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Why Contextual Targeting Deserves Another Look with Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Now when you stop and think about how AI has been integrated into programmatic advertising, cookies likely won’t come to mind given they’re a nearly 30-year-old way of storing data through a string of text.   

In the future when reflecting on today’s proposed identity alternatives, you likely won’t think they’re cutting edge either unless you consider the black-box modeling, universal ID encryption and the ad auction restructure as significant technological ad tech industry advancements, not just table stakes.   

But perched in a place you’d least expect to find it is an abundance of human-like decisioning that’s advancing how we process and react to information accessed across the web.

Contextual targeting, that old-school standby, now integrates nearly all AI technology core components including image recognition, natural language processing (NLP), predictive analytics and the flexibility to plan a strategy and optimize accordingly.   

Brands Are Recognizing Contextual Targeting’s Value   

From both branding and customer experience perspectives, contextual targeting can play a significant role in customer acquisition when advertisers use it in multidimensional ways across online and offline signals, and brands are taking notice.   

The IAB recently published its State of Data Report detailing the response of U.S. data leaders to upcoming third-party cookie and identifier changes and noted a significant 75% yearly spend increase in contextual channels. (In contrast, the confidence was far less for third-party identity resolution solutions, only rising by 23%.) 

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Advertisers need to work on improving ad personalization by connecting non-identifying data points and creating responsive messaging based on content consumption and user intent, and they’re trying. The industry has been busy providing solutions to support the latest ad tech industry advancements such as MUM for Google Search and voice assistant technologies. Last year, brands invested six times more in customer experience strategy than programmatic display advertising to the tune of $600 billion to enhance user touchpoint technology through personalization, real-time engagement, AI and improved data quality.  

Contextual Targeting Goes Further Than Behavioral Targeting   

Marketers could complement these efforts and gain more brand loyalty by creating a tailored approach to real-time messaging when users are seeking it most. That’s where contextual targeting shines.  

Acquiring new customers doesn’t always have to start with the third-party behavioral signals that confirm what you know about users or reveal what they like. (In many cases, intent data relevancy wears off anyway by the time you get in front of the user especially since DSPs’ available audience targeting doesn’t provide a way to segment when a user entered the targeting pool. This makes Google’s proposed Topics sound like a slightly less stale browser-based cookie than what exists today.)   

Contextual can replicate many of the same targeting features that behavioral targeting audiences provide and even go further by aligning relevancy.

For example, brands seeking to reach in-market audiences could align brand consideration messaging when someone’s in the research phase. Or those brands with strong stances on current topics or popular trends could increase exposure by aligning with influential figures’ followers.  

Contextual Targeting Is Advancing (and You Can Too)   

Most advertisers are mainly using contextual targeting to protect brand safety, focusing on excluding keywords and URLs so brands don’t appear alongside negative content or misinformation.

But here are 5 ways you can embrace contextual targeting’s full potential today to truly flourish.  

Enhance Your First-Party Data
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Give contextual data and your first-party data an advantage. Combine them to reach users who are ready to buy when they’re in the moments leading up to purchase. A few partners can even get more granular down to optimizing the creative to feature the product most purchased by visitors based on contextual categorizations.

Whether visitors are engaging with reviews on a site or comparing how the product stacks up against your competitors, these are all powerful pivot points within the purchase journey that shouldn’t be missed.   

 If your first-party data is limited, contextual targeting may be the boost you need to raise brand awareness and drive new users to your site. For example, you could replicate sponsored posts offered through publishers’ direct deals by combining related content with relevant messaging. That’s a win-win for brands and users alike.  

Captivate Streaming Audiences

On the streaming front, set-top and TV manufacturers have been in a space race to earn dominance in the exclusivity of audience reach through owned-and-operated channels and curated pockets of original and syndicated programming. What are they after? Audience content recognition (ACR) data.   

With all the sophisticated technology integrated into smart TVs, now you can use audience content recognition (ACR) data to identify what people are watching based on audio and visual signals and then contextually retarget them across all devices and environments including Connected TV.  

This is a prime opportunity worth exploring because you can’t do this type of content retargeting from a display perspective across the web.

Here’s another benefit: You don’t have to rely on third-party signals either. 

Get Your Brand a Starring Role

Advanced TV is making the impossible possible. Now you can give your brand the star treatment. Place your brand at the center of the action or at the height of emotional drama or pure comedy – when your enthralled audience is intently watching their favorite shows and videos.  

Product placement has gotten such a creative upgrade that AI can now comb through footage and identify the best ways to integrate brands and place products within the right context in videos and shows. A vendor can then insert your advertising during post-production and even update it frequently. 

Imagine your brand name or logo appearing on a billboard along the highway, a storefront along the street or signage in the background of a scene – or even gracing a coffee cup or wine bottle in an actor’s hand! Where your brand dynamically appears and whom you reach is up to you.  

Consider Location

Though you might not think of it as such, geofencing is contextual targeting out in the real world. If you’re an advertiser wanting to get in front of retail shoppers, location-based contextual targeting allows you to show consumers relevant ads for products in the moment they’re shopping for them, or in the days after their visit. 

This tactic also can be used to predict a consumer decision based on an inference. For instance, our location targeting partner identified an over-indexing visit to a popular auto part supply store chain as a strong indicator an individual may be in search of a new vehicle soon. Think about the places you’ve visited in the past week and what signals they may provide a marketer about your lifestyle or purchase decisions.   

Be Selective With Social

Social algorithms provide content that interests you without having to rely on any personally identifiable information (PII) – who employs you, what you’ve shopped for in the past few weeks, how much money you make and so on. These contextual algorithms understand the content you interact with and keep you engaged by feeding you more of the same. 
It’s not widely known, but YouTube has contextual capabilities you should tap into now. Buyers can choose to run on YouTube channels that align with their brand’s product or service and even select some content where their ads will appear. You get more control over ad placement and can steer your brand toward desired content rather than simply betting your luck and hoping you’ll land between brand-safe content within a never-ending scroll feed.      

Contextual targeting can help you reach and engage qualified audiences the moment they’re interested and as they move through the purchase funnel. As the ad tech industry contends with the looming third-party cookie phaseout and heightened consumer privacy concerns, it’s one cookieless alternative poised for quite a comeback. 

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