There is a growing recognition that contextual advertising is one of the most powerful targeting technologies available to publishers and advertisers. Yet, what is not well understood is the important distinction between understanding content and understanding content plus context.
Understanding the content of a page is what most folks in the industry categorize as contextual advertising. Intuitively, it makes perfect sense that an ad for running shoes positioned next to an article about the Boston Marathon will perform better than if the same ad appeared next to an article about the presidential primaries. However, knowing the subject of an article is not sufficient. To truly fulfill the promise of contextual advertising, it is necessary to understand the context in which that subject is being discussed. There are many famous examples of contextual advertising gone wrong. While these examples point out the problem with current contextual advertising, they also point out the potential for a deeper understanding of the actual context.
An example of this can be seen below. Certainly placing an advertisement for vacations to Greece in the midst of an article about violent upheaval is not an effective use of advertising. In fact, it carries the double problem of not just being ineffectual, but also ends up creating a negative connotation for both the advertiser and the unsuspecting publisher.
However, imagine if the contextual technology understood not only that the article was about Greece, but also that it was about rioting and that rioting had a negative connotation. This could present the perfect opportunity to advertise a vacation to Italy. Enjoy the Mediterranean in peaceful, idyllic, and safe surroundings.
This second example shows much the same problem. Yes, the content is about coffee, but the context in which it is being used is decidedly negative. A consumer looking at this may be questioning, "Does Folgers really want to give me a heart attack?" Clearly, not the emotion the advertiser was hoping to evoke. However, this could present the perfect opportunity to promote the calming effects of green tea.
It is clear that contextual advertising offers the potential for a better, more relevant experience for publishers, advertisers, and consumers alike. However, it is also clear that in order to avoid mistakes like those above, and to fulfill that promise, we need to move beyond this current 1.0 deployment. We need to move beyond understanding just the content and move towards understanding the context in which that content is being used.
The easiest first step in this process, which surprisingly few companies take, is just a basic understanding of the type of site and the type of page the user is on. If I am on a food-related site and am looking at a page with a recipe, you can make a fairly safe assumption that any mention of "oil" is going to be in reference to cooking oil. Yet, we have many contextual advertising networks that misinterpret this mention of oil for ads about heating oil or motor oil.
The second step in the process is being able to distinguish between discreete words versus a string of words -- again something very few contextual networks do. For instance, "cream cheese" is a single, distinct product, yet most often contextual networks view it as two separate items: "cream" and "cheese." Or, consider the term "computer virus." Ideally this would trigger an ad for anti-virus software, but most often we will see a corresponding ad for a new laptop computer or Purel antibacterial soap.
Finally, the last step in the quest for relevance is to look at all of the words in a title or URL string. "Violence in Greece as Rioters Firebomb Buildings" contains three words, any one of which should red-flag a Greek advertiser. "Violence," "Rioters," and "Firebomb" are all clearly negative key words, whereas "Priceless Greek Antiquities Returned" provides multiple positive key words. This is data that can be used not just to block the embarrassing or reputation-damaging ad, but also to identify the most positive and most valuable opportunities.
The technology required to deliver on the promise of contextual advertising is complex. However, deploying it to deliver relevant and meaningful content holds the promise of enhancing the publisher's content, driving increased engagement for the advertiser, and providing a better user experience for the consumer.
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"Mistakes, behind you" image via shutterstock.