Contextual Ads and Brand Suitability Are the Future of Targeting

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It’s 2021, and the imminent and final phase-out of the cookie continues to dominate marketing conversations. It seems new options to replace the cookie via universal IDs, first-party data, machine learning, and contextual targeting crop up nearly every day. The IAB has released an updated guide with new insights into the alternative solutions that are being developed. 

But it’s misguided to believe marketers can replace one technology for another in a like-for-like way.

It’s time to change the conversation from, “What will replace the cookie?” to “How can we maintain a growth mindset and target audiences in different ways, across various channels and devices?” 

We may also need to bring in some layers of human judgment to properly target and enable brands to be more enlightened and conscious about advertising and content adjacencies. 

Contextual audience targeting

There are contextual and dynamic data solutions that target and scale campaigns just as effectively or even more than cookie-based approaches. By using tech that can examine and capitalize on the content being consumed by the user and tailoring it to them at that moment (within the context of the content they are consuming) we can pull signals based on interests rather than information gleaned from their browsing history. 

Consumers are built to understand contextual targeting; it’s how brands have always advertised. Digital is just smarter. So, that same method of understanding content consumption can also be used to understand what is happening in real-time, what content is piquing the interest of consumers, driving awareness, or increasing engagement.

Brand suitability and contextual targeting

Consider the concept of brand suitability — which I consider one of today’s most misunderstood and underutilized targeting strategies. Instead of immediately thinking brand suitability is the use of detailed and rigorous blocklists — which can be an unscientific and overly brute-force tool — the right approach is to think of it in terms of proactive and contextual targeting. As opposed to identifying all the terms and subjects to be avoided via a pages-long blocklist, brand suitability strategies help brands lean into subjects they want to run against, and to double down on what is performing well

By contrast, in the cookie heyday, campaigns based solely on audience could have appeared next to any type of content. That content could have been anything, even if the brand would not want to have appeared next to it. By leveraging a content-based targeting approach, brands can ensure brand messages are not running against the wrong content, which has the add-on effect of delivering brand-suitable and brand-safe campaigns. 

However, not all brand-safe ads are suitable, relevant, and contextually placed. Allow me to clarify the difference.  

Brand safety versus brand suitability

I think of brand safety as reactive: a set of measures that aim to help brands avoid content that people universally agree should be blocked. But brand suitability is bespoke and proactive and unique to each brand. A brand-suitable approach builds proper content alignment, factoring in things that make sense for a brand’s image, customer base, geography, and business objectives. 

For example, apply a blocklist-driven brand safety approach to a marketer who wants to launch a martial arts-themed gaming brand, and that campaign setup will filter out any ads showing up on any terrorist-related content or violent themes. But it might also block content that is truly desired. That’s the advantage of a more brand-suitable approach to a campaign, which will smartly seek out specific forms of content, which in this case, might include terms like “aikido,” “karate,” “taekwondo,” and” “judo.” These are all forms of fighting that a ham-fisted brand safety algorithm might exclude but that would benefit the campaign in question.

In today’s post-pandemic climate, brand suitability is all the more critical. For one, consumers seek out purpose-driven, authentic brands. Get the context wrong, and a discordant brand or content alignment can have negative implications for brands in the minds of consumers. In 2019, a survey conducted by TAG / BSI revealed that 82% of participants would reduce spending on products that are advertised against unsuitable context. To put this all into perspective, would you as a user engage with an advertisement promoting energy drinks when you’re hunting for Lego video reviews for your child?

Cookies and blocklists put brands on the back foot. Brand suitability draws on perception and customization to make sure that surrounding content makes sense for the brand’s image and customer base. And, when you combine this with context-informed targeting and human intelligence, brand suitability is the more powerful approach to engage with today’s consumers and customers in a way that also helps to future-proof today’s savvy brands. 

Robin Zieme is Chief Strategy Officer at Channel Factory.

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