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How to “weather-proof” your context strategy as consumer sentiment evolves

February 16, 2021

By Chris Stark, Sr. Director, Product Management, Oracle Advertising

Digital strategists are the new meteorologists

In many ways, context in advertising works a lot like the weather. There is a seasonality to context that’s both unpredictable and fluid—it’s ever-changing and evolves as new content is published.

And in the same way that the weather determines what you wear, what you do, and how you get to where you want to go each day, context dictates so much of your digital advertising strategy too—including which media to bid on, which audiences to target, or which environments to avoid. The challenge here is, many modern marketers deploy contextual targeting solutions that assume context is static and that content topics and subject matter don’t evolve over time.

But this is akin to saying that it rained today, and therefore it will also do so tomorrow, and the next day after that, and perhaps into next week. We know that’s not how the weather works in most places. It changes.

Marketers need to approach their contextual advertising tactics in much the same way they would adapt to changing outdoor conditions as the days, weeks, and months progress.

Unfortunately, many marketers still deploy keyword blocklists as a part of their contextual advertising strategies, either to target specific content or instill brand safety measures.

But using blocklists in 2021 is like wearing a heavy raincoat every day of the year, regardless of the conditions.

Agility is critical to surviving changing news cycles

What’s required for the modern news cycle is a nimbler approach, one that affords marketers control of their digital investments, and precision when it’s needed most. No blocklist can offer this, no matter how often it’s updated. It simply can’t keep up with the rapidly changing nature of the online news cycle.

This is why true context is so important. Understanding this concept goes beyond scanning pages and blocking the inventory based on the appearance of a single, potentially problematic keyword.

True context, or contextual intelligence, is about understanding the underlying meaning of page content—what the story, news article, blog post, video, or podcast is really focusing on, and making an advertising decision based on that knowledge.

This is important because context changes over time, and using advanced contextual targeting solutions helps ensure that marketers aren’t blocking safe content, or missing harmful content.

A good example is what we experienced in the advertising industry in 2020, and continue to experience today, as it pertains to the global pandemic. COVID-19 represented one of the most blocked keywords by advertisers when the pandemic first hit, and still registers as one of the top blocked keywords for brand safety. The context has been overwhelmingly negative and largely inappropriate for advertising to target. Yet, despite this phenomenon, we’ve seen glimpses of how the pandemic’s surrounding context can change.

There’s the news of communities rebuilding—neighbors banding together to build back better than before. Or the news of vaccines and advanced medical treatments that have been developed in record time, generating stories of hope and heroism. Or even the news of what a post-pandemic world looks like and all the improvements we, as a society, will make to ensure we’re prepared should we face similar situations.

Today, these stories may be few and far between. But even so, they represent positive contexts in an otherwise-negative news cycle, providing a safe haven for advertising that helps brands and publishers alike.

We’re still in the grips of the pandemic today, but as the vaccines roll out and local economies open up, there will be more positive stories like these filling the web. Such stories will change the context of COVID-19 online, opening up more safe content for advertisers to bid on, and driving much-needed revenue for the news and publishing industries.

The consequences of not accounting for nuance

If advertisers stick with their blocklists—which are often rarely updated and are filled with stale keywords—any change in context won’t matter. The content will still be blocked because of the mere appearance of those keywords, which previously only appeared in unsuitable contexts, even if those contexts are now more positive and brand-suitable.

The downstream effect of this approach could be devastating for news outlets and publishers. After being deprived of much-needed advertising revenue this past year, news outlets and publishers are desperate for the advertising industry to figure out how to monetize their content safely. But if advertisers keep enlisting the services of their blocklists, there’s simply no chance of that ever happening.

True context is needed to safely monetize news content because it requires nuance, for all the reasons and examples provided above. Only by understanding true page context—not through basic keyword tracking but through analyzing the relationships of terms and phrases collectively—will advertisers gain the confidence to target today’s news cycles.

If there’s anything we’ve learned as advertisers over this past year, it’s that trying to predict the market is futile. The world is an unpredictable place full of twists and turns, which ultimately dictates our advertising strategies. But perhaps there’s solace in the fact that the only certainty is uncertainty itself. And context, like the weather, is no different. It will forever be evolving and developing as the seasons come and go but working with a context partner can make navigating a dynamic landscape easier. It’s up to you to ensure that your brand is positioned to weather that change and thrive.


contextual targeting