Post-cookie targeting has split into two camps. On one side there’s contextual targeting, which analyses the surrounding page or media to match audiences with advertisers. On the other is behavioural targeting, which combines IDs and a variety of data points to assemble targetable audiences and profiles.
As we near the cookie deadline, aggressive sales strategies pit the two options against each other, with each one positioned as the only targeting solution that brands need.
But what about a third option: coexistence? Both contextual and behavioural targeting have strengths and weaknesses that make them suited for certain campaigns and not others, and it can be more effective to deploy them in tandem.
Let’s say a credit card company wanted to sponsor a football tournament. Contextual advertising could reliably place ads in front of football fans, but the demographic would be too broad to achieve the brand’s objectives. This is where behavioural advertising comes in, overlaying football fans with people in the market for a new credit card, of a certain affluency or age, to build and refine targetable personas. Just as important are disqualifiers; those not in the market for a credit card, but perhaps might be interested in a savings account.
On the other hand, a travel campaign would perfectly match contextual’s strengths. Someone searching for a holiday guide can very reliably be inferred to be in the process of booking a holiday, giving airlines or hotel bookings an opportunity to target someone close to conversion with an ad that takes them directly to purchase. Contextual advertising can reliably target people by the destination they’re researching, the budget of their holiday, whether they’re cycling or driving, and so on.
Then there are the opportunities for synergy between the two approaches. For example:
- A brand or agency could use behavioural data to identify the best-performing audience segments and environments.
- A contextual campaign could then target those audiences and environments to secure the ideal placements for maximum impact.
- Behavioural data generated from the contextual campaign could then be used to verify whether the target segments were reached, and improve future campaigns.
In short, behavioural advertising provides the audience intelligence, while contextual optimises the ad delivery by matching the creative with its surroundings.
Finally, it’s important to remember that we have been through these ups and downs before. In the pre-programmatic days of insertion orders, contextual was the name of the game. Then, once advertisers could buy inventory from thousands of publishers at a time, attention switched to targetable audiences. Now, off the back of privacy and addressability concerns, contextual is the shiny “new” thing.
But at no point did either approach become obsolete, and nor will that happen in the future. If brands and agencies believe sales pitches that tell them they only need one solution, the only result is that they will sacrifice the versatility and adaptability needed to launch successful campaigns in today’s complex and fragmented digital ecosystem. The brands that do best always have been — and always will be — those that adopt a portfolio approach to advertising technology.