The Contextual We’re “Returning to” Isn’t the One You Remember

By Rami Alanko, Founder and CEO, Beemray (now part of Verve Group)

The ongoing wave of privacy-focused ad industry initiatives, driven by legislators and tech giants alike, has sparked a slew of commentary heralding the “return to contextual targeting.” And indeed, interest and investment in contextual targeting is on the rise — a trend that continues unabated despite Google’s delay of its third-party cookie deprecation to 2023. After all, contextual’s ability to connect in a relevant way with users based on what they’re reading or viewing, versus their personal data, will continue to be a future-proof approach to targeting amid a quickly evolving privacy landscape.

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But here’s the thing: We’re not “returning to” contextual targeting in the way that many have been characterizing the shift. Contextual targeting today — and more importantly, in the coming months and years — looks nothing like the contextual targeting of a decade ago. To understand exactly what contextual can bring to media strategies as a growing number of digital identifiers fade into oblivion, marketers need to understand where contextual sits today — and where it’s going. Here are a few key points to keep in mind.

The Ongoing Evolution of Contextual

When contextual advertising became the darling of the ad world 10-15 years ago, it was heavily tied to domains — and little else. These days, contextual targeting leverages AI and machine learning to inform a deep understanding of on-page content, delivering far more granular and brand-safe options than in the past. However, there’s still a lot more to be done in the contextual realm, particularly as brands seek suitable alternatives for audience targeting tactics that are being invalidated amid privacy concerns.

While Google’s stay of execution for the cookie doesn’t change the overall trajectory of the digital ad space, it does buy the contextual targeting industry some valuable time to distill new and enhanced ways of converting personally identifiable audiences into context-based ones. There’s a lot of learning to be done as it relates to first-party data modeling and uncovering ways to do a better job of identifying meaningful contextual signals that can translate to audience understanding.

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This translational work will continue in earnest until the cookie’s last breath, but it won’t stop there. We’re also going to see two areas of immense focus emerge in the contextual ad realm in the coming years:

Improving recency.

Today’s contextual targeting technology has gotten incredibly good at classifying page content and discerning nuances in tone that are meaningful to advertisers and their brand safety efforts. What’s going to really differentiate solutions in the near future is how quickly they can do it.

Recency has, to date, been an underappreciated but incredibly important part of the contextual targeting equation. That’s because most pages being read at any given moment are the ones that have been published in the past 6-24 hours — meaning those are the pages that are most relevant to advertisers too. Historically, it’s taken a lot of contextual targeting solutions days to locate and classify online content, walling off a huge amount of valuable content from contextual’s reach. But that’s changing, and the improvements we’re seeing in classification recency — classification within seconds of publication versus days or weeks — represent huge leaps forward for the industry.

 Understanding context more broadly.

Improved recency is going to be a vital factor in the success of contextual targeting when it comes to helping advertisers transition to a privacy-first digital world. But we can’t stop there. Increasingly, we need to be going beyond the on-page content when it comes to truly understanding the context of a moment. After all, there’s a much bigger story behind a piece of content than the words or videos themselves would suggest. Time, location, current events, trending topics — many other factors are relevant when it comes to recognizing the nuance of a person’s experience with a given piece of content. This is where our industry’s understanding needs to be headed, and where we’re increasingly focused as advertisers look to contextual targeting as a means of connecting with people in a meaningful, privacy-safe way.

Make no mistake: The “return” to contextual is not a backward motion. Progress in the space will accelerate in coming years, driven in part by deeper advertiser investment. In the end, this momentum will cement contextual’s role when it comes to successful advertising in a privacy-centric world.

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