Contextual Targeting: Why this early adtech solution is making a comeback

January 13, 2022 | 4 minute read
Charles Ping
Managing Director, EMEA, Winterberry Group
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Contextual targeting has been part of the advertising playbook for decades. In fact, before the internet, advertisers used contextual targeting within their print, radio, and TV advertising efforts. And while it has always been available to brands as a digital marketing strategy, it was often overlooked in favor of identity-based solutions used to target ads based on consumer behaviors.

In recent years, contextual targeting has experienced a resurgence due to numerous factors, including widespread data deprecation, evolving consumer privacy legislation, and the decline of third-party cookies. In this new era of adtech, advertisers need a broader range of solutions to find, connect, and engage with their audiences. By providing an additional layer of targeting capabilities, contextual targeting enables brands to create a more holistic advertising strategy.  

What is contextual targeting?

For our recent study, “The Outlook for Contextual Solutions in Data Driven Advertising and Marketing,” we surveyed 119 senior brand managers, agency partners and media owners to gain a deeper understanding of contextual targeting and its role within the advertising industry. One of the most interesting findings within our research centered on the very definition of contextual targeting. In general, contextual targeting is defined as the practice of targeting ads based on a website’s content—but, according to our research, there is a clear division in how the industry interprets contextual targeting advertising solutions.

The four primary interpretations for contextual targeting among the advertising professionals we surveyed include:

  1. The use of media content to target audiences.
  2. The use of the semantic understanding of a piece of content to target audiences.
  3. The use of meta data describing a piece of content, such as captioning or URL parsing, to target audiences.
  4. Solution built around search or intent signals related to a page of other piece of content.

When asked to define contextual targeting, survey responses were remarkably balanced between the four separate interpretations.

How do you define contextual advertising solutions?

“Definitions within the adtech industry have evolved and are constantly changing,” said a data innovation specialist we interviewed who is with a media company, “Contextual is a very broad category that means a lot of different things to different people, so we have to keep redefining them.”

As a management consultancy serving the advertising and marketing community, our own definition relies on the basic principle of contextual targeting: A method of presenting suitable advertising based on the subject and understanding of the content in the media being consumed instead of an understanding of the person viewing it.

Back to the future: A return to early adtech

For us, the key difference between contextual targeting and behavioral targeting is the very reason contextual targeting has seen a resurgence. With contextual targeting, advertisers and publishers are not dependent on consumer data to deliver targeting solutions, instead relying on the media being consumed.

As the ad industry looks toward a cookie-less future, contextual targeting helps fill the gaps left by the loss of user data. Many may see this move as a step back from the advancements made with behavioral targeting, but there are clear benefits to contextual solutions that should be considered. For one, contextual targeting benefits brands searching for improved brand safety and brand suitability conditions that take ad environments into account.

In fact, a director of public relations for a customer experience agency told us that brand safety remains a primary advantage of contextual solutions, “One of the early and most prominent use cases for contextual makes sure the brand is not showing up into something undesirable. When clients can go back to the leadership, they can walk out with pride. It is used as a safety net to avoid trouble.”

In another interview for our study, a commercial data strategist for a media company told us that the buy-side sees contextual as a solid play in a post-cookie world.

“One of ironies is that all of these things existed before, so this is kind of a regression to old and familiar techniques,” according to the commercial data strategist.

Contextual targeting 2.0: Why it’s better this time around

While contextual targeting may feel like a throwback to pre-cookies days, the technology that powers current contextual targeting solutions is much more sophisticated than earlier iterations. During the last ten years, contextual targeting has undergone much improvement: Machine learning technologies have advanced contextual approaches, enabling advertisers to scale their targeting capabilities at a more affordable cost.

In our conversations with industry experts, the CEO of a company that provides contextual solutions made clear that today’s contextual targeting capabilities have significantly evolved over the past decade. We now have access to asset-level analysis—contextual targeting technology can analyze different sections of a page and determine subject matter and sentiment. Another crucial advancement is the addition of image and audio recognition within video and TV environments, an especially relevant contextual targeting tactic for CTV/OTT advertisers.

As I emphasized in the blog post that kicked off this three-part series, the challenges advertisers face cannot be underestimated. The industry has witnessed dramatic changes during the last three years that have greatly impacted the ways brands target and connect with their audiences. Knowing how contextual solutions have evolved and improved gives brands more leverage to better integrate contextual capabilities into their targeting strategies.

In our next article for this series, we will look at how advertisers can combine contextual solutions with other targeting tactics to build a more complete and holistic advertising strategy.

Want to hear what industry experts have to say about the role of contextual targeting in today’s advertising landscape? Register now to attend the upcoming webinar: “How Contextual Targeting Will Upgrade Your Ad Targeting Toolkit in 2022.” 

Charles Ping

Managing Director, EMEA, Winterberry Group

Charles Ping is Managing Director, EMEA at the Winterberry Group, a management consultancy focussed on the data, marketing, and advertising sectors. He is an experienced leader with a 30-year track record in data, marketing and strategy and regulation. Prior to joining Winterberry Group he was Chief Executive of the data business within the Engine Group.

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