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A marketer’s guide to contextual advertising

Would you spend millions of dollars for a 30-second ad spot?

A spot on a Sunday Super Bowl is a holy grail for marketers. It is the one event where folks are excited to see these million dollar commercials, so much so, there are dedicated social media forums that conduct discussions on these ads. In 2013, one such discussion happened, not on a commercial, but a mere tweet.

When the San Francisco 49ers were battling out with the Baltimore Ravens in the third quarter, a power outage occurred at the Superdome. The game paused, the audience infuriated, and marketers were in a frenzy – except one. 

Oreo’s marketing team capitalized on the blackout with a simple yet effective tweet. It caught on like wildfire, getting nearly thousands of retweets in a matter of minutes. 

The power outage situation formed the basis for creating the brand messaging. In other words, context drove the nature of the content, thereby creating relevance. 

Oreo’s Super Bowl success was an early indicator of the power of contextual advertising.


What is Contextual Advertising?

Contextual advertising, also known as contextual marketing, allows marketers to serve up ads on web pages based on keywords and topics that are included on the content of that web page. 

The algorithm underpinning contextual advertising aims to show ads that interest users. As a result, the ads are more likely to resonate with the audience, increasing click-through rates. 

For example, someone is looking for a hotel and flight package, an ad pops up, nudging them to explore a new destination with a 20% discount on the hotel. Don’t you think there’s a higher possibility of users clicking on the CTA?


Formats for contextual advertising

There are broadly three formats for contextual advertising:

Text. Shown in the form of information with a built-in link.


  • Banner. Displayed as a graphic banner with a hyperlink.


Video advertising. Presented by video with a link that drives users to the promoted resource(s).


How Does Contextual Advertising Work? [H2]

Let’s say you’re running a contextual advertising campaign for a coffee brand. There are two methods you approach your campaign: content keyword and topic.

Content keyword

Ads will be displayed around the primary keyword of the content of a web page.

The primary keyword chosen is ‘coffee’ and the user searches for ‘health benefits of coffee’. The keyword matches the theme or the keyword of that web page – the ad is eligible to show up in the form of a banner, text, or video on that page.


The topic chosen is ‘organic coffee’ and the user searches for ‘organic beverages’. The topic matches the theme or the content of that web page – the ad is eligible to show up in the form of a banner, text, or video on that page. 

Google Display Network

Google Display Network (GDN) can help your coffee brand reach 90% of internet users across millions of websites, news pages, blogs, and popular Google products like YouTube and Google Search.

GDN’s powerful algorithm decides where your ads will show up. Whether you choose the keyword ‘coffee’ or topic ‘organic coffee’ GDN will match them with the keyword or topics of that web page and will serve up your ads in the form of banner, text, or video on that page. The entire process is automated. This allows marketers to be more productive.

Watch how you can easily create display ads that get more leads and drive traffic to your website.

Benefits of Contextual Advertising

Contextual advertising done right makes life easy for marketers. Here are four benefits of contextual advertising:

1. Take personalization to the next level

Today, the path to purchase isn’t linear and contains multiple touchpoints. Marketers want to make sure their brand meets users at the right touchpoints, at the right time. 

The good news is that contextual advertising platforms provide a wide range of targeting options such as demographics, interests, weather, purchase history, and more. Brands can use the different filters to yield relevant ads for the audience without creeping them out.

Consequently, a user is less likely to feel they’re being followed around by ads if it is relevant to the content they’re consuming at that specific time. Otherwise, they are just going to ignore the ad and keep moving on.

For instance, a New York clothing brand puts out a banner ad for a winter collection for users located in Sydney during December. Guess what? It’s not relevant because it’s summer in Australia! Users will subconsciously ignore the ad, also known as banner blindness.

New elements are being introduced to create marketing messages that are personalized to a degree never previously possible.

  • Website. Personalize your website for repeat visitors based on browsing history.
  • Email. Segment your email database by industry, job title, or the stage in the buyer journey to deliver relevant content.
  • Retargeting. Re-engage previous visitors who showed interest but did not act with display ads on other web pages.

Kelley Blue Book, a California-based vehicle valuation and automotive research company, did a great job providing relevant ads by retargeting users who visited their site on their Twitter feed.


Build brand perception the safe way

Imagine if your ad appears next to inappropriate, illegal, or offensive content? The critics will have a field day at your brand’s expense, but more importantly, no one is going to buy what you’re selling.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of behavioral advertising was marketers couldn’t control where their ads are going to be placed. They would end up in non-brand safe environments like adult or extremist content. It was a serious blow to brand reputation and revenue. 

Contextual advertising allows you to be more specific about terms to target, or avoid. Specify topics and keywords, making it less likely your ads are going to chase a user to an environment where they don’t expect (or want) to see your brand.

