Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Contextual: don’t call it a comeback

By Peter Wallace, SVP of Sales, EMEA at GumGum

The speed at which the ad-tech industry is scrambling to adapt to its current challenges – including everything from new privacy legislation to systemic banner ad-blindness – is daunting. There have been numerous attempts to work within the grey areas of privacy legislation and create work-arounds, and we’ve seen on numerous occasions that these routes get quickly shut down. Clearly, advertisers must start to work with legislation and take a consumer-first approach to targeting. 

This consumer-first, privacy-first approach has led many brands to the conclusion that to tackle these new problems they need an old method. As a result, we have seen the return and rise of contextual advertising – but not as we knew it. 

Context 2.0

The debut of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) policy in 2021 and the impending demise of the cookie mean advertisers need to look beyond data-targeted ads to reach their audiences. That means brands now need to understand the consumer’s mindset and serve their audience ads at the exact place and time they will be most receptive to a campaign’s message. No format does this better than contextual. 

Contextual advertising has been around since the industry’s dawn and applies to all media channels. The concept is simple: identify a user’s environment and deliver a relevant message to that moment. In a newspaper, an advertiser selling tickets to a football match would place ads in the sports section, hoping to attract the attention of an engaged sports fan susceptible to the offer.

In digital advertising, the principle remains the same, but the application is much more sophisticated. Early iterations of contextual would look to identify individual keywords in a body of text. We know, in this day and age, that one word does not define the subject area of an article, and so, with the ascent of AI-led technologies, we meet Contextual 2.0.

The technology now under our control is able to take a human-level understanding of the content of a page – from the sentiment and meaning of text to image analysis, through to video and audio. Suddenly we have a scalable, accurate solution that doesn’t simply work in the shadows of privacy regulation, but aligns fully with it.

Putting it into practice

There are a number of areas advertisers should consider when applying a contextual strategy. Most importantly, they need to dive into the technology that is being applied. Is a platform just assessing individual keywords, or does it truly understand the meaning of content? Not all contextual solutions are the same, and those that aren’t able to apply these advanced features will end up driving issues with targeting accuracy, as well as possible brand safety concerns.

Contextual isn’t just a one-to-one relationship. By this, we mean that auto brands, for instance, shouldn’t just apply targeting to automotive content; they need to consider the different environments in which they might inspire that consumer and align with their mindset. Relevant aspects of a 4×4 might range from its off-road capabilities through to its safety features – immediately, this provides two different messages for varying contextual environments.

We also need to stop thinking too much about keywords and start thinking about categories. As we’ve discussed, individual keywords do not define the meaning of a piece of content, so why would you choose to target based on them? Brands need to consider categories that are relevant to their consumers and their product message, and align accordingly.

Reaping rewards

With contextual, ambiguous, inaccurate performance data is also on the way out. In today’s attention economy, contextual delivers stellar metrics. Our own research has shown contextual ads increase brand recall by 70%.

And because these ads are reaching audiences that sit squarely in their universe of interest, they can also boost a brand’s e-commerce success. Contextual ads have been shown to increase purchase intent by 60%, and contextual video has been found to enhance the same metric by as much as 390%. 

What’s more, at a time when regulations on privacy and consent are continuously tightening, and as trust in Big Tech is progressively eroded by waves of controversy and endless litigation, contextual’s ability to operate without the need for personal data makes it a future-proof format to trust. Because contextual targeting platforms like our own Verity™ are so accurate in judging context, ads are also prevented from appearing in locations with unsavoury content and messaging. 

Today’s environments, tomorrow’s world

Contextual advertising comes from the fundamentals of traditional media, but it has all the necessary applications for the digital world. Today, contextual ads are served across multiple digital environments, including desktop, mobile, OLV and CTV, and contextual advertising is also ideally placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by emerging platforms such as in-game, the metaverse and more. The intrinsically, privacy-forward nature of contextual makes it a platform that is compliant and ready for the future.