The show must go on: Why contextual targeting is being called back to the stage

The show must go on: Why contextual targeting is being called back to the stage
Oli Knight is head of advertising UK at eBay.

Brand safety scandal? The phrase alone is enough to send shivers down any marketer’s spine. After all, what could be worse than pumping big budgets into a perfectly planned campaign that inadvertently results in a brand appearing next to a terrorist video – or worse.

It’s no surprise that brand safety dominated conversations at Cannes – especially when new research by Ebiquity has revealed that a scary two thirds (65%) of Britain’s top 100 advertisers were exposed to potentially brand unsafe environments in the first quarter of this year alone.

Shifting mindsets – from where to how

Brands are understandably rattled – and many will be considering where to direct their spend to reach the right audiences while maintaining peace of mind. But rather than focusing on where to target consumers, perhaps advertisers should take a step back and consider how.

Audience targeting is a brilliant way of engaging with the right people. If a brand’s target market is men in their early thirties who live in Birmingham and have a passion for cycling, the right data will tell them exactly who to serve ads to. But what if those ads are served to the right people, but in the wrong context? 

The comeback of contextual

One of the original forms of targeted marketing, contextual targeting is shooting back to popularity as advertisers scramble to protect their brands’ reputations. It’s simple – serving an ad for a product or service in a context that a particular user is likely to be looking for or interested in that product or service. For example, if someone is searching for party poppers on eBay, we can reasonably assume that they’ll be interested in balloons, invitations and perhaps even fancy dress as well.

The benefits of contextual targeting are plentiful. For starters, people behave in diverse ways, buying different things at different moments in a way that is difficult to predict – so even with data it can be hard to find them at the right time. An advertiser might know that I’m a keen tennis player and potentially in the market for a new car. But they won’t know when my tennis racket breaks and I suddenly need to buy a new one, or that my plans this evening have been cancelled, freeing me up to research my next set of wheels.

Pinpointing people in a particular situation or frame of mind takes the guesswork out of advertising and allows brands to engage with more specific, receptive audiences than can be reached via demographics. The result? Greater accuracy and ultimately a more impressive return on investment.

Plus, by only targeting people in a particular context, it removes the risk of following them round the internet with ads for an item they’ve already purchased. People hate this – meaning it can be reputation-damaging as well as wasteful.

Bigger and better

It might feel a bit old school, but far from a forced resurgence of an outdated way of advertising, contextual targeting 2.0 presents a big opportunity for brands to get closer to consumers with relevant content. After all, the insights at our fingertips are richer than ever before – for example, at eBay we know what mobile phone network half of our users are on. And the proliferation of programmatic means that – unlike in the past, with manual media buys – ads based on contextual data can be served in real-time and deliver scale, but also granularity.

Brands no longer need to worry about restricting their audience pool or wasting precious marketing budgets by serving ads to the wrong consumers, or the right consumers at the wrong time.

In fact, because contextual targeting taps into real-time triggers, it’s better aligned with programmatic than any other type of targeting – suggesting its shoot back to fame is almost overdue. And it’s getting even smarter. Sophisticated technology means contextual signals can be determined by consumer behavioural insights rather than human inference. To go back to the party popper example, today we can be pretty certain that that person is in the market for some balloons.

And it’s getting easier and easier to incorporate contextual targeting into ad campaigns. It won’t be long before contextual signals will be accessible through the open marketplace – making it truly automated and enabling advertisers to reap the benefits faster and on an even bigger scale. This all feels pretty exciting to me.

Time to give it a go

Of course, there is a time and place for audience-based targeting and I wouldn’t knock it for a second. With rich insights into the 33 million unique UK users of our site each month, as well as 185 million shoppers globally, it’s something we do incredibly well. But if brand safety is a concern – which is clearly is, and understandably so – advertisers should give contextual targeting a go. The results will be worth it.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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