Contextual Now Powered by Dynamic Audience Signals Is the Best of Both Worlds


By Peter Mason, CEO, Illuma

As our industry pivots towards the post-cookie era, several distinct paths forward are emerging.  Contextual targeting is rightly getting its share of attention as one of these alternatives but at the moment, there seems to be a reality-perception gap around what contextual targeting is in 2022, versus what it was in the mid-2010s adoption period.  

Understanding these advancements and how new capabilities can fit into a wider media plan is critical for marketers and agencies looking to move into the cookieless era with conviction and confidence.

While contextual 1.0 relies upon static keyword targeting, contextual 2.0 builds upon that foundation with the ability to integrate GDPR-era, privacy-compliant behavioral signals, powered by new technologies such as AI and machine learning. In short, the new generation of contextual tools brings together the best aspects of both contextual and behavioral targeting and in the process, allows marketers to boost reach, relevance and performance at scale, while maintaining privacy.

From Cookies To Context

Standard keyword-based contextual targeting offers brands controlled and relatively brand-safe environments without relying on personal data. Yet despite its usefulness, contextual targeting has ultimately been limited due to being static and rigid and not being able to personalize in the same way as behavioral targeting. It works only within limits set before a campaign and misses many non-obvious opportunities that can appear while a campaign is live. For this reason, it struggles to scale.

Behavioral targeting, drawn from consumer browser data via third-party cookie code, has also struggled with scale but this has been more than compensated for by granular personalization and enhanced measurement. So back in the mid-2010s when respecting consumer privacy was less of a priority for our industry, contextual was relegated to second fiddle as brands chased individual audiences across programmatic exchanges.

But the landscape shifted dramatically when GDPR brought consumer privacy concerns to a head, punctuated along the way by seismic events like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, where user personal data was compromised. These days, the groundswell of ‘privacy-first’ has become an unstoppable movement that has completely upended our industry, making behavioral targeting of the past decade decreasingly viable.

Contextual Targeting, Behavioral Signals

This brings us to 2022. The lessons learned from the past decade have guided the development of new tooling that combines the best attributes of contextual and behavioral, while going beyond the limitations and the over-reliance on assumptive signals. By blending together the advantages from these two methods, marketers can now target and engage relevant users contextually, based on behavioral signals, in a variety of quality brand-safe environments, without resorting to cookies or ID-workarounds.

Google’s Topics—the more privacy-protecting descendant of FLoCs – has indeed drawn the most attention. It may well end up as a dominant player in creating next-generation audience segments based on the online browsing behavior of groups. Tiktok in the meantime has also suggested a move this way with its Pulse tool; opportunities to advertise alongside top-trending content, rather than simply based on personalization. But with the current antitrust climate globally tilting against the walled gardens, there is an opportunity for the next generation of contextual players to establish and scale alongside them.

Relevance Which Scales

Back on the open web, a growing range of independent tech has developed new capabilities that in varying degrees, depending on the solution, allow for on-the-fly contextual budget reallocation based on live content-audience signals. There are solutions that can consider hundreds of topics at the same time using AI and target based on what’s working best for a campaign, moment by moment. This real-time optimization means finding and maintaining audience relevance in a manner that scales – something which fledgling identity solutions are going to struggle with.

Cookie deprecation is causing a good deal of anxiety in our ecosystem—even with the recently announced Google Chrome reprieve of its disappearing cookie until 2024.  The good news is that contextual targeting has evolved to more than meet these challenges and is now offering advanced and sustainable solutions which could truly offer brands the best of both worlds.