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Performance marketing: Should publishers monetize using search or rely on serendipity?



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January 12, 2023 | 5 min read

It’s safe to say that the ultimate goal of performance marketing and advertising is to convert to sales

When it comes to ad placement online, advertisers and publishers need to keep in mind the different ways consumers come across ads and how that impacts conversion. Sometimes, consumers find product information as part of a targeted search. Other times, they discover products by chance – what we call “serendipity” – via ads that appear embedded in context. The good news: no matter how users discover an ad on a publisher’s site, there are ways to increase the chances that they end up converting.

Let’s consider the following scenario. A consumer needs a new mattress. They go online, do a search for “mattress,” get to a mattress recommendation site, and buy a mattress via a link on that site. In this scenario, there is a clear line from search to intent to purchase.

Here’s another scenario. A consumer notices an article about sleep as they are scrolling through their social media feed. They click on the article and start reading about sleep habits. Up pops an ad for a new mattress that promises the best sleep ever. They click on the ad and end up buying the mattress. There was no direct intent to purchase a mattress when they started reading the article, but because of the indirect intent, timing, and placement of the ad, the sale happened.

How do you optimize content for search?

Searches are generally initiated by consumers themselves, with a specific goal in mind. Improving conversion rates in a search scenario relies on increasing the chances that product information is seen. One way to do so is through search engine optimization (SEO), adjusting site content or keywords in order to improve rank in organic searches. Here, as the name suggests, advertisers pay a fee to publishers each time their ad is clicked.

Monetizing serendipity

Serendipity is defined as either making desirable discoveries by accident or good luck. Either way, while it may seem to the consumer that finding the right ad at the right time is serendipitous, publishers can actually be quite savvy about placing ads in context.

One way for publishers to maximize serendipitous ad placement and increase conversion rates is to utilize advanced technology that can analyze and recognize general consumer intent based on context and then serve up appropriate ads. The close relevance of the ad topics presented to page visitors is likely to trigger action, leading to high conversion rates. Utilizing such technologies (such as CodeFuel’s IDP: Intent Discovery Platform), is a win-win: publishers enjoy new revenues, and consumers enjoy an engaging discovery experience in the context of the content they are already reading.

Serendipity enhances customer satisfaction

You would think that consumers place a high value on being shown ads that are personalized and directly related to their particular needs. And indeed, serving targeted, personalized ads has been the trend for the past decade. However, research shows that consumers may consider personalized ads problematic. A 2009 study found that “Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans (66%) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests.” A more recent study showed that while consumers do appreciate personalized ads, they are quite wary of trading their privacy for an experience that – much of the time – isn’t any better than general ads. As one columnist wrote, “I think that tailored deals and advertising can make people feel very aware that they are being actively sold to and, as a result, feel less in control and instinctively uncomfortable with the situation.”

Serendipity may be the answer to bridging the gap between the value of personalized ads and the discomfort consumers feel about how advertisers obtain information to drive those ads. Contextual ads let the consumer feel that they have stumbled across an accidental discovery, while – in reality – the ads are strategically placed by the publisher.

Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey recently examined when serendipity causes consumers to have positive experiences with a product. Specifically, they researched to what extent such “happy accidents” can be more gratifying for consumers than a planned, positive experience. They came to a number of conclusions:

Although an especially large product range can boost the interest of potential customers, it reduces the likelihood of a purchase actually being completed. This may seem counterintuitive, but too much choice can have negative consequences.

The more random the recommendation, the greater the satisfaction. In fact, the research found that it is irrelevant whether the suggestion is actually made at random as long as it comes across as random to the recipient. For example, a movie recommendation selected “at random” from a list of 100 movies felt more random – and, therefore, more satisfying – than the same “random” recommendation from a list of 10 movies. The practical implication is that pre-measured data and algorithms can significantly improve the customer experience.

Serendipity can positively influence the success of a product, but the result has to be positive. If a consumer deems a suggestion unsuitable or has a negative reaction, they lose the feeling of a “happy accident.”


No matter how and where consumers come across ads – whether as a result of a search or contextual serendipity – there are ways publishers can boost conversion rates and maximize revenue. Strategic use of SEO best practices and advanced technology can help publishers monetize their sites.

Search Advertising Publishers Advertising & Media


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