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Contextual Targeting in a Privacy-First World

Claire Allen
Digital Marketing Associate
Oct 24, 2022

You may have heard the term “contextual advertising” resurfacing more as browsers are increasingly limiting cookies, whether that is through empowering users through cookie consent management or browser-level limitations like Intelligent Tracking Protection. So, what is contextual advertising, and why is this potentially the next best move for your brand’s paid advertising strategy?

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What is Contextual Advertising?

Contextual advertising is a form of targeted advertising that focuses on placing ads on web pages according to their content. This aligns your ad’s placement with the information a user is consuming.

For example, you may see an ad for running shoes pop up while you are reading a blog about popular workouts for beginners, just like this ad for Brooks running shoes on VeryWellFit’s blog post “10 Easy Workouts for Beginners.”

Example of contextual advertising for running shoes on a blog post called "10 easy workouts for beginners."
Image source.

Contextual advertising can be a great approach for meeting users at the “right time” in their customer journey because it grabs a user’s attention while they are already interested in, or considering, a similar product.

Contextual Targeting vs. Behavioral Targeting

Contextual targeting and behavioral targeting, while similar concepts, do not mean the same thing. While contextual targeting matches ad and web page content (such as running shoe example above), behavioral targeting focuses on showing a user ads based on their past browsing behavior or actions they have taken—such as clicking a link to a page on your site or browsing a product page on your mobile app—that are relevant to your brand’s product or service.

If you see that a user has visited your site and has browsed several product pages, behavioral targeting would show ads that remind the user of their interest in those products or recommend similar products.

image2 5
Image source: the weather channel

In the image above, the user may have recently visited Ford’s website and browsed the offers for their F-150 trucks, prompting these ads to show on the current page they are browsing, weather.com, as a reminder or nudge to revisit the Ford site. Since the ad content is completely unrelated to the page content, this is a clear example of behavioral targeting.

Privacy Regulations and Contextual Advertising

In the current state of online advertising, one of the biggest benefits of contextual advertising is that it does not rely on cross-site tracking, meaning that it will not be impacted by the evolving privacy restrictions. In the wake of increasing cookie depreciation and privacy laws like the GDPR and CCPA, many brands are increasing their focus on contextual advertising.

Large beauty retailer Sephora just found itself in hot water after violating the CCPA. They claimed to be compliant, but didn’t have the contracts in place to make it true. As a result, they’ve been forced to pay a $1.2 million fine for their violation and also risk damage to their brand reputation.

This is just one example of the need for brands to be careful when using either behavioral or contextual targeting practices. It is important to make sure you are being honest about your privacy policy and including the necessary features, such as the opt-in or out option, to comply with privacy regulations. To avoid any conflict, we recommend the following:

  • A privacy regulation compliance audit, which we can conduct, to support conversations with legal counsel.
  • Ensure compliance by updating your tag management system to respect the Global Privacy Control opt-out signal.
  • Review your site to ensure that you have “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” links as required by the CCPA.
  • Review your Privacy Policy – Many of the California Attorney General’s recent enforcement efforts center around non-compliant Privacy Policies. Search Discovery can assist in a review of your existing privacy policy to help ensure it has everything the California Attorney General may be looking for.

Please note that currently only the browsers Firefox, Brave, and DuckDuckGo support the Global Privacy Control. It is, however, expected that browser support will increase over time, given the governmental backing of the specification. At Search Discovery, we are monitoring these developments closely, and we’re available for discussions on this matter should you have any questions or concerns.

At the end of the day, contextual advertising will retain its scale and functionality in our increasingly privacy-first world and should be used in conjunction with behavioral advertising as best practice for your marketing strategy.

Advantages of Contextual Advertising

1. Not limited by privacy restrictions

Although behavioral advertising is more personalized, it leaves room for conflict, as consumers do not like to have their privacy violated with ads becoming too personalized. Your brand must make sure to include an opt-in or opt-out feature for collecting data to comply with privacy regulations and avoid being fined for misconduct.

With contextual advertising, you don’t have to worry about crossing these boundaries as you are not collecting any intimate personal data on your consumers, but rather providing them with ad content that relates to what they are browsing in real-time. Users don’t have to opt in or out of anything to be able to see your ads on relevant sites.

2. Less annoyance due to ad repetition

When using behavioral retargeting, ads may be shown to a consumer a handful of times in an attempt to “remarket” a product that the consumer has previously shown interest in. But consumers may become frustrated with seeing the same ad over and over again, potentially decreasing their likelihood of converting and damaging brand reputation.

When using contextual advertising, the ads are no longer based on the consumer’s previous interests or browsing history, but rather on the content of the current webpage they are browsing. You may still see the same contextual ad five times on one page and another five times if you visit another page on the site; however, there is a reduction in frequency around how you are followed across the internet, to every site you visit, by that same ad.

3. Consumers often prefer context over personalization

Recent studies show that consumers actually prefer to be shown ads that relate to the content that is on the current webpage they are browsing, rather than being shown content that relates to their past behavior or browsing actions.

According to the contextual intelligence company GumGum, 65% of consumers claimed that they are more likely to purchase from an ad that is contextually relevant to the webpage they are visiting as opposed to the 35% who said they would be more likely to purchase based on ads that pertain to their online behavior over the last month.

Additionally, a study conducted by Forrester found that 59% of US adults agreed that activity tracking across devices to send more relevant ads is “not okay,” which adds to the appeal of shifting to a contextual advertising approach.

How to Implement Contextual Targeting (How Does It Work)

Contextual advertising is a fairly simple process set up through Google’s Display Network:

  1. In the Display Network, create your ad groups based on topics and themes that represent your product or service offering.
  2. Develop a list of keywords that are relevant to your brand and add these keywords to your ad groups in the Display Network. Be sure to include any negative keywords or phrases that you don’t want your ads showing up for.
  3. Per Google’s recommendation, set up Conversion Tracking to better understand the performance of your ad campaign’s site-level conversions, once active.
  4. Google’s crawlers will analyze your keywords and topics and match them to relevant webpages based on content.
    Google will then place your ads on these relevant pages.

The most important thing to remember when creating contextual ads is to make sure they link to a unique landing page that is likely to create a conversion. Since contextual targeting relies on less specific information than data from behavioral targeting, you’ll need to be creative with your ad themes to represent your brand effectively and establish authority with Google.

Due to the emergence of new technology in the online advertising sector, there are several new contextual targeting tools that allow for natural language and image processing on these sites, meaning that placing contextual ads can be done even faster and is much more reliable and safe for your brand.

Contextual or Behavioral Targeting: Which is Best?

The answer to this question can easily be both. Relevant, timely marketing is the key to driving conversions from your audience. Contextual advertising focuses on exactly that by targeting consumers with relevant ads at the exact moment that they are browsing this similar content.

Behavioral targeting will continue to play a key role in marketer’s programs, but due to the increasing regulations around privacy and limited data available, contextual targeting
will become increasingly important.

At Search Discovery, we are both advertising and privacy experts. We can help you determine how to start implementing contextual advertising into your marketing strategy in the wake of new rules and regulations.

Reach out to our digital marketing team to discuss how to get started today!

Claire Allen
Digital Marketing Associate

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