Blog Contextual Targeting: Is the Future in Context?

Contextual Targeting: Is the Future in Context?

Posted on Apr 12, 2019

By Melvin Holman, Chief Business Development Officer, Platform161

This post originally appeared in Dutch on emerce.

‘Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?’ is widely considered to be the first online display ad. Running in 1994, it appeared exclusively on, or HotWired, as it was then known.

More recently, we might almost take for granted the ability to reach our target audience across multiple sites, apps, even different media – from pocket sized phones to giant outdoor screens. In other words, whenever and wherever they are. But back in the 90s, it was still very much a case of context is king. Not least because content was the only proxy for audience brands had at their disposal.

In years since, audience was almost decoupled from context. But the counterpoint to that (some might say part of the cause) is that brand safety is still top of mind for most, if not all. And there’s a growing reappraisal – if it was ever in doubt – that digital context, high audience engagement and ad engagement must all be correlated.

The first ever display ad

Even though it has always been possible to target based on context in programmatic, in the shape of domain URL, the predominant use case has been around black- or whitelisting, rather than considering content or context as a means of optimizing, just like audience. Also, perhaps environment wasn’t always as high a priority as it should have been for some. Maybe now that is starting to change.

Content to Audience and Back Again

Context has experienced something of a resurgence in the past year – especially since the industry started preparing for GDPR. Under the new legislation, clear, unambiguous consent was required before handling personal data – so the immediate question occurred: in the absence of that consent, what would ad tech use as an alternative? For some, even before this, contextual just seemed like a good option to diversify tactics – to add another alternative on top of 1st and 3rd party data to their list of targeting options.

From advertising around different types of content, to targeting audience, then back again to people as they view specific content types. It might at first seem like a shift to targeting via content or contextual signals is a backwards step. But we should remember that contextual targeting in its current form is a far cry from 1994, HotWired and ‘have you ever clicked your mouse here’.

In its current form, contextual ad tech provides scale just as audience-based methods do. Buying decisions are also similarly granular – down to page-level rather than site-wide, depending on all types of decisioning – including subject area, of course, but also related factors like page quality and even ad viewability. 

Another point to bear in mind is that the choice between contextual and audience targeting is not in fact as either/or as might first appear. In our own experience, we have seen some of the best results where clients and agencies are prepared to test both tactics alongside each other, optimize and learn from the results on the fly. In some cases, the learnings from one side can also be applied to improve the other.

In one case, running a geo targeted campaign for a recruitment advertiser, we were able to finesse the contextual focus as the campaign progressed, while the audience-based element failed to respond to the same optimisation. Possibly due to the niche nature of the audience, and location specificity, by its end, contextual was driving more than 100% higher performance than audience, at a 70% lower eCPM versus 3rd party data.

Contextual, as opposed to audience-based targeting, can have other hidden benefits too. Ultimately, you can think of context as growing your reach via targeting – audience targeting obviously can have the opposite effect, of ever-decreasing field of vision – think of it as zooming into close-up, while context is zooming out.

Zig or Zag?

Industry research comparing both targeting methods is limited. But one fairly extensive piece ran competing contextual and audience-based campaigns, closely evaluating the results. Its overall conclusion was that each tactic ultimately saw similar levels of success.

Crucially, this is just one campaign, and doesn’t account for, well, context. For example, if all of your competitors are buying 3rd party data, no doubt contextual methods could give you an advantage, and vice versa – both in terms of cost and results, potentially.

‘Have you ever clicked your mouse here?’ may well have been the first ever online display ad. Arguably, even 25 years on, some campaigns have still not moved on considerably from then – for example, focusing exclusively (and ultimately to their own detriment) around chasing clicks.

More choice, more flexibility and more diverse tactics will only increase the benefits of standing out from the crowd – zigging while others zag. Smart brands and agencies have nothing to lose, and everything to gain from keeping all options available open to them. At the very least, keeping an eye out, if not experimenting around the alternatives too.