In the “Cookie Apocalypse” Context Matters – Now More Than Ever

cookies split in graph

By Phil Schraeder, CEO of GumGum

The language coming out of IAB’s Annual Leadership meeting this year was dire: We’re watching a “slow-motion trainwreck” was the warning from IAB CEO David Cohen in the keynote. Other soundbites were that we’re “losing over $10 billion in sales” as cookie deprecation and looming legislation roil the entire interactive industry and “soon we’ll be operating by the equivalent of candlelight.” Worse, a “measurement blackout”.

Phew. Let’s pack it in. Party’s over, right?

Not so fast. Yes, there are seismic changes taking place in the ad industry. We’ve spent years collecting people’s data to advertise to them. And while it’s a practice that has been lucrative for many (hello, Facebook and Google), people find it annoying — and sometimes downright intolerable.

Worse, the entire machinery of audience targeting has failed to stem the rise of ad blockers and provoked a wave of new privacy standards that have thrown the industry into disarray.

We Can Do So Much Better.

Twenty-some years ago, everything was contextual. If you wanted to reach an audience like professional investors on the web, you put a banner on a page that attracts professional investors.

That was the early days of contextual advertising.

But then came cookies and identifiers. They worked by latching on to specific personal data, categorizing people based on their behavior (shopping for shoes!) and then stalking, I mean tracking people online (look at these shoes you already bought!).

It’s time to get back to basics.

Back to focusing on true innovation and building technology that advances us forward to better connect with people in digital environments. Yes, contextual might be a strategy from the past but with innovation and sophisticated technology it is really new again and is unlocking doors like never before.

The basic premise of contextual advertising is putting the right ad in the right context (place, time, near a related topic, etc.), increasing ad relevance. You’re showing people an ad when they are in the right mindset to see it.

With contextual ads, you’re not following people. You don’t store any personal data. And you don’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s PII.

And there are two huge innovations in contextual advertising in the last 12 months that are making this happen:

Better Profiling and Categorization of Content. Truly understanding a digital environment is about going beyond the name of the article or section of the website. It requires deep analysis of the page including the words, images, audio, videos and other available metadata.

New AI models for natural language processing and image recognition allow adtech solutions to understand each page component separately and then combine those understandings to understand the full environment.

This advancement in technology gives advertisers the ability to be more nuanced in their targeting capabilities without overblocking based on one piece of data like a keyword.

Proof of the Right Context For the Ad. This is where real-time attention signals and metrics shift the paradigm. Because attention signals capture consumer interest in an ad, they’re able to kickstart a powerful feedback loop on ad relevance and resonance.

Unlike click-through rate (which is too sparse) or viewability (which is not a great signal for relevance), attention metrics are available on every impression and highly correlated with ad effectiveness.

While context has always mattered, it matters now more than ever. We’re no longer just on our desktops and tablets or watching TV. We’re in apps, games and smart devices like Apple watches and Alexas.

We’re on Pelotons. We’re experimenting with VR. And we are multi-tasking between all those screens at the same time. New emerging digital environments that we have yet to imagine are coming at us fast (we’re looking at you, metaverse) and we need to embrace technology and solutions that can adapt to these new environments.

Digital environments become custom to our interests and that makes reaching people in the right frame of mind more nuanced. But it also means we have so much more context about what people are doing in the moment that gives us clues we need to meet them when they are most receptive.

Context is so powerful 49% of brand marketers are already looking to contextual advertising to replace cookies.

The Truth Is, We Don’t Need To Know Everything or Really Anything About People To Deliver a Relevant and Engaging Ad.

Cookies are an invasive and clunky technology — and their time has come. Moving forward, we need to embrace that humans are dynamic creatures — every 10 seconds they are shifting their attention to a new topic or a new interest and with technology, advertising can align with that.

We need to focus on capturing a consumer’s active frame of mind and delivering the right ad, when they are ready to take action, rather than focusing on past behaviors or attempting to put them in the set of broad categories.

During the IAB event this week, there was a lot of talk about focusing on driving business outcomes.  While that is true, I also believe that if brands focus on how they can drive value to people’s lives through ads that offer what they need and when they need it, then the business outcomes will follow.

We don’t have to operate by candlelight.

Technology can help us truly understand the context of a digital environment and pair that with dynamic and engaging ad creative in real time. And when you get that right, consumer attention naturally follows.