What is Contextual Advertising?
Contextual advertising targets your ads to web pages based on their similar/related content.
Contextual ads “match” with the keywords/topics of the pages they’re shown on. So, an ad for vanilla on a cupcake baking blog, accounting software on Wall Street Journal, movie tickets on a movie review site, or tents on a campground video. Instead of using personal data about the user, contextual ads display your products/services based on the content of the page. The pitch is that users are more likely to view contextual ads as helpful because the ads match the content they are consuming.
Contextual ads have been around for a long time. They’re resurging now primarily because of data privacy issues. In fairness, they’ve also improved because computer vision and natural language processing have dramatically improved in the past few years. (Advances in artificial intelligence, coupled with the fact that they’re not reliant on any third-party data, have made many of the biggest companies look at them.)
Contextual ads are shown wherever traditional ads are shown: on websites, YouTube, videogames, Social and so on. You can also do contextual targeting in apps. (Your program will likely be a little different, as most apps don’t have the same reliance on words/text as websites do.)
Targeting can be done on Google Display Network, Microsoft Advertising, a demand-side platform, etc. Advertisers can specify keywords, topics, geographical locations, and demographics they would like to target.
What are the benefits of Contextual Advertising?
Fewer privacy issues. Contextual advertising doesn’t rely on third-party cookies or the collection of personal data. It complies with CCPA and GDPR.
Reflective of current user intent. A bread baking blog geared toward the home baker is far more likely to have ads for flour and bread machines and far less likely to have commercial anesthetics or industrial supplies.
Many also think that it’s better at targeting users based on their current interests because when you’re on a site, you’re seeing an ad for something you’re actively researching/doing. (You see a shoe ad while registering for a marathon, for example.) In my experience, some of the purported benefits of contextual ads are great in theory, but they’re not as strong at producing revenues as other ads.
Also, because contextual ads are a better fit for the pages they’re displayed on, they’re typically not as noticeable. With that said, several studies show that users “don’t feel stalked” or say that contextual ads aren’t as “creepy” or “intrusive.” Plus, contextual ads are often better for companies with aggressive retargeting programs that don’t have a solid burn process.
Easier to set up. Because you don’t use all sorts of existing customer data to make them work, contextual ad programs are often quicker to establish.
Less drama. The places your ads are showcased are better fits as they complement the page content, not just filling a blank ad slot. This loosely translates to: contextual ads are less likely to make users think you have bugs listening in on all their private conversations. (As a marketer, you know you’ve heard this.)
Improved accuracy. In the last few years, AI has dramatically improved. It’s faster and smarter. It processes more information and better analyzes the page content, which allows your ads to be served in places with more precisely targeted audiences. This can be especially beneficial for those with smaller budgets and/or heavy competition.
Safer for brands. With today’s ever-heated climate (literally and figuratively), brands have found themselves advertising on sites – and content — that they don’t want to be associated with. Because Contextual ads are so content-focused, there’s less chance your ads will be placed in environments you don’t want to be in.
The frequency appears to be more capped. Studies have shown that this is not the case, but because contextual ads are within the context of the pages they’re looking at, they’re often perceived as less jarring. Ads tend to last longer and be less likely to be blocked/marked as SPAM/unwanted. (Your mileage may vary on this.)
More specificity (or at least the appearance of it.) The reality is that other ad types have more specificity, but because of how you set them up, marketers tend to narrow the context further with contextual ads than with other things.
What are the most significant drawbacks?
You don’t collect personal data. (Yes, there are workarounds, but…)
Despite the current hype, they often don’t perform as well. There are exceptions to this, though, and you could be one. Remember that a lot of your success depends on your control creative, CTAs (Call to Actions), and your selects.
For some companies, there are just not enough properties for them to advertise in/on effectively. Vendors will encourage extending your matches, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
There’s a lot of smarmy technology and smarmy middlemen in the space. You can overcome this, too, by asking the right questions. What do they use for brand classification and safety? Text, images, video, audio, etc.? Do you own the technology, or are you white labeling someone else’s? What are you using to understand the full context of the page? How do you determine relevance? What’s your validation process? Is your process wholly algorithmic, or do you have oversight? What can I do to improve the natural language processing and computer vision elements of your process? And so on…
How does Contextual Advertising work?
Contextual Advertising looks at the content of the pages/platforms where the user will see your advertisement/content and uses context to determine whether the ad fits. Instead of looking at personal data, it looks at webpage data.
As an advertiser, you choose the topic(s) and keywords you’d like to show your ad(s) on. Then Google/Microsoft/etc. find the perfect match for your ads. They do this by analyzing the page text, keywords, structure, and language of sites that allow ads to find the perfect page(s) to showcase them.
Again, it’s up to you (as the advertiser) to determine which topics and keywords you believe correlate to your ad(s.) You may specify how close a match is required. And yes, broad reach is still an option.
What are some tips for building contextual campaigns?
