Refocusing the Contextual Advertising Conversation on Outcomes

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As the sunsetting of third-party cookies approaches, many adtech leaders are heralding contextual targeting as the alternative of choice. Marketers and organizations are nervous about the forthcoming disruption to “business as usual” as it relates to driving and measuring advertising ROI. But that’s only because our industry is having the wrong conversations.

We need to stop talking about audiences versus context. We need to stop talking about programmatic versus managed services. We need to stop talking about deterministic versus probabilistic. These dichotomies are creating the perception of a wholesale industry upheaval when, in fact, marketers’ ability to do what they truly need to do won’t be changing all that dramatically.

It’s time to stop getting hung up in the jargon. Instead, let’s talk about what really matters to marketers: outcomes and how to secure them. 

Branding or Performance? It’s All About Outcomes

All brands and agencies want to hit their goals, whether those goals are built around the concept of branding or performance. But even that dichotomy is becoming increasingly irrelevant, as even the direct-to-consumer brands built on the foundation of direct-response revenue have evolved their models to recognize the long-term necessity of brand building. 

Most of the traditional binaries in digital advertising are breaking down and giving way to a hybrid, more holistic future that’s based on relevance. Marketing comes down to outcomes and determining the right way to gauge success based on a brand’s and campaign’s goals. Producing desired outcomes depends on quality metrics, including the following: 

Attention: Thanks to historical data from cookie-based brand lift studies, we already have a detailed understanding of how effective certain ad placements are at capturing and holding a reader’s attention. As such, in contextual advertising, attention measures can serve as an effective proxy for brand lift.

Confidence: Marketers also need to understand how well a given article or piece of content indexes against the audiences they’re trying to reach. An article might be marked as being relevant to sports enthusiasts, but how much of the content is actually about sports? A confidence score is a quality indicator of how well the content aligns with the desired audience. 

Recency: In contextual, recency serves as a reliable proxy for audience value and interest. We know that many categories of online content — sports, for example — tend to be read within hours of publication. The value of timely content diminishes quickly, as does the value of the eyeballs it reaches. Thus, to understand the quality of contextual impressions, marketers need to understand the recency of the content around which their ads appear. 

Sentiment: Taking this a step further, marketers need to consider the sentiment of the content around which they advertise. Is the topic of relevance spoken about in a positive, neutral, or negative way? Again, this measure helps brands understand the true value of their impressions. 

Brand Safety: Measures of brand safety enable marketers to protect their brand reputation within their media buys by ensuring the content they advertise around is not only safe but also suitable for their desired audience. 

Viewability: Of course, quality extends to the placement of the ad unit itself. In this regard, viewability remains an essential measure of quality within the contextual space. 

The quality signals that make sense for any given campaign depend on the goals of the advertiser. The beauty of the above measures is that they can all be optimized, in real-time, over the life of the campaign to drive desired performance. In this regard, contextual targeting isn’t a deviation from what marketers have come to expect from their cookies-based audience targeting. In the end, it’s still all about outcomes. 

Stephanie Vandenberg-Smith is SVP of Revenue at Verve Group.