The Contextual Comeback

GumGum x The Drum roundtable breakfast in NYC

It may seem a bit odd that, in 2018, many years after contextual marketing was the tool du jour for digital marketers, here we are discussing it again. Call it a renaissance, a rebirth, or a reinvigoration of the field: contextual is making a comeback.

To understand the rise, fall and rise again, a bit of context is needed. So the Drum, in association with GumGum, put together a round-table of experts to understand what is driving the reversion to a method many assumed had had its day.

The Renaissance

Jeremy Kaplan, senior vice president of sales at GumGum, is witnessing the renaissance first hand, which he attributes partly to brand safety concerns born from the YouTube scandal in 2016. Brands are “using contextual targeting to align with safe content and to avoid unsafe content. For us we use image recognition to avoid unsafe images and also scan the text to make sure you’re targeting away from bad keywords that brands don’t want to be associated with.”

But it’s not brand safety alone driving the change, said Jocelyn Lee, head of media strategy and ad tech at Deloitte Digital's Heat. “There’s a lot of things that are happening in our marketplace with technology, with conversations, with data practicing laws, and it’s really pushing contextual into a whole different place from when it came out a few years ago.”

The data practicing law to which she refers, no one will be surprised to learn, is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). With less access to third party data and audience data, the ad-buying pendulum is swinging back to contextual targeting. Reluctant to take risks with data-heavy audience targeting techniques, ads targeted based on the context of what a consumer is looking at on page, suddenly feels a lot more appealing.

But GDPR is not the be-all and end-all driving the rebirth, says Kevin Flood, chief executive of Powerlinks. “There are some huge use cases for context, irrespective of whether you’ve got to worry about GDPR or audience data. I think as programmatic targeting and media buying tools become easier to use and come into the hands of smaller businesses and more niche advertisers, a lot of those advertisers don’t have massive amounts of insight into who their audiences are.”

Targeting using context, complemented with data

To understand why contextual is making a comeback, it is worth understanding why it fell out of favor in the first place. New tools came along promising greater accuracy through personalized, audience-based ad targeting, alleviating contextual’s propensity for mistargeting, creating wastage, and engendering negative brand association.

No one wants to go back to the days of irrelevant advertising following users around the internet, says Ryan McBride, VP for platform partnerships at Oracle-owned Grapeshot. “I feel like the general perception of digital advertising and adtech specifically is overwhelmingly not good in the public eye. I ask my mum and dad and they think what I do is like pop up ads. Like “Oh you’re the guys that follow me around the internet.”

Lee agrees: “I think that as consumers ourselves and as a users of the web, we don’t want to go back to a place where we’re getting completely disconnected ads. I don’t want to get Russian Bride ads on Facebook anymore. That was what I was getting six years ago. We don’t want to walk away from audience targeting but we have to be really careful about what kind of data we’re importing and how we’re connecting those dots.

Technology has, thankfully, moved on, says Flood. “I think media targeting using context has to be complemented by equally precise analytics and insight tech and tools.”

Ryan says that tools to complement contextual already exist. “It runs with the campaign and somebody will set up a campaign saying ‘I want to target people reading auto content because I want to sell cars and those are the people that buy cars, right?’ But actually people who are reading about finance are actually performing more, clicking through more. So we all have these sort of set minds that surround what we think is going to work. But being able to listen to what actually is performing, and being flexible enough to change our strategies with what’s working is a key part of that.”

The participants around the table, all agreed that contextual targeting isn’t just keyword targeting anymore. They concluded that the future of advertising is images, not just keywords. So being able to identify additional metrics and channels for brands to apply targeting tactics in a post-GDPR world will be a huge development.

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