Contextual Ads Power Sophisticated Content Strategies in Privacy Era

It is well established that contextual ads are having a moment. After years of brands and tech firms gobbling up data in hopes of targeting consumers based on granular interests, privacy changes by state governments and gatekeepers such as Google and Apple are forcing a return to forms of advertising that require less intimate tracking of consumers.

The privacy sea change advantages contextual advertising because the strategy does not depend on individual user-level behavioral information. Rather, it drives content based on the context of a user’s digital experience. The classic example of this, as I refer to in an interview below with contextual ad tech firm Quintesse‘s CEO Doug Stevenson, would be someone reading about running getting a Nike ad.

But as the advertising industry turns back toward contextual, marketers will find a much more advanced technology than the one they may equate with the term, Stevenson explains. The privacy-safe ad method isn’t just serving up sneaker ads anymore; it’s powering sophisticated, content-based brand campaigns across multiple channels and target audiences.

Some proponents of behavioral advertising say contextual isn’t effective enough to replace or supplement individual tracking-based methods losing out due to privacy. What’s your perspective on that?

Those who doubt contextual’s effectiveness are thinking about an old-school approach to contextual targeting. With today’s cloud computing technology, advanced contextual employs machine learning, natural language processing, and true semantic analysis that simply wasn’t possible 10 years ago. 

Advanced contextual has to be viewed differently than contextual 1.0. The technology is now able to understand sentiment as well as the emotional tone and perspective of the context. It can determine the context across different layers of an article down to the paragraph level. With contextual, brands can preemptively protect themselves from brand safety issues by only advertising in environments that they’ve deemed suitable or safe for their brand.

We are just at the beginning of the innovation to come in the advanced contextual space. Many innovators in the industry have been distracted for the past decade trying to find workarounds to continue to use their various audience trackers, e.g. cookies, IDFA, IP-addresses, hashed emails (HEMs), etc. I’m excited for what’s ahead as that attention is shifted to the importance of branding in digital advertising and using technology to find the perfect environments for brands. 

The basic way I’d say most of us understand contextual ads is that we read an article on running and get sneaker or Nike ads. Surely, there’s more to it. How do you explain contextual advertising?

A successful, advanced contextual advertising campaign begins with an extensive discovery phase. At the start of engagements with our clients, we analyze websites, landing pages, competitors, partnerships and more to identify the themes and topics that would be appropriate for the brand. We create custom lemma maps that extend the contextual targeting beyond basic seed words like “run” to include all the words that should be used to target that ad campaign. Collaborating with advertisers, we set pre-bid parameters on the inclusion and exclusion lists to match a brand’s safety and suitability preferences before a campaign even kicks off. 

Sure, the most basic endemic example of contextual advertising for Nike would be placing a sneaker ad with an article about running. However, Nike wants to do more than simply sell sneakers. Like most large brands today, Nike has a strategy in place to ensure their customers understand the brand’s mission and values to create brand loyalists. Nike partners with organizations that support causes that their customers care about as well as sponsors some of the world’s leading athletes. 

Nike brand ambassador Naomi Osaka has been in the news recently for putting her mental health first. It would make sense for Nike to target context focused on breaking stigma around mental health or self-care. With the NBA Playoffs underway, Nike may want to have ads appear anywhere that Lebron James is mentioned, no matter if the article is about basketball or where he went out to dinner. NIKE, Inc. has made a commitment to supporting the Black community over the past year, so it would make sense to be associated with articles about systemic racism related to home ownership or advancing Black women in business. This more advanced contextual strategy builds brand awareness and associates the brand with themes their audience cares about, so that when the target audience is in the market for running shoes, Nike is the first brand that comes to mind. 

Media planners have to treat digital as a more viable tool for branding. Just because it has been easy to measure digital media for direct response metrics like clicks, viewability, online conversions and more, targeted digital also works well for branding. Without cookies or other trackers, the industry will be forced to think strategically about the relationship between the customer and the brand and I expect a new spark of creativity. 

What are some contextual strategies of which marketers should be aware?

Marketers should be aware that contextual is now available at scale since many contextual partners can access the global bidstream. 

At the most rudimentary level, contextual targeting can be done using the IAB Tech Lab Content Taxonomy

Customized, advanced contextual targeting is another strategy which includes an extensive discovery phase and deep understanding of the audience. The Nike example above would employ this type of strategy. Advertisers can carefully curate which inventory matches the brands’ suitability requirements and contextual relevance pre-bid before launching the programmatic campaign at scale.

In Europe, curated marketplaces are gaining traction with support from the IAB. Curated ML can make suggestions to ensure these carefully customized lists stay updated based on real-time changes. 

Post-bid contextual intelligence reporting is a strategy that advertisers are using today to better understand the contextual profiles surrounding their audiences to prepare them for tomorrow. Technology can now analyze contextual down to the URL-level, so marketers should expect their agencies to report on campaigns at the URL-level, not just at the domain-level at this point.  

Targeting around brand ambassadors is another contextual strategy. Advertisers carefully selected these public figures to represent the brand for a reason, so aligning with content about that person, even if it is not directly related to your products, can be valuable. 

With contextual conquesting, marketers can target articles where specific competitors are mentioned.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018 and compiled the daily newsletter since 2016. Joe is a journalist who has written widely about technology, business, and politics. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.
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