Shopping For Semantics: Unlocking Untapped Inventory In A Cookie-Less World

By Nick Morley, EMEA Managing Director, Integral Ad Science (IAS)

Brands are increasingly turning to programmatic advertising. In fact, IAS research has shown that UK programmatic buys continued to outperform global programmatic averages across every environment measured – desktop display, desktop video, mobile web display and mobile web video.

The reason behind the continual growth of programmatic is clear: automated delivery helps brands reach vast audiences with instantly tailored messages, boosting their chances for a positive impact. With consumers looking to save money and holiday spending, it is not surprising to see advertisers embracing the blend of efficiency and precision that programmatic technology offers.

But with third-party cookies due to disappear from the “shopping shelves”, marketers must start honing their own buying strategy if they want to continue making the most of programmatic advertising. As advertisers look for premium inventory that will drive ROI, there needs to be an understanding of how to keep sourcing hyper-targeted segments.

Why take action now?

As the coronavirus pandemic impacted communities and businesses across the globe, both consumer and advertising attention further accelerated to digital. For marketers, this shift has created significant opportunities and challenges. One challenge, in particular, is navigating a rise in hate speech and misinformation sparked by the boom in web activity and content creation. But using programmatic budgets wisely calls for continued vigilance in monitoring and adapting strategies when it comes to media quality.

Potential opportunities to harness the spike in digital growth are high. Not only is consumer engagement likely to remain screen-centric — with daily consumption of online media up by an extra hour against 2019 — but digital is also set to take an even bigger share of spending during the most critical buying period of the year. According to recent IAS research, 75% of  UK consumers will do most, if not all, of their festive shopping online; and a further 59% have already planned the search for gifts before November.

This comes at a time when consumers are demanding greater transparency and choice over how their data is being collected, stored and used. To maintain their reputation and consumer trust, marketers will need to ensure that they reach the right audiences and carefully control where ads are seen. The question is: how can this be achieved without third-party cookies?

Navigating the data drought

After more than two decades of relying on third-party cookies, the concept of going cookie-free is a digital evolution. Cookies formulate our web identity determining what content is displayed to each individual. The discussion around finding a ‘future proof’ solution has circled around the difficulty of balancing privacy protection with the need for relevance. As shown by previous IAS studies — although consumers care about digital privacy, they also prefer targeted ads; especially messages that match the content that they are viewing.

One potential outcome from the cookie clampdown could see marketers turn their attention back to performance-based insights, such as contextual targeting. Contextual targeting focuses on what content audiences are consuming and offers a way for marketers to continue delivering ads that resonate, at scale, despite the looming data drought. In fact, tying ads to their environment can create even more meaningful connections, with 37% of consumers finding ads most helpful if they link to surrounding content.

But there is also a critical safety factor that marketers must bear in mind.  Given that 68% of consumers hold brands responsible for the content that ads appear beside, it’s paramount to ensure placements are appropriate, as well as relevant. Advertisers need to carefully assess what their brand safety and suitability thresholds are and make sure that they have the right tools in place to ensure their ads aren’t placed in any unsuitable environments.

A smarter contextual strategy

What marketers need are technology partners that allow them to unlock the real context of content before they bid; and one of the best tools currently available is semantic analysis. Semantic technology helps brands determine content suitability with greater precision than a keyword-only approach. Through deep evaluation, smart semantic platforms can assess the words on web pages at a granular level — uncovering what they mean, their sentiment, and how they relate to each other.

Of course, effectiveness does depend on taking a considered approach. Marketers need to select their tech stack with care; prioritising platforms that provide the right mix of flexibility and control. For instance, the ability to quickly alter what content brands are targeting provides accurate real-time analysis, allowing for quick changes to target toward or away from the content. It will be vital to select vendors that put marketers in the driving seat; enabling them to steer pre-bid filtering and post-bid blocking in line with their brand requirements.

Chosen well and used as part of a fluid month-by-month strategy, these platforms can form the basis for consistent and effective digital advertising. Dynamic analysis of context will ensure ads are seen alongside content that amplifies its impact. Meanwhile, regular reviews of key targeting terms and emerging risks keep brands proactive, safe, and relevant.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and third-party cookies lose their value, now is not the moment to stand still. Marketers have a huge opportunity to reach highly receptive audiences who are hungry for engaging and personalised ad content — and dialing up their seasonal spending. But to thrive in the increasingly cookie-less online ecosystem, they must start shopping for tools that will help them harness untapped inventory and the power of positive contextual targeting.