Adding Contextual Targeting to Your Advertising Playbook

Reviewing contextual advertising campaign results

Contextual targeting has been around for decades, but it’s experiencing a resurgence—and for good reason.

With the changing tides of data privacy, contextual targeting is an effective option for advertisers looking to reach prospective customers. When paired with the right strategy, contextual targeting allows advertisers to be in front of prospects when they’re in the ideal mindset. In other words, it gives brands the ability to be top-of-mind in the moments that matter.

What is Contextual Targeting?

Also called contextual advertising, contextual targeting involves placing ads near or within relevant content to what’s being advertised.

Before the advent of the web and online advertising, contextual advertising was a common strategy—think ads for cosmetics in a women’s magazine, or a commercial for golf clubs on ESPN. Today, contextual ads can be placed on specific websites, web pages, apps, video and more. Similarly, contextual targeting can use factors like location, weather and time of day as forms of context.

Contextual vs. Behavioral Targeting

Contextual targeting varies from behavioral targeting (one of the most common strategies for modern ad placement) in numerous ways. Whereas behavioral targeting is based on historical data and a user’s behavior in the past, contextual targeting is based on the content a user is currently viewing.

Woman being served contextual ads

For example, an ad for a lawn mower on a website about landscaping likely uses contextual targeting, because the categories and topics align. But that same lawn mower ad on a website about current events is probably being shown because of the user’s past behavior.

Why Contextual Should Be A Tactic In Your Toolbox

Behavioral targeting has overshadowed contextual targeting in recent years, but contextual targeting is making a resurgence—and for good reason.

Contextual advertising provides numerous benefits for brands:

Reaching people in the moments that matter

Perhaps the biggest benefit of contextual advertising is the ability for advertisers to serve ads at specific points in the customer journey.

With a strong targeting strategy, brands can make sure their product or service is top-of-mind when a customer is most likely to pay attention to an ad, engage with it and even make a purchase.

Privacy compliance

Marketers, advertisers and tech companies have been preparing for the “death of the cookie” for years, and as more platforms move away from using third-party data for audience targeting, behavioral advertising isn’t always possible.

But contextual advertising focuses on reaching potential customers based on their current activity and doesn’t require platforms to track behavioral data, so it’s not affected by restrictions on cookies.

Increased reach

Contextual advertising campaigns can also allow brands to reach more people than behavioral targeting methods alone. Behavioral targeting relies heavily on some form of user or device identity and audience churn is inherent with these identity technologies. This means a behavioral person or device in an audience one day may not be there a day later. Contextual targeting helps fill in these gaps and continues to reach relevant people when behavioral data cannot. With category contextual targeting or keyword contextual targeting, brands can show up on relevant web pages regardless of whether the brand has access to a user’s past web browsing behavior.

Cost Efficiency

Audience data costs can be significant. A contextual campaign doesn’t require that data, meaning advertisers can often reduce or exclude that aspect of the budget.

The Benefits of Programmatic Contextual Buying

Similar to other digital advertising options, contextual advertising can be purchased directly from the publisher or seller, or via programmatic advertising.

For publisher-direct buys, advertisers have to identify the outlets and content where they want their ads to appear. This requires a lot of legwork, and the more places an advertiser wants their ads to appear, the more legwork they’ll have to do to uncover those places.

Programmatic advertising uses ad tech solutions that can identify context at the page or object level in addition to the broader website or app. (Take a website like MSN or Yahoo, which covers hundreds or even thousands of topics a month. Advertising site-wide would result in ads that are not contextually relevant. But programmatic ad technology can identify individual articles and videos that are relevant to an advertiser’s audience, and show that advertiser’s ads only on those pages.)

Travel contextual advertising examples

Buying directly from a publisher or seller can also require high minimum investments, a roadblock that can be avoided with programmatic buys. It’s also easier to unify omnichannel campaigns with programmatic purchasing, improving both the campaign management and outcomes.

Programmatic contextual can also be done with private sellers and can offer great access to highly contextually aligned supply. While this does require private contracts per seller, executing these programmatic contracts is fast and efficient.

The Strategy Behind Contextual Targeting

In itself, contextual targeting can be highly successful. But there are several ways contextual targeting can be applied to a marketing strategy to support different parts of the customer journey.

Many contextual advertising guides will say to create a keyword list and negative keyword list—and voila, you’re done. And while there are a few scenarios in which contextual targeting is that straightforward, for many advertisers, more thoughtful and deeper planning is required.

Contextual targeting can be approached with different objectives in mind:

Targeting context to increase attention

How much a person is willing to look at ads can be strongly influenced by the type of content they’re viewing or engaging with. Ads that align with the context in which they’re viewed can increase viewer attention and the likelihood the ad will be noticed—for example, ads about laundry detergent being shown in an article about getting out tough stains.

Targeting context that infers the target audience

The most common approach to contextual advertising is audience targeting, which can be both simple and effective. An advertising campaign geared toward fitness buffs would reach the right audience if shown exercise apps or websites. But advertisers can implement additional strategy to take their contextual campaigns even further. That’s where mindset comes in.

Targeting context that aligns with mindset

Beyond reaching the right audience and increasing attention, context can be narrowed even more to help move prospective customers through the marketing funnel. Because people view different types of content for different reasons, the type of context and content can represent the phase of the decision-making process.

For example, a company that sells running shoes can focus on prospects in the consideration and decision phases with ads alongside a “Top 10 Gear Guide for Runners” article, or other context suggesting the reader is looking to make a purchase, like an ecommerce website.

Of course, advertisers can consider additional degrees of contextual alignment—in other words, targeting content that is contextually adjacent. A landscaping company might consider running ad campaigns on websites about home renovation, which isn’t the exact topic but are close neighbors. This kind of contextually adjacent strategy requires understanding your audience and often benefits from some creativity. Testing ad targeting options and using trial and error can help advertisers find what works and what doesn’t.

Considering other context

Advertisers can also design their contextual campaigns to include factors like location, time of day, day of the week or even the weather. Doing so can help advertisers make sure their brand is showing up for their target audiences, in the ideal mindset and in the best conditions.

Using Contextual and Behavioral Targeting to Reach the Right Audience

Don’t get us wrong. While contextual audience targeting is a phenomenal tool that we encourage advertisers to use, it’s not a replacement for behavioral targeting.

Designing a successful ad campaign requires striking the right balance of targeting methods and scale; you don’t want to be too wide with targeting and reach people who aren’t qualified, or be too narrow with targeting and unintentionally exclude people who are. But in cases where scale isn’t overcome by over-targeting, combining behavioral targeting with contextual targeting can be extremely effective.

This can be done two ways. The first is through running separate campaigns, with some using behavioral targeting and some using contextual targeting. The other option is to layer contextual and behavioral targeting together in the same campaign. Both options can help advertisers get more out of their digital advertising.

The Right Audiences at The Right Moments

Contextual targeting is a simple concept with seemingly endless opportunities and options—and requires a strong strategy to get the most out of it. But it can help brands achieve a major objective: connecting with the right audiences at the right moments.

Lean Media can help you develop strategic, effective campaigns that combine contextual and behavioral targeting to achieve your company’s goals. Contact us to learn more.

Ready to learn more?

Speak with a Lean Media campaign planner to see how our audience-first approach to programmatic advertising can work for your ad campaigns.

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