The Resurgence of Contextual Advertising

From ‘Mad Men’ to Data Driven: Why Contextual Relevance Matters Now More Than Ever

To quote the great Don Draper, the iconic protagonist from Mad Men… “Change is neither good nor bad. It simply is.” This classic line sums up the advertising industry’s evolution to date. Just as the show’s characters tackled the shift from traditional ads to more innovative campaigns mirroring the times, the digital landscape has morphed from basic website banners to a sophisticated data-driven ecosystem that delivers hyper targeted ads that hit the bullseye with uncanny accuracy.

And yet, that’s all about to change – again. 

With the recent global spread of tighter privacy regulations, phasing out of third-party cookies, and reevaluation of user consent and permission-based advertising, the industry’s next shift — yes, bring on more change — embraces emerging technologies and strategies where context and relevance are now more important than ever. 

We can discuss endlessly whether this impacts digital advertising positively or negatively, but at the end of the day, Draper’s words capture the essence of change – “it simply is”. So what happens now? 

Enter the resurgence of contextual programmatic advertising. In essence, contextual advertising strategically places ads based on the context of the surrounding content. This isn’t a new strategy, but one that has evolved greatly with automation and increasing precision over the last 30 years. 

Let’s take a look back in order to understand the path forward. 

In the 1960’s, contextual advertising was seen as negotiating a Dr.Scholl’s placement in the health and wellness section of the newspaper. In the mid to late 1990s, as the web started to take off, these manual negotiations happened online. An example of this would be a brand like Converse negotiating directly with AOL to buy ad space on the lifestyle section of their homepage.

Starting in the early 2000s, programmatic advertising eliminated manual negotiations by introducing automation to streamline ad buying and placement. This involved setting parameters and preferences for targeting specific audiences, then algorithms would analyze user data to predict relevant ad placements. However, these placements were often predetermined and lacked real-time adaptability.

This innovation paved the way for the introduction of what advertisers rely on today – real-time bidding, which took this concept even further. It allows advertisers to bid on ad placements in real time, tailoring ads to users on the fly. This dynamic approach leverages first party and third party cookie data to make split-second bidding decisions, tailoring ad placements to users’ current interests and behaviors. This ensures that ads are not only based on historical data but also on the most up-to-date behavioral insights, resulting in higher relevance and engagement.

As we plan for the future, access to this personalized data will be more limited, shifting the industry yet again.

While some may disagree, I don’t think we are taking a step back. With technological innovations and the emergence of AI, we will be able to emphasize relevance over personalized tracking – in real time. These advances allow us to unlock the ability to safeguard privacy while remaining contextually relevant with precision that wasn’t possible before. This precision allows us to finally leave our dependance on the cookie behind…

Take it from one of FTF’s contextual partners, Gum Gum: “Gum Gum’s contextual intelligence technology, Verity™, scans text, image, audio and video to derive human-like understandings and classify a page before an impression is served. This allows for more accurate and effective cookieless targeting for advertisers to reach users in contextually-relevant, brand-safe and brand-suitable environments at scale.”

For instance, Nike. They’re a brand that could bid in real time on numerous health and wellness publisher websites. They’d put their fresh Nike running shoe ad right beside content that focuses on getting ready for a marathon. And the whole process happens super quickly, in just a matter of milliseconds.

As we march into a cookieless world, contextual advertising will become table stakes in your marketing strategy. It will play a role in upper funnel and some lower funnel tactics as well.

But contextual advertising is not the only piece of the pie and creativity is going to matter more than ever before. Uncovering unique ways to gather first party data from your target audience will be at the forefront of this next evolution in digital advertising… but that’s a discussion for another time.

As Peggy Olson said, “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.” As digital marketers, it’s time to stop complaining about and resisting the restrictions on cookies and data and start talking about how we can pivot our strategies and tactics to work for us.

Michelle Marshall-Nitka

 | September 12 ,2023

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