Improve your creative. It floors me how many companies have just a couple of creative ads that they run over and over (read: into the ground.) Web ads fatigue VERY QUICKLY (just a few days), so you will want to develop lots of them. Yes, you can use the same ad repeatedly – it’s just not prudent to run them for months on end without a refresh. Develop an arsenal of ads that you can use and rotate them. (Artificial Intelligence REALLY helps with this.)
Build out your negatives. I’ve found that companies either excel at building at their negatives, or they just plain suck at it. There’s not much middle ground. (Traffic folks know they should do this but often don’t. The best way to see if your folks are doing the right thing is to request a list.) Negatives can be keyword-specific negatives or website-specific negatives. Never show my ads on x site. Never show my ads with X word/phrase. (For example, the latter prevents a gun manufacturer from displaying their ads on articles about mass shootings.)
Don’t skimp on your selections. Use the things that are available to you. Some of the most common elements are location, device (mobile or desktop), purchase history, language, and weather.
Don’t forget to spend time perfecting your landing pages. This goes for all kinds of ads, but it can be incredibly lucrative for contextual ads if you are targeting based on location or device.
Is this whole privacy thing just about mobile devices? Can I do behavioral ads on desktop without a problem and just contextual ads for mobile?
This question comes up a lot.
No, the whole privacy thing isn’t just about mobile. Most of the pending/projected legislation revolves around data and user privacy as a whole. Contextual ads are getting a lot of press lately because there’s been a bigger shift to privacy-first advertising. For example, IDFA restrictions, deprecation of 3rd party cookies, tracking transparency, and other changes in their digital policies. Plus, let’s be frank… Some traffic drivers are using “the privacy issue” to cloak the fact that they want to sell your data back to you (or use it for other nefarious purposes.)
You can still do behavioral ads as you wish, mobile or desktop. (Most companies do a combination of behavioral, contextual, and otherwise ads.) There are differences in the programs, and it’s best to have processed – and an arsenal of control ads — that you feel good about for all of them.
What is the difference between Contextual Advertising and Behavioral Advertising?
Behavioral ads target users based on their actual/real browsing behavior and not just their stated preferences. Behaviors include visiting a site page, asking a voice assistant a question, watching a reel on Instagram, etc. Ads are served according to your likes and interests. (Yes, your “actions” could also be dislikes and things you want to avoid – anything you browse or buy tends to be fair game with behavioral targeting.)
Because Behavioral Ads are based on the user’s actions, you may find a bunch of personal B2C product ads on a B2B site or vice versa. The ads are served regardless of content. Contextual ads are shown based on the context – so your kid’s pajamas ad may end up on a parenting blog, but it’s not going to end up on an industrial manufacturer’s podcast page.
Successful Behavioral Ad programs rely on data. Oodles and oodles of data. Some companies have lots of great data, and others don’t. If you don’t have a lot of customer data available to you and/or you don’t have the time/money to spend on analyzing and organizing your data, Contextual Ads may be a better choice for you. It’s easy and affordable to start a Contextual ad program. Incidentally, Contextual Ad programs often have a broader reach when set up correctly.
Are Contextual Ads relevant? Isn’t showing your abandoned cart ad everywhere you can better than showing only your binoculars ads on birding sites? Look, I totally get where you’re going here. I’m the self-professed Franks Red Hot Queen of Personalization; I will put that s*** on anything. However, this privacy stuff is no joke, and we all need alternative plans, just in case.
In the beginning, Behavioral Data was mostly just companies trying to market to their users. It became more complicated when the significant traffic drivers started compiling data from multiple sources and then tied unique identifiers to every individual based on their browsing and buying tendencies without consent. Many feel we will get back there. Others think that the Privacy Police will win, and we will lose almost everything. I believe AI is disrupting the entire advertising process, and we should focus on accommodating that.
What is the difference between Contextual Advertising and Native Advertising?
Native advertising is a form of contextual advertising. Native ads look at the “native” content on the site. In other words, the ads don’t look like ads, just part of the web page. (They often have an editorial look and feel.)
Contextual ads look like ads and thus would be classified as harder sell, whereas Native ads are generally pitched as soft selling.
What is the difference between Contextual Advertising and Demographic Targeting?
Demographic targeting uses IP addresses, visitor tracking, cookies, information submitted on forms, etc.
Contextual ads don’t use any personal information.
It seems like Behavioral ads are the best. Why bother with Contextual ads?
Doubtless, many companies are squawking that contextual ads are not as lucrative. Is their concern legit? Yes, especially if you are a spray-and-pray type advertiser. However, with all the looming privacy issues and legislation, it’s prudent to figure out how to make contextual ads work so you’ll have a backup plan, just in case.
Are you using Contextual Ads? Have any tips you’d like to share? Perhaps you have questions about them? Tweet @amyafrica or write firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Down-and-Dirty Definition for Marketers. (Read more about these here.)