond better marketing placement to better and more relevant messaging, assets and experience.

And while it’s early days for contextual 3.0, the return to contextual targeting should see a far more meaningful impression for the consumer and more appropriate brand building. Recent advances contextual targeting technology also point to increased efficacy in terms of engagement. Lumen & Seedtag’s research at the end of 2021 revealed three times more engagement on contextually targeted ads in comparison to the older, IAB standards.

Many of the contextual targeting companies are also now pairing contextual with registered user data (often from first party sources) to tie historical contextual browsing into targeting. This means that ads that are served in context to people who have shown patterns of previous behaviour. The evolution of contextual targeting tech is also helping with brand safety, which was a major concern with cookie-based targeting.

Principles and use of contextual targeting go beyond the publishing and online world

Advertisers have long been incorporating local context into out of home creative, ex. McDonalds, Burger King and Costa Coffee using out-of-home to signpost to local restaurants. In TV, advertisers have been planning ads to programmes for decades, and we’re now seeing interesting innovations around contextual targeting in TV with the growth of connected and addressable TV. However, Google’s recent ads targeting a break in C4’s Taskmaster were deemed to be too similar to the programme themselves and ended up in being banned by the ASA.

While contextual targeting cannot replace cookie-based tracking, for advertisers that can afford sustained investment in awareness-based media, then it will be a strong option. And, unlike behavioural targeting, contextual advertising gives brands the opportunity to find new sets of consumers. However, contextual targeting is unlikely to accommodate the needs of advertisers that have become reliant on shorter term, direct response ad campaigns. So, the search for an appropriate, replacement for cookie tracking continues.

Featured image: julien tromeur / Unsplash

Ciaran Deering

Ciaran is a veteran in digital advertising, having planned some of the earliest online campaigns in the UK. A co-owner of The Grove Media, Ciaran leads digital strategy across the agency’s client portfolio. Ciaran started his career in digital advertising in the late nineties at BMP Interaction (a DDB business). He subsequently went on to lead Tribal DDB’s media department before becoming MD. He then took up the digital challenge at The Grove Media in 2007. Ciaran’s brand experience takes in a wide variety of clients including AGA, Rangemaster, The University of Law, Crown Estate.

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