Expert Roundup: The Cutting Edge of Contextual Advertising

Contextual advertising is resurgent, propelled by privacy rules that will disrupt the digital tracking that makes one-to-one behavioral advertising possible. With consumer data getting harder to collect, advertisers are increasingly tailoring ads based on the context of users’ online experiences, not immutable personal characteristics.

But contextual advertising does not simply mean showing Macy’s ads to someone reading about fall apparel. In this roundup, leaders in contextual marketing provide insight on the cutting edge of the discipline.

Doug Stevenson, CEO and Co-Founder, Quintesse, on Fleshing out Brands

Many modern brands differentiate themselves from competitors by their commitments to sustainability, diversity, more humane practices, or another important cause. For example, P&G’s Tide has made a commitment to sustainability. The brand’s #TurnToCold initiative encourages customers to wash with cold water to save an average of 90% of the energy of every load of laundry. This campaign helps the brand build positive brand affinity with shoppers who also care about important issues like global warming, sustainability, climate change, etc.

This type of educational branding campaign is most successfully executed online using contextual advertising strategies. Contextual targeting helps capture the attention of the right consumers when they are in the right mindset to be educated about what makes the brand different, while audience-based targeting is more focused on driving a higher number of impressions.

These educational campaigns can be targeted contextually to endemic keywords like sustainability. However, blue-chip brands committed to sustainability are also focusing on more advanced content optimization strategies to drive positive brand affinity such as targeting content related to nature and environmental issues.

Amy Williams, Founder and CEO, Good-Loop, on Social Good-Oriented Strategy

Context helps brands to be a part of the conversations that matter. At the heart of our industry is a fundamental, unspoken value exchange. The ad on the bus shelter pays for the roof that keeps our heads dry. The ad on TV pays for the shows we watch. And never has this value exchange been more important than when it comes to supporting free, independent journalism.

Around the world, news sites keep us informed about some of the most important issues facing society today. For example during the early days of the pandemic, traffic to quality news sites such as The Guardian tripled overnight, as people flocked to trusted sources at a time of uncertainty. Similarly, coverage about the climate crisis is a crucial weapon in our fight against climate change, and yet, in spite of ambitious ESG targets and sustainability commitments, many brands block climate crisis content because they don’t want their ads to appear next to ‘bad news.’

This is a huge opportunity. For the brands who bravely and boldly are taking a stand against climate change, they have an opportunity to appear in a place of high engagement, high attention, and high passion, with 100% share of voice. For those brands who step up and who are a part of the solution, contextual offers them a coveted opportunity to be a meaningful part of the conversations that truly matter.

Hersh Patel, Founder and CEO, Hindsight, on Value-Based Targeting

Over the past 20 years, contextual targeting has been traditionally leveraged for negative sentiment targeting or in other words, brand safety. But with the demise of the cookie, advertisers need to leverage a powerful use case of contextual, which is positive targeting — to target articles that are aligned with the tops of campaigns and align with the values of the products being advertised. To really extract the full value of positive contextual targeting, a brand needs to create a well-intentioned taxonomy of topics that it wants to target its campaigns around. The most straightforward way to create a contextual taxonomy is using the general topics an ad campaign is about. So, targeting sports ads on sports content or cosmetic ads on health/beauty content.

Topic-based targeting is great for verticalized news but can’t be used for hard news and general news stories. So, how can a brand create a contextual taxonomy for hard news, which makes up a big portion of article content across the web? By leveraging value-based targeting. Many news stories appeal to a certain demographic of readers. For example, it is likely people reading about climate change are more inclined to purchase compostable products. Or someone reading about spiking oil prices could be interested in learning more about electric cars. By identifying the core values of a brand’s ideal consumers and building a taxonomy around that, brands can leverage positive contextual targeting on hard news stories to unlock more connected real-estate to place ads.

Vitaly Pecherskiy, COO and Co-Founder, StackAdapt, on Reaching the Right Audience

Consumers today increasingly want to support companies that they feel are advancing progress on important issues, both within and outside their operational footprint. Research consistently shows that consumers, particularly millennials, are four times more likely to purchase from a company that is purpose-driven. Globally, 94% of consumers say it is important that the companies they engage with have a strong purpose, and 83% say companies should only earn a profit if they also deliver a positive impact.  

Contextual advertising can be an effective tool for communicating purpose-driven messaging because it enables you to reach consumers based on their current and receptive frame of mind. With contextual targeting, you can reach consumers who are both conscious about social issues or values, or are curious about them and looking for more information.

A consumer who is interested in reducing their environmental impact may search for content that shares tips about sustainable household practices. With contextual targeting, a brand that is promoting the environmental benefits of lower washing machine temperatures can target the keyphrase “sustainable household practices” to appear next to content that covers the topic.

This strategy is effective because it ensures your ads are served to consumers who are aligned with the brand values that you are promoting, which sets the foundation for consumer trust and a positive brand association.

Zack Rosenberg, CEO and Co-Founder, CatapultX, on Contextual’s Malleability

What is appealing about contextual advertising is its malleability. Just like searching on Google, sometimes you type in words to learn something and sometimes you are looking to make a purchase.

Similarly, this is how advertising with contextual targeting works. If someone in a video walks by a brand’s logo, that reinforcement is a perfect opportunity for brand awareness. In other words, we exist.

While traditional digital advertising allows for increasing brand awareness, contextual ad formats allow brand image to be built through the application of the product. As a dishwashing detergent, a placement next to or around clean dishes reinforces what my product is capable of and its differentiation from my competitors. Similarly, a placement for auto insurance during a video of a car chase scene can communicate the added benefit of having a product in that instance.

If a consumer is looking for a new laptop case, they’ll likely search for it, and read something like “The Best Laptop Cases in 2021.” With contextual advertising, a relevant product such as antivirus software can be adjacent and reach consumers when there is a higher intent to purchase.

By associating the idea of a product vs. the existence of a product (awareness vs. image), the brand can positively influence how and what the consumer thinks relating to both the advertised product/service and the moment within the content. When someone thinks about clean dishes, they’ll think about Dawn. In this way, contextual advertising will change the business of advertising from action-based to moment-based.

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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.