Is contextual marketing the answer to the end of third-party cookies?

There’s likely to be a renewed focus on context marketing with the demise of third-party cookies, but to be successful it will require a comprehensive strategy not just keywords

With the impending demise of third-party tracking cookies, marketing through contextual targeting is gaining a renewed importance. CMO talks to several in the industry about the opportunities and challenges in the shift to contextual marketing.

Contextual marketing brings together online and mobile marketing and uses targeted advertising based on search terms and browsing activity to attract the desired customers. It relies on developing relevant buyer personas and developing the appropriate tone of voice, content and channel to engage them. 

Semasio senior business development manager, Mikael Holcombe-Scali, told CMO contextual marketing equips marketers with the accuracy and flexibility of semantic data. “Contextual marketing is shown to users in environments that are contextually relevant and can enable marketers to reach their ideal audience, no matter how niche or broad, in environments that are highly relevant,” he noted.

Fleshing out the person in the persona

Contextual targeting uses people’s interests, location or other factors to target advertising to them. This is distinct from behavioural targeting, which can use websites visited, links clicked on, time spent on page and other metrics, often able to be collected through cookies. And data will be crucial in this context.

Retailers and marketers will have to consider strategies or software that can better leverage first-party data for contextual marketing, HubSpot A/NZ head of marketing, Kat Warboys, explained to CMO.

“While third-party data allowed you to place ads directly in front of people who matched certain user profiles, contextual marketing allows you to circulate pay per click (PPC) ads on websites that rank for similar keywords as your ad,” Warboys said.

“We're already seeing marketers start to shift their strategy and use first-party data and multi-touch attribution to create personalised and relevant content for consumers. There's an opportunity here to get back to basics and demonstrate our understanding of customer needs and their experience by creating that tailored, personalised approach."

Contextual marketing, in effect, harks back to an earlier form of advertising, utilising the same principle of finding an audience based on preferences for particular content. Holcombe-Scali pointed out that since TV media buying’s inception, marketers have sought to show their advertisements on TV shows consumed by their ideal audience.

“Modern contextual marketing builds on age-old ideals with the scale, precision and seamlessness that is championed by programmatic media,” he said. However, Holcombe-Scali said the efficacy of contextual marketing needs to be assessed by reviewing performance metrics. “Subjective opinions should not hold us back from testing a methodology that permits highly targeted marketing without the requirement of tracking behavioral patterns of cookie IDs,” he explained.

Holcombe-Scali said modern contextual targeting is drastically different from media buying 10 years ago. “The entire process of generating ideal pages for marketing has been streamlined through machine learning and semantic data,” he said. Keywords and phrases used with these technologies can produce effective content geared around semantic phrases. 

“Contextual targeting will be combined with user-level targeting in increasingly creative ways. Furthermore, as a Semasian and long-time champion of transparency in the quality and scale of marketers' contextual targeting solutions, we hope more and more contextual targeting providers will do the same,” said Holcombe-Scali.

An eye to the opportunities

Numerous marketing leaders told CMO there are new opportunities when it comes to expanding the use of contextual marketing. It enables better martech stacks to support tag management, progressive profiling and propensity to buy models, Freshworks head of marketing A/NZ, Maria Mughal, explained to CMO

“It also helps to optimise websites and landing pages to create improved content funnel strategies and, ultimately, creates a new pocket of skills and roles within marketing, which in turn paves the way for the creation of new roles to support the changes,” she continued. 

Yet there will be new challenges in this too, Mughal noted. “The challenges are finding people with the right skills and experience to build the strategies and technology stacks,” she said.

Contextual marketing also means getting back to basics. HubSpot head of marketing A/NZ, Kat Warboys, said marketers are already shifting their strategy to use first-party data and multi-touch attribution to create personalised and relevant content for consumers. “There's an opportunity here to get back to basics and demonstrate our understanding of customer needs and their experience by creating that tailored, personalised approach,” Warboys told CMO.

“The truth is, Google Chrome’s third-party cookie phase-out could heavily impact some areas of the marketing and advertising space. If you’re an advertiser or a marketer who's thrived on third-party data for pinpointed online audience targeting strategies, it’s fair to be worried about how you'll navigate this pivot.

“While some have argued a ‘cookie-free’ Web would mean consumers will receive less relevant ads, marketers who have a multi-media marketing strategy, and who aren’t heavily reliant on ads, will be ahead of their competition.”

