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Contextual advertising: the solution to a cookie-less future?

As the demise of third-party cookies approaches fast, advanced contextual advertising solutions are being tipped as one solution to help plug the targeting gap for digital marketers. However, while contextual campaigns are generally regarded as privacy-friendly, they present marketers with some unique challenges, particularly in relation to precision and measurement.

As part of The Drum’s recent Digital Transformation Festival, and in association with Oracle Data Cloud, Drum Network editor, Chris Sutcliffe, recently hosted a virtual roundtable on the topic of next-generation contextual advertising. The invited panel of mar-tech experts included: Azad Ali, head of programmatic at Spark Foundry; Tarik Windle, head of precision at Wavemaker; Bianca Best, global managing director of Blink Consultancy at MediaCom; Joe Manalac, senior agency sales partner at Oracle Data Cloud; and Sophie Wooller, director of digital transformation at Croud.

Early in the conversation, Wavemaker’s Windle spoke of how the last 18 months of his life have been focused on the withdrawal of third-party cookies and researching the potential solutions available to replace them. He said: “Everyone's looking for alternatives and, based on the discussions we're having with clients, we don't think one idea is necessarily going to ‘win’. There's going to be a variety of different solutions that can help move us on from where we are today. Contextual advertising has already moved on a lot as a proposition, so we need to navigate what that offers clients today in terms of its unique targeting capabilities.”

The broader context

Manalac explained why the versatility of contextual advertising is currently making it a hot talking point in marketing circles: “You can look at ‘contextual’ through a couple of different lenses: one where you're avoiding content and contexts that are unsuitable for your brand; and one where you have a contextual targeting strategy designed to achieve a particular KPI for your brand. There are multiple use cases for context and, in many ways, it’s a tried and tested solution, so it’s not surprising that context is moving more into the spotlight right now. Agencies are finding ways to use context campaigns to deliver goals traditionally achieved through ID-based targeting.”

Best offered her perspective on the increased interest in context and the new demands it places on marketers. “What we’ve seen across Mediacom is clients shifting away from just thinking about the impact of media and marketing and thinking way more broadly about their entire ecosystem. We're getting more and more questions around sophistication in CRM, for example, as there's a recognition of how absolutely integral that is to success. I believe something like 26% of marketing budgets are now being invested in martech, so identifying the right tech partners for our clients is becoming absolutely critical. We’ve been up-skilling internally so that we fully understand the new technologies enabling our clients to be more sophisticated in this space.”

A new beginning

Croud’s Wooller pointed out some of the weaknesses of contextual advertising and how it’s important for clients to approach the demise of cookies with the right mindset. She said: “Context is going to help us do some really interesting targeting, but I don't think it's going to solve the measurement challenge. The other key issue I can get cross about is when people ask how to ‘work around’ the loss of third-party cookies, forgetting that this is happening because of legislation and consumer demand for increased privacy. Trying to ‘get around’ that is kind of missing the point. The goal is trying to make sure that we, as marketers, have a suite of solutions that allow us to serve relevant experiences to our customers in a cost-effective and privacy compliant way.”

Ali agreed that, potentially, contextual has role to play in the creation of a better media landscape in a post-cookie world: “One interesting development for me is publishers’ work on things like positive sentiment. Personally, I'd really like to see this really do well, not only because it helps us as marketers to ensure brand suitability, but also because more demand for positive sentiment will encourage more content with positive intent to be produced and monetized. Hopefully, that could lead to more authentic, genuine and positive coverage of underrepresented communities in certain publications. We can definitely use contextual as a pathway to build a better way of doing things, so long as we don't make the same mistakes that we did when we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted with customer data.”

Windle offered one final point for those looking at ‘contextual’ to consider: “Don't necessarily just think about context from a verification or targeting perspective; think about how you can use the technology to deliver smarter insights.”

You can watch key takeaways from the panel session above and find more Digital Transformation Festival content here.