Sportswear ads against sport content; airlines against travel content – for years, ‘traditional’ contextual targeting has been seen as a reliable and brand-safe way to find campaign audiences without using personal data.

But as our understanding of context and its influence on user behaviour becomes more sophisticated, clients are telling us that targeting by keyword or pre-defined category is beginning to feel like a blunt instrument. Keyword contextual is also difficult to scale, relies on subjective signals and burdens the client with having to guess what will work best for a campaign.

In light of this, agencies have been asking what more they can learn about context and the influence it can have on a user’s moment-to-moment receptiveness to campaign messaging. They’re eager to know whether newer technology might now allow them to act on these live ‘contextual moments’ in real time.

The good news is that while the industry has been focused on audience buying and keywords, contextual has fused with AI and grown up – and what seemed impossible only a few years ago is now happening. Here’s what you need to know about contextual in 2021.

1. Relevance reengineered

Keyword relevance – placing car brands against motoring content – may be intuitive, but those same car shoppers are consuming different content every minute of the day. The challenge for advertisers is to find them in the right contextual moment, when the content they are consuming indicates they will be open to hearing from a brand.

This is what we’ve solved at Illuma: providing a tool through DSPs that enables campaigns to dynamically react to live contextual indicators of attention or engagement, and to scale automatically into similar pages across the open web.

By using live campaign signals in this way, using tools that can react immediately, these moments are captured and acted upon – finding relevant new users at scale. 

2. Removing the guesswork

Agency and brand clients have long had to shoulder the decisions around which keywords and contexts will work best to deliver awareness or performance for their campaigns.

This can be a challenge for even the most skillful of marketers, as each campaign is unique and user behaviour and interests are constantly changing. Smart, AI-powered, expansive technology automates those decisions on behalf of clients, with the output optimised against campaign KPIs.

3. Expanding reach while staying optimised

Instead of narrowing into contextual corners, smart solutions allow campaigns to react simultaneously to myriad high-performing topics, expanding into an almost-limitless number of quality pages.

Our studies show that up to 60% of campaign awareness or engagement comes from content that is unrelated to the campaign topic; but these contexts can be fluid and unpredictable. Scaling campaigns based on live awareness signals or performance, while remaining optimised against KPIs, removes this uncertainty. Blind reach is now a thing of the past.

What’s more, unlike audience buying or keyword targeting, smart contextual delivers output that’s unique to each campaign. This means that brands have a stronger chance of boosting awareness and capturing user attention.

4. Audience discovery… minus the cookie

Consumer habits have shifted massively since the COVID pandemic, which can make assumptions about brand loyalties all the trickier to gauge. 

As a result, quick-thinking advertisers are jumping on the chance to power their campaigns using live audience interests, in the moment, instead of keywords set before a campaign starts. In the process, they can often learn surprising information about their customers based on where they are online, which can help steer future strategy.

For example, a recent Illuma campaign for a major motor brand showed more conversions from pages about fine art, attractions, news and politics than about cars.

We regularly see advertisers using these insights to rethink their personas and marketing strategies.

5. A step forwards, not backwards

With the imminent removal of cookies from the ecosystem, some worry that a return to contextual targeting is a return to the Stone Age of advertising. The reality is that it’s a logical, powerful and compliant step forward, provided the right technologies are being applied.

Creative and media agency 360i is reporting outstanding results for its clients using Illuma. For one major CPG brand, ROAS lifted by as much as 128% above what they’d expect using ‘traditional’ contextual. 

Mike Feldman, Head of Commerce and Retail Media, Dentsu said: “Leveraging Illuma’s advanced cookieless technologies has given us outstanding campaign results without any concerns about compliance and without having to lower client expectations.”