Adding value to your customer lives: Contextual Advertising

GumGum x The Drum roundtable breakfast in London

GDPR. Ad-Blockers. Fake News. It's been a difficult year so far for advertisers, with targeting methods and measurement coming under scrutiny like never before. The response to GDPR was one of panic across the board, with mixed messages from brands showing very few understood what it meant, let alone how to respond. Has the digital marketing industry's obsession with audience resulted in a corresponding diminution of the importance of context? Does adland have a blinkered approach to understanding 'who' over understanding 'why'?

The Drum, in association with GumGum, hosted a roundtable to understand the resurgence of contextual marketing and its use by advertisers and agencies. The roundtable also explored a report, by the Drum in partnership with GumGum, which looked at a much deeper form of contextual understanding, including advanced forms of semantics analysis and computer vision. But do agencies and their clients understand how contextual marketing can increase the relevance of their marketing efforts? And more importantly - are they willing to act on it?

The change in audience targeting in the era of digital

"As an industry we focus too much on the 'who' said Sam Fenton-Elstone, CEO at Anything Is Possible. "The audience targeting approach is often about 'find that person' and that's all that matters. If I know this person's age and location and salary, then that's all I need to know to serve them the right message. When in fact, they have different states of mind and moments in their day - and some messages are more appropriate in different context, than others."

Does the fallout from GDPR mean that audience targeting as we know it, will become a thing of the past?

Anand Narayanan, the head of digital platforms & innovations at Panasonic believes it has created an opportunity, rather than a challenge, for brands. "I have lots of debates internally about [GDPR]. Yes, we need to be more contextual and more granular in our targeting, but there's a huge role in understanding whether you are adding value to your customers lives. It is too often a case of 'here I am, listen to me'. If you walk into a party, you don't want to be the person shouting in the centre of the room, you want to be the person people want to talk to. If the content we make is emotional and connecting with the audience in the right context - the right person is going to come and talk to you. It's a pull strategy rather than push - which negates the whole issue around GDPR completely."

"I was full of optimism for GDPR, and I still am, but in the week of launching, I felt a bit despondent about how brands were dealing with it" said Fenton-Elstone. "There needed to be a reset - we have an opportunity to use great technology to tell great stories, and yet what's happened is a load of crap banners all over the internet. Inventory has become infinite because of audience targeting, and it means we're not considering the cost of someone's time, and what value you're giving to them. GDPR should reset that."

Having access to granular data is of course extremely valuable from both an insight and targeting perspective. Has the legislation change forced companies to take a closer look at their data infrastructure? Will we see a drastic change in the ways companies choose to target their audiences?

Focus on what really matters: audience, context and adding value

"A lot of brands aren't as targeted as they potentially could be," says Oli Marlow Thomas, Founder of AdLib. "I don't think we've realised the true opportunity of audience targeting. When aligned correctly with context - that's the Holy Grail. Finding media buying houses that can look at audience, they can overlay keywords so the context is correct, can look at creative to make sure that the execution is aligned to the buying strategy and context of the website - that's really where we need to get to. But we're a long, long way from there for most big brands."

If we're a long way away from brands truly getting the balance right between audience and context, what will the tipping point be? Pete from GumGum stressed the importance of creating ad units in the context of how people consume content. "If you overlay an ad that’s contextually relevant, you will get better results for all of those involved, whether it be the consumer, publisher or brand” he explained. “It is about understanding how best to integrate your brand seamlessly. As a brand how do you pop up in an image or a video without interrupting?”

With platforms and technologies emerging at a rapidly increasing rate - how can advertisers better understand what to use and what not to use, as part of their marketing arsenal? Can context provide advertisers a way to better understand the moments in a consumers day where messages will be valuable, as opposed to an irritation?

"The fact that we have more ways to connect with people, and that we'll see more platforms and tech and services over the years, doesn't mean you should use them all" says Nick Constantinou, Managing Director at Doner. "It’s not just about audience but more tying everything back to what is the core business objective, what are the commercial KPI's - and then layer on the audiences and mediums. Any idea should be analysed with two basic questions from the consumer perspective: So what? And What's in it for me? If you use that very basic metric it tends to weed out the bad ideas."

"As people are more and more used to seeing ads all the time, it becomes more important to show the 'why' - why people should care about your message. People are desensitised, which is a challenge especially in the charity space" says Natalie Hilton, Head of Digital Marketing, Scope. "It really comes down to offering a good value exchange. For charities who don't have bottomless budgets - we need to show the importance of value and context to our wider team."

Making the most of your audience targeting strategy

One thing that there is agreement on across the board, is that as an industry, advertising has become too focused on the 'bottom of the funnel'. Have advertisers lost sight of the bigger picture in the scrum to retain or acquire customers?

"If all we do is go lower funnel, and flood generic messaging across images, then what is your point of difference?" said Constantinou. "How do you defend your brand in the marketplace? We shouldn’t lose the craftsmanship in the messaging, whether it's contextual or otherwise, to make someone laugh or smile. It's the same rule that we've been using for 25 years - what role is a brand playing in somebody's lives?"

An interesting example on how contextual marketing could prove beneficial came from Daniel Williams, Global Digital Media Manager at Shell. "Advertising oil products in the U.S has proved an interesting challenge – as lots of Americans will change their own oil, so for about two weeks of every year, they really care about it. It’s front of mind. But the other 50 - they really don't want to have that message appear on any device, and as an advertiser, we don't want to pay for that because our customer doesn’t want to see it… With audience targeting we have struggled to find out when someone needs an oil change but there is an interesting opportunity with contextual marketing, to better understand the behaviours someone might make when they are in that frame of mind - looking at 'how to' videos on YouTube for example, in order to serve them a message about a product at the perfect time, when it's most valuable to them.”

Creating moments that connect beyond the brand, that feel like part of culture rather than an ad selling a product, are the goal. "It's like the 'Kodak Moment' or 'for Everything Else There's Mastercard' - these are things that connect beyond the ad - that's when you start seeing the difference" said Narayanan.

"It's never either or - so much of our lives are spent asking the wrong questions and proving that one thing is better than another," said Fenton-Elstone. "Everything should support the overall objective but it's challenging because different targets sit in different teams within brands, and different agencies play different parts, and everyone is trying to prove that they are the most valuable part of the chain. But we can't exist without each other - and one targeting method isn't better than another. It can all come together. That's why context is so important."

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