Bringing Context Back


Marketers have fallen too blindly in love with behavioral data for advertising. It reminds them of the very familiar capabilities they grew up with in direct mail marketing and email marketing. However, the difference between advertising and mail is the context in which it is experienced. The context of an ad is the specific content that a person has navigated to on their own. Their mind is actively engaged in the context because they selected it. By pulling context back into focus in media targeting, behavioral targeting performs even better.

By definition, context is the thing a person has chosen to do or to focus on right now. The article they are reading, the video they are watching, or the place they are standing. Behavior is the series of choices they have made in the past that indicate a person’s interests and tendencies. Behavioral data is burgeoning thanks to the trails of information people leave behind in their everyday lives. That data is collected from media consumption, purchase behavior, location data tied to mobile devices, search history, social interactions, and a constantly growing set of sources. It is easy to fall in love with behavioral data and behavioral targeting because it is sexy. It also performs quite well.

However, behavioral data when combined with contextual targeting performs even better than behavioral targeting on its own. Take a passionate home cook as an example. A documented (behaviorally targeted) home cook will convert at a higher rate seeing an ad for a high end cooking appliance in a context about food or cooking versus a context about sports. Context is the bridge to consumer attention. It makes logical sense, but the data supports it as well.

Two examples:

A CPG food client launched a campaign advertising their product. Several tactics were deployed, including advertising to people that showed a historical interest in cooking meals using their product as an ingredient (behavioral targeting). Those behaviorally targeted consumers were served ads both in food/cooking contextual environments as well as in placements across a range of other content categories. The ads spoke to recipe ideas and recipe “actions” (likes, shares, saves, prints) where the metrics were measured to track relative success of one tactic against another.

  • The Cost per Action (CPA) for the campaign was $9.79.
  • The CPA average for behavioral targeting tactics was below the campaign average at $8.80 (lower numbers are better for this metric).
  • The CPA for behavioral targeting to consumers in contextual relevant food/cooking environments was $3.56, which was more than 2x better than behavioral targeting on its own and almost 3x better than the campaign average.

A retail client launched a campaign advertising their store in the key back-to-school season. Again, several tactics were deployed, but all tactics included advertising to people that were showing signs of being “in-market” to buy products in this retailer’s category (behavioral targeting). Those behaviorally targeted consumers were served ads both in contextual environments related to going back to school as well as in placements across a range of other content categories. The ads spoke to some of the retailer’s hottest products for the season and e-commerce transactions was the metric tracked for success.

  • The Cost per Transaction (CPT) for the campaign was $1.08, which was considered strong.
  • The CPT average for contextually relevant placements against the in-market shopper was even stronger at a $.43 CPT, again more than 2x better than behavioral targeting on its own.

The performance gains of a combined approach using contextual and behavioral targeting regularly line up with the above examples. Marketers should force themselves to keep context in perspective in campaigns. That perspective should address both finding contextually relevant placements as well as building messaging that speaks to those contextual relevancies. The added complexity pays off significantly well.

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Ryan Derrow
Ryan Derrow

Ryan is Vice President of Media at Empower MediaMarketing, one of the largest independent media agencies in the country. His team plans and executes integrated and programmatic media for clients like Bush's Beans, Dremel, Famous Footwear, LasikPlus, and Rust-Oleum.