The Great Disconnect: Why Brands Should Rethink Their Advertising for a Post-Identity Age

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By William Merchan, head of Verity at contextual intelligence company GumGum

Few years will be as monumental as 2022 in the world of digital advertising. Like the railroad barons of a bygone era, marketers stand on the precipice of tectonic change — and how they respond will set the blueprint for growth or grind, to come.

2023 is, of course, the cut-off point for Google cookie usage, in a timeline that collides with emerging ad tech, platform privacy updates and a fast-moving wave of global legislation aimed at protecting consumer identity.

Amid this deluge of rapid developments, it’s perhaps no surprise that the sector is struggling with how to respond. Industry insiders talk of an “identity depression”, a phase that may last several years as brands grapple with how to replace personal data they’ve relied on as a mainstay with new, untested strategies.

The problem is, there is no easy answer to the future of identity. Like Alice in Wonderland, we in the digital ad sector are in danger of disappearing down a thousand rabbit holes as we scrabble to solve an impossible riddle.

Perhaps, instead, it’s time to step back. To consider that we may be entering a new, post-identity age where user data — first-party or otherwise — becomes less important.

Growth Minus Innovation

A look at the bigger picture becomes all the more urgent when we examine the huge growth trends that are driving the digital ecosystem. Magna predicts that globally, digital media will account for $442 billion of ad dollars in 2022, jumping 31%.

With the consumption of online TV content booming, on-demand video and CTV channels account for the lion’s share of this investment. In the US alone, digital video spend will increase 29% this year, offsetting a decline in broadcast and cable linear ad sales.

With the demise of third party cookies on the horizon, contextual targeting is becoming a critical tool for advertisers looking to reach relevant audiences within premium video environments. Contextual video advertising provides everything that outdated behavioral methods cannot, helping brands to connect with audiences at scale and optimize content in a meaningful, privacy-friendly way.

It’s a very intuitive model for bringing together online content and ads at the right time and the right place, so that users are in the mood for the messaging that’s presented. Most importantly, contextual targeting doesn’t require any personal data, making it a front-runner in the post-identity age.

The Value of Digital Video

The issue we have currently, however, is that many of the market’s contextual operators aren’t going far enough in understanding content context. Because they’re used to running their campaigns based on retargeting or behavioral segments, many target contextual video by genre (for example, “UGC content” or “gaming”) or they use base-level metadata.

These broad stroke tactics deliver the bare minimum of what good contextual targeting can achieve; and in doing so, they miss an opportunity for deeper audience connection. Targeting contextual video with metadata or content categories alone is a bit like glancing at the headline of an article without reading it in-depth. Sure, you get a flavor of what the piece is about; but you could find out so much more by reading it fully.

In a similar vein, contextual targeting should be about positive, as well as negative, targeting. In other words, it’s not just about avoiding unsuitable placements and finding brand-safe environments; it’s also about driving better performance by finding the best, most compatible content settings possible.

AI-powered machinery can achieve this “deeper dig” with contextual video – and contextual content in general – by using a combination of natural language processing and computer vision. The latter quality allows online videos to be analyzed on a frame-by-frame basis to get to the crux of what any given piece of content is about. This, in turn, aligns better with the overall goal of advertising: getting in front of the user at the right moment, to spark richer conversations between brand, content and audience.

Taking Back Control

Using contextual targeting in the right way also neatly addresses another challenge of digital media right now: control. With so many new proposals in the mix, from The Trade Desk’s universal ID 2.0 to Google’s Topics, advertisers are spoilt for choice when it comes to post-behavioral targeting options.

Yet these ideas seem less appealing when you recognize that many still rely on personal data. And more importantly, they involve ceding too much control to other operators.

To thrive in an environment beyond cookies, publishers and brands should not have to hand so much control to the large platforms. Instead, this is an opportunity for publishers to maximize their editorial ownership. Their content environments are unique ad spaces for partners that can be enriched.

Contextual targeting makes the most of this asset that already exists, at volume. It’s a simple, instinctive tool. And with the correct technology behind it, it can facilitate messaging that truly resonates.

The Post-Identity Vision

At its best, contextual technology is a better alternative to user data and the minefield of privacy concerns that go with it. It’s a concept that is both powerful in its simplicity – rolling back to advertising’s central tenet of audience connection – and sophisticated in its dexterity.

The next phase of innovation for contextual targeting will see the technology increasingly combined with high impact creatives and attention-based measurement to create what we at GumGum refer to as “The Mindset Matrix”. If operators in the digital ad space can combine creative execution with contextual targeting, they have a powerful means to access consumer mindset – i.e. a person who is in exactly the right mood for a particular kind of brand messaging. This method then unlocks powerful attention metrics to power ad optimization in a privacy-first, cookieless era.

So, advertising in a post-identity age will not just be about serving ads as quickly and widely as possible – without falling foul of brand safety or privacy concerns. Scale and efficiency are important parts of the equation. Above all, however, we should prioritize editorial integrity and the value of great content and messaging that align with one another – and users – for lasting moments of connection.