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Contextual Intelligence: Everything you need to know and why it matters

Allan Stormon
Senior Content Marketing Manager

If you’ve heard the term contextual intelligence lately, you may be wondering what it means, what it has to do with digital marketing, and why you should care.

Contextual intelligence is the flashy name given to the information and insights available through analyzing content and how people interact with it. The content that individuals are interacting with at any given moment offers a vast amount of insights about those people and how a business might engage with them. Digital marketers can use these insights to deliver more relevant and timely advertising—resulting in a better user experience and more effective advertising campaigns.

Contextual intelligence covers a wide range of topics, even just within the confines of the digital marketing industry. In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about context and contextual intelligence, including how the underlying technology works, some common misconceptions, and how advertisers are using it to inform their campaigns.

First, what is “context”?

In the advertising world, context refers to the environment an ad is appearing in. Whether it’s a subway cart, billboard, TV commercial, or online, choosing the right context in which to serve (or place) an ad is one of the ways marketers ensure they’re reaching the right audiences for their campaigns.

For digital marketers, context helps them navigate an increasingly crowded and noisy online ecosystem. The rapid rate at which content changes and evolves online means that marketers are constantly chasing trends and staying abreast of the most ideal places to serve their advertising. Understanding context allows marketers to choose the types of content they want their advertising to appear next to, and what they wish to avoid.

How contextual advertising works

Contextual advertising is the act of serving ads based on the content displayed, which is made possible by understanding the context of the content. Understanding context means that the content can be categorized, and included or excluded, in a campaign.

Contextual advertising doesn’t focus on who is reading or viewing the content but rather on what is being read or viewed. The idea is that by understanding the content that’s on the page and the environment or site it appears on, marketers can deliver a message that’s relevant, and potentially drive an action.

The important differentiator for contextual advertising is that it uses page-level data instead of cookie-based or audience data. While cookie data tracks devices based on browsing history; and audience data is developed through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd party sources, contextual advertising focuses solely on the information available on the page.

Context in action

Let’s look at an example.

Consider a major airline that’s launching a summer campaign. Its aim is to reach consumers who are considering taking a vacation. The airline wants its advertising campaign to focus on content about holiday destinations, swimsuit styles, watersports, and summer fitness trends and diets. People interested in this type of content are potentially researching their next vacation and are more likely to be interested in an ad from the airline.

To focus the advertising campaign on the above-mentioned content, the airline works with its advertising partner—either an agency or technology/data partner—to develop a list of terms and phrases that are likely to appear in articles about those core topics. This list of terms is usually long and can be quite detailed; it may include terms such as “best beaches,” “top resort destinations,” “summer fashion styles,” and so on.

The airline also creates a list of terms and phrases it would like to avoid—for example, “tropical storm,” “hurricane,” “climate change,” and the like.

These two lists form the blueprint for the airline’s contextual advertising campaign. The first list helps reach a relevant audience by focusing on content the airline wants to appear next to, while the second list ensures that it will avoid any unsafe content that may harm its brand by association.

So, it’s just keyword targeting, right?

Not necessarily. The relationship between the terms and the content also plays an important role during the content categorization process. Specific words carry different meanings, and if marketers only focus on specific terms, they can potentially miss opportunities to reach their ideal audiences.

Returning to the hypothetical example with the airline, consider the word explosion appearing in an article. Naturally, the airline has an aversion to anything related to explosives or explosions—the word conjures up thoughts of bombs, violence, and other negative topics that are obvious red flags for airlines (and most other brands, for that matter). As such, the airline would actively block any inventory that appeared next to content with the word explosion in it to ensure it was safe.

But explosion takes on a different meaning depending on context. Consider its use in an article about a remote tropical destination that’s experiencing an explosion of tourism. Here, the implication of the word is vastly different, and the article would still be considered a safe and relevant place to serve the airline’s advertising.

Blocking or including inventory based on terms and phrases alone isn’t enough, though. That’s why understanding the true context of content is important, which is made possible by analyzing the relationship between words and phrases. Because without true context, marketers will likely miss opportunities to reach audiences.

How advertisers use contextual intelligence in their campaigns

Context helps digital marketers deliver relevant ad experiences by aligning advertising to the content on the page. There are three applications for contextual intelligence that are most common among today’s digital marketers.

1. Ensuring brand safety

Currently, the most common and well-known use of context by advertisers is to keep their brand safe by avoiding specific types of content. In today’s volatile online world, where trends emerge and die off in an instant, brands have become acutely aware of the environment in which their ads and messages appear. And brand safety has become a major focus for executives. In fact, approximately 78 percent of U.S client-side marketers are concerned or very concerned about brand safety issues when buying programmatically, according to research by the Association of National Advertisers.

As the nature of programmatic advertising removes direct control of the media buy, context instills confidence by providing a reliable and viable way to avoid and protect brands from harmful environments that damage their brand equity.

2. Delivering relevant ad experiences

Another application of contextual intelligence involves anticipating the mind-set of an audience by actively seeking the content they’re engaging with.

While marketers can never truly know what a consumer is thinking or considering at any given moment, understanding what’s happening on the page that they’re viewing does offer a glimpse into their intentions are.

Contextual intelligence allows marketers to deliver advertising that’s aligned with the content on the page, and therefore potentially aligned with the consumer’s mind-set. This results in a more relevant user experience, which can help improve campaign performance.

3. Increasing reach and scale

Context is commonly associated with brand safety and the act of avoiding certain types of content. As such, many advertisers see it as something that limits the scale of their campaigns because it blocks inventory from the media buy.

However, context is also used as a tool to find relevant content that will benefit the advertising campaign. In doing so, it’s increasing the scale of the campaign and the size of the audience.

Context allows marketers to take advantage of trending content as it happens. When content begins to spike in popularity, marketers can use contextual intelligence to ensure their advertising is appearing on the most popular pages and types of content. This means their ads are continually reaching new and relevant audiences—leading to more scale and reach.

Additionally, by identifying trending contexts and content, brands can find where their audience is most engaged and what content is holding their attention. This delivers new inventory that would not have been available in the campaign if context wasn’t used.

Using context to deliver more effective, data-driven campaigns

A marketer’s job is to drive awareness, create demand, and build communities of followers. One could argue that it’s a job that’s getting increasingly more difficult to do. With fragmentation across devices, channels, and platforms, consumer attention is more scattered and scarce than ever before.

This means marketers need to constantly learn more about their audiences and uncover new trends that will allow them to deliver the relevant experiences that both sides seek. Contextual intelligence plays a significant role here. It reveals deep insights about the content that people are interacting with, offering a unique insight into what is trending and where the best places are to serve advertising. 


About Allan Stormon


Allan is the Content Marketing Manager at Oracle Data Cloud. He leads the content strategy and global content marketing program, producing content that helps marketers create and launch more effective campaigns with data.


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