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The Resurgence of Contextual Marketing

September 26, 2022


Marketing professionals are bracing for new regulations restricting targeted marketing as well as the demise of website cookies. One of the strategies they are resurrecting is contextual marketing. Shama Hyder (@Shama), CEO & Founder of Zen Media, explains, “Contextual targeting is not a new digital marketing strategy, but research suggests that it is making a comeback. Although often confused with the behavioral targeting of cookies, it does not make decisions based on individual users’ data. Context-specific ads are personalized for an audience as a whole; they are relevant to a website’s content and its audience.”[1] Cognitive technologies (aka artificial intelligence) are aiding marketers in this contextual marketing resurgence. Rob Fan, Chief Technology Officer at Sharethrough, explains, “With cookies headed for the door and tech players including Apple introducing increasingly privacy-centric policies, advertisers’ relationship with third-party user data is swiftly coming to a close. Luckily, by marrying contextual targeting with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, advertisers can gain both the breadth and depth of insight necessary for effective targeting.”[2]


Why Contextual Marketing is Making a Comeback


Tim Beveridge (@timbeveridge), General Manager for Strategic Consulting at Silverbullet, insists that contextual marketing is more than a nice tool for marketers to have in their kit. He believes it is an essential tool. He explains, “We’re living in a global paradigm shift, where privacy concerns, coupled with the cookie’s demise, is placing pressure on marketers to deliver more personalized and empathetic campaigns, in brand-safe environments. While this presents many challenges, it also presents many opportunities for marketers to unlock more intelligent contextual targeting tactics. … Contextual targeting is a way to target relevant audiences using keywords and topics derived from the content around ad inventory, that doesn’t require a cookie or another identifier.”[3] Just as importantly, he notes, “Contextual targeting has actually been shown to be more effective than targeting using third-party cookies. In fact, some studies suggest contextual targeting can increase purchase intent by 63%, versus audience or channel level targeting.” And a study by Seedtag concluded that contextual advertising receives more than three times the attention of other types of advertising.[4]


Another reason marketers should embrace contextual marketing is that it has proven to be memorable. According to global media company GumGum, “Contextually targeted ads drive an increase in consumer brand recall by 70%.”[5] Responding to GumGum’s research, David Roll, Digital Strategy Director at Spark Foundry, stated, “Attention is becoming an increasingly important metric for advertisers to measure and understand. As we move closer to a cookieless world, this study created the ideal opportunity to understand how we can maximize results through our targeting strategies. … If the ad is not relevant to [consumers], it is not memorable.” Consumers should also like contextual advertising because it protects their privacy. Hyder explains, “Contextual targeting protects user privacy while remaining relevant to the interests of users. It also allows ads to look and feel organic without being over-personalized. Automated technologies are helping digital marketers find their footing in this ‘post-cookies age.’ … Contextual targeting offers digital marketers the ability to boost brand awareness to broader audiences without relying on behavioral tracking.” Although privacy concerns are driving interest in contextual marketing, journalist Rosalyn Page (@Ros_Page) asserts, “To be successful it will require a comprehensive strategy not just keywords.”[6]


Successful Contextual Marketing


From the above discussion, it should be clear that cognitive technologies lie at the heart of modern contextual marketing. And cognitive technologies rely heavily on the availability of data. As Page points out, “Data will be crucial in this context.” Beveridge explains how contextual targeting works:


• The content around ad inventory on the webpage, or indeed the entities and themes present within a video, are extracted and passed to a knowledge engine.


• The engine uses algorithms to evaluate the content based on three pillars, ‘safety, suitability and relevance’ and the context in which it is produced.


• More advanced solutions can layer in additional real-time data related to the viewers context ‘in the moment’ the ad is viewed and layered, such as if the weather is hot or cold, it’s day or night, or if it’s lunchtime.


• Further, instead of cookie-based signals, it uses other real-time context based signals, such as how close a person is to a point of interest, are they at home or are they commuting, etc.


• If the suitability score exceeds the customer threshold, the Demand Side Platform (DSP) is alerted to continue with the media buy.


Beveridge adds, “Advanced contextual targeting analyzes text, audio, video and imagery to create contextual targeting segments which are then matched to particular advertiser requirements, so that advertising appears in a relevant and appropriate environment.” He also points out how important it is for marketers to ensure their campaigns are conducted in a brand-safe environment. Cognitive technologies can help ensure this goal is met. He explains, “These tools allow for more sophisticated approaches than simple keyword matching, and allow marketers to nominate environments they want to include, and importantly, the ones they want to exclude, such as content using hate speech, hyper partisanship, hyper politicalism, racism, toxicity, stereotyping, etc. … A reliable contextual targeting tool can analyze content and alert you to nuanced brand safety violations.”[7]


Concluding Thoughts


Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “what’s old is new again.” That phrase could easily apply to contextual marketing. Page explains, “Contextual marketing, in effect, harks back to an earlier form of advertising, utilizing the same principle of finding an audience based on preferences for particular content.” What makes it new again are advances in cognitive technologies. Fan explains, “The future of AI and targeting will not only lend itself to a more intelligent contextual platform, but also, somewhat ironically, a more human, empathetic and emotional experience for users.”


[1] Shama Hyder, “How to Do Digital Marketing in the Age of Privacy,” Inc., 20 May 2022.
[2] Rob Fan, “Contextual targeting is making an AI-powered comeback,” The Drum, 26 October 2021.
[3] Tim Beveridge, “Why Contextual Targeting Is Critical for Marketers Navigating the Cookie-Less Future,” MarTech Series, 8 September 2020.
[4] Staff, “Contextually Targeted Ads Drive 3.3x Higher Attention, Proved by Lumen and Seedtag New Research,” MarTech Series, 2 December 2021.
[5] PR Newswire, “New Research Proves Contextually Targeted Ads Drive an Increase in Consumer Brand Recall By 70%,” MarTech Series, 21 October 2021.
[6] Rosalyn Page, “Is contextual marketing the answer to the end of third-party cookies?” CMO, 19 October 2020.
[7] Tim Beveridge, “Contextual Targeting: The Answer to Brand-Safe Ad Environments?” MarTech Cube, 19 October 2020.

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