The audience is putting more trust in high quality ads. The proof lies in the fact buyers show higher purchasing intent towards contextually relevant ads. Users feel the brand cares about their needs since they’ve made the effort to align the brand with their interests. The emotion drives the trust – increased engagement – more potential conversions.

Brands have to be mindful of not compromising ad quality with reach. Folger Coffee, one of the oldest and largest-selling ground coffee in the United States, learned it the hard way!


Effective campaign planning

According to a study, US marketers are impressed with the way contextual targeting improves campaign planning.

Planning media buying has become easy with the aid of contextual advertising. Advertisers cannot be duped into serving ads on pages that are visited by bots instead of actual people or websites that have more ad space than content. 

Ad budgets can be put to good use as marketers can vary the price bid by how specific the context is. It allows for different pricing strategies for different media, improving ad spending at a more granular level.

Speed is a big draw from contextual advertising. The swiftness of the targeting platform reduces the latency issues that used to hamper campaign schedules.

Contextual marketers enjoy flexibility as they have the power to edit campaigns post-launch. Marketers can rectify mistakes while campaigns are running, resulting in greater success. 

Be compliant and relevant at the same time

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was the first legislation that laid out strict rules on how data of European citizens can be collected and handed out hefty fines to violators. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) quickly followed suit by offering users more control of their data by allowing them to put a request for deletion of the personal information collected in the prior 12 months.

The rollout of these regulations has led to the demise of the once-powerful ‘cookies’. Marketers find it harder to place ads based on user behavior since the consent to use cookies is not implied when visitors land on your website – visitors have to opt-in. 

Marketers had to go back to the drawing board and figure out how they can deliver relevant ads to enhance the user’s online experience while being compliant.  

Brands found solace in contextual advertising during the cookiepocolypse as it depends on the content of the page, not user search behavior. In essence, marketers can use contextual advertising to earn revenue while complying with privacy regulations.

Contextual Advertising is the Future

Contextual advertising will keep the marketing world captivated for the time ahead simply because marketers can mix creativity, user behavior, privacy, reputation, and revenue like never before.

Here are a few reasons why marketers should make contextual advertising part of their present and future marketing plans.

Tackle the cookie-less browser(s)

As we speak, there is a browser war brewing that will impact marketers in a big way. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are now restricting the use of third-party cookies. In fear of users bouncing off due to privacy concerns, Google has decided to phase out third-party cookies. 

Contextual advertising should be the natural choice for marketers in a cookie-less future because to present relevant advertisements on the web page user data is not required .

Understand customers with AI

The rise of semantic technology like AI will enable marketers to better understand content — one that goes beyond surface-level keywords and topics. AI technologies like image recognition, scan imagery and video content, to provide marketers a comprehensive content analysis of a page, allowing them to place highly personalized ads.

However, the more impressive use of AI-powered technology will be to grasp the full sentiment of the page. Advances in natural language processing (NLP) will allow marketers to be far more precise in their choice of ‘context’ for their ad placements. The best bit here is the fact that all of it will be automated, allowing well-defined digital strategy to run at a massive scale without breaking a sweat.

Move beyond the conventional

Marketers can communicate with the user by messaging different experiences to the same user at different times. The approach squeezes more leads and revenue from a limited number of online users by tapping into their infinite number of online interests and emotions. 

Contextual advertising is already moving beyond web pages; offering unique user experiences that let brands build an alternative potential revenue stream. 

  • In-game advertising. The United States enjoys the top position for mobile video gamers. It pays well to have your brand featured on video games as they are immersive and command the full attention of the user.
  •  Dynamic billboard. A moving image allows you to promote more than one offer. With a bit of creativity, billboards can nudge people to call to action. For instance, using a camera, billboards can place images of viewers in real time to get attention.


The Marketing Magic: Creative Automation and Context

By now, it’s clear that contextual marketing is effective when content is hyper-personalized. It’s no surprise why methods such as micro-segmentation are used to target specific groups of people in a niche market. 

Unfortunately, creating context at such a granular level is expensive given how resource intensive it is and due to the lack of economy of scale. For instance, if you’re targeting people who love Blues music, you’ll have to create separate banner ads for the different platforms that your users are on, the different languages they would understand, and perhaps even for the various sub-genres / generations within the genre. The cost of manually creating various banners, as well as experimenting with ads, and finding that one single copy that clicks can push your campaign schedules by months, straining your entire marketing budget.

Creative automation is how you run an effective highly-targeted contextual advertising campaign at scale. When creative assets such as banner ads and videos can be created quickly and at a massive scale, marketers reduce the campaign turnaround time. That translates into saving costs and better ROI on your campaign. 

In the end, this is what all smart marketers want to achieve, right?


Nityashree Yadunath

Nityashree Yadunath

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