Contextual targeting for brand safety

Silverbullet GM of strategy, Tim Beveridge, said contextual targeting is also an aid for brand safety because of the ability to analyse content and exclude ads appealing near content deemed to be unsafe. Beveridge even said brand safety is a must for marketers in this politically and economically volatile environment and could even make the difference to staying in business.

"Truly effective contextual targeting engines are able to process all types of content that exist on a page, to give true 360-degree guidance as to the page's semantic meaning,” Beveridge said.
“Good tools allow for more sophisticated approaches than simple keyword matching and allow marketers to nominate environments they want to include, and, importantly, the ones they want to exclude, such as content using hate speech, hyper partisanship, hyper politicalism, racism, toxicity, stereotyping and so on,” he said.

 And beyond this, advanced contextual targeting tools can analyse video down to single frames of video, to identify logos or products, recognise brand safe images, with audio transcript informing it all, to ensure a contextually appropriate environment to have ads around the video content.

Here, Beveridge said, this includes thumbnails and tags, and the same type of analysis is also applied to audio and imagery, to ensure the site as a whole is brand safe. “For instance, a contextual targeting tool can analyse a video that contains images of a beer brand, identify through the audio and video that it is a brand-safe environment, and inform the marketers that it is an optimum channel for and marketing content about beer to appear to the relevant target audience,” he said.

Will it improve consumer privacy?

“As users demand greater privacy, including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used - the web ecosystem and businesses need to evolve to meet these increasing demands,” Warboys said.

And with third-party cookies already phasing out, data management platforms are looking to create alternate tools that help advertisers track data in a way that makes the most out of the first-party cookie. “While these options might be different from third-party cookie solutions or require some new tools, software or strategising, they would still allow marketers to target and learn about relevant audiences without being intrusive or losing trust — critical for businesses to grow better,” she told CMO.

However, while the removal of third-party cookies allows for new solution creation to optimise personalisation, there’s always a risk of privacy issues, Mughal said. “This is one area that marketers do need to keep on top of, as rules and regulations are constantly evolving and adapting,” she advised. 

“Companies now have the opportunity to develop and build their own awareness as they drive users through their digital channels. Previously, this would have been outsourced to third-party vendors for advertising. It helps to create direct engagement with vendors and prospects as we no longer have third-party vendors building behavioural databases."

But Mughal also sounded a note of caution too. “Marketers will need to be aware of the new environment that they will have to work within to ensure privacy isn’t compromised or overstepped,” she said.

What is semantic content?

With a renewed focus on content, it could swing the emphasis back to keywords. However, Warboys counselled against marketing getting hung up on keywords alone, and instead looking at what content and topics are engaging and analysing correlating landing pages.

Warboys said that as SEO has evolved, the quality of user search has improved from stronger patterns in relevancy. Search engines use LSI keywords to help add context to pages or highlight key words in order to provide better search results. Her advice is to create stronger search options and practice co-occurrence, which relies on the frequency in keyword occurrence and closeness of keywords across different websites.

“Search engines will tend to use this method to scan and index websites closely related,” she said. "Keyword planning and trends are a starting point for keyword research and site searches for the most frequently asked questions. Create content that directly addresses common barriers and questions fielded by the sales team.

“Understanding your website user's needs, interests and habits is now more important than ever and is the key to presenting personalised, relevant content to your visitors."

Warboys said lifecycle and journey analysis are crucial to understanding and creating relevant content. Then optimise content for search engines, which will help identify top-performing content and see what customers want more of. “And consider the old philosophical adage, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’,” she said.

“A similar question could be asked of your contextual marketing. ‘If a marketer creates outstanding content that no one can see, does the content exist? As far as your visitors are concerned, it doesn’t. Don't miss out on opportunities to get the right content in front of the right person due to a poor navigational experience.”

Mughal said developing a campaign through contextual marketing involves content, progressive profiling and digital funnel strategy. “While the channel mix has changed, creating the brief is much the same. It’s important to focus on building and optimising conversion strategies for digital leads,” she said.

“The main thing is to always develop a good content plan, which aligns with the wider SEO strategy. It’s vital to include website and content optimisation, UX, content, persona-based content and, finally, ensuring you’re benchmarking and measuring any changes you implement,” she explained.

Finally, Mughal said while contextual marketing was already in the mind of marketers, the end of third-party cookies has brought it to the forefront. “Like any change in the market, those who weren’t already thinking about it, will have to play catch up,” she said.

“Having said that, it’s important to note that first-party cookies are still in place, so the focus now needs to be on how we’re going to optimise these cookies within contextual marketing.”

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