Is the future of targeting contextual?

Several weeks ago, Google announced they would disable cookies for 1% of Chrome users starting at the beginning of 2024. 

The advertising industry has grappled with an uncertain future over the last few years as data privacy regulations evolved, but now the pressure is on for marketers. 

However, there are targeting alternatives. In fact, advertising’s old friend, contextual targeting, has gained some remarkable new abilities. 


It’s time for a contextual comeback.    

Each week, we break down another marketing concept so you can skip the hype and get directly to what works. 

Behavioral targeting identifies individuals based on past behaviors and then targets you with ads across the internet. For example, you might read a cycling article from an online triathlon magazine, be tagged with a cookie, then be retargeted with an ad about an upcoming race while on a different, unrelated site down the road. 

But without cookies, this targeting method is impossible. The proposed solution? A contextual renaissance. 

With contextual targeting, content relevance takes center stage. In this case, let’s say you're reading that same cycling article and a Trek bike ad appears on the page. That would be contextual—you saw the ad because you were consuming content related to the ad itself. 

The good news is there are actually upsides to contextual targeting. And contextual targeting today is a lot more advanced than it was 20 years ago. Here’s what you should know. 

  1. Industry leaders are updating practices to support contextual. The IAB Tech Lab's "Seller Defined Audiences" now allows publishers to tag their own content for advertising, making it easier to pair with relevant ads. Even Reddit recently introduced keyword targeting options for advertisers to target audiences based on relevant keywords.
  2. Contextual offers opportunities for streaming advertisers. Streaming platforms present unique opportunities for contextual targeting with their niche channels and custom content letting advertisers get in front of very specific consumer groups. Plus, leaning into contextual targeting allows advertisers to sidestep pricey targeting fees. 
  3. Contextual targeting’s undergone an upgrade. Technology’s ability to mine data from audience behavior and preferences is redefining how we think about contextual. In decades past, contextual was dependent on grouping content into specific genres. If someone watched a sci-fi show, they probably would also watch another sci-fi show later. But we know people enjoy content across many genres, and the data marketers now have about their customers can help create groups better reflecting that. 
  4. AI is joining the contextual team. AI’s also supercharging contextual’s possibilities. For example, AI could make it possible for even ad creative to be extra customized to the content through which it's shared. An ad showing during a cartoon could be fully animated. Another ad playing during a sitcom could lean into humor.  

Key Takeaway: While contextual targeting might seem like a step backward, it's genuinely a stride forward into a world where marketers can both prioritize consumer privacy and target consumers with relevant, effective ads. It's a transition from a reliance on cookies to a mastery of context. 


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