With the advent of cookie-led demographics or behavioural targeting, their distant cousin in digital advertising, contextual advertising, has been living in the shadows. However, it seems now with consumers demanding control over data, ever-evolving and stringent privacy norms, like GDPR & CCPA, coming into effect, as well as 3rd party cookies getting deprecated soon, the time is ripe for contextual advertising to come back into the spotlight, writes Vibhor Mehrotra, Chief Digital Officer, Zenith. 

Today, I’ll take you through a short journey of how contextual advertising has evolved and why I believe it is going to be one of the biggest assets in digital advertising and help advertisers/ brands reach consumers in a more privacy-centric and effective way.


Let’s start with a question: what is contextual advertising?

It is the capability which allows advertisers to place ads on web pages based on the content of those pages. In other words, it allows advertisers to set parameters to either target or exclude ad placements based on the adjacent content on a given web page.

As advertising evolves to focus heavily on user privacy, demographic and behavioural targeting will begin to see some areas of limitation. As such, contextual will be able to take a front seat for future strategies.

Over the course of digital marketing’s evolution, contextual targeting has become more sophisticated to provide advertisers a robust targeting capability, without sacrificing specificity.

Here is the timeline of how Contextual Advertising has evolved from just being a direct buy with a publisher partner for a given category to a highly sophisticated tech-led targeting opportunity.

1990s – Was most commonly leveraged on display targeting, where advertisers could work directly with publishers to associate ads to the content of the webpage.

2000s – With the advent of programmatic advertising, contextual capabilities became more automated via real-time targeting and curating audiences through site lists, keywords, URLs, etc.

2010s – Grew on the back of adding additional signals, such as semantic analysis powered by AI, natural language processing, and sentiment to analyze a site beyond text and include images, videos, and audio.

2020s – Built brand safety to its core, I foresee that contextual advertising will evolve to offer advanced customisation and dynamic solutions that can understand the full context and sentiment of the page in order to drive semantic executions. Additionally, as the demand for contextual grows, advanced solutions in other channels (social, connected TVs, podcasts) will continue to evolve.


Then Now
– Broadly categorised inventory – Ability to target niche categories
– Target via keywords on webpage and in the URL string – Increased access to broad range of premium content at scale
– Buy through a direct IO with publishers – Programmatic availability for activation
– Basic control & targeting that supported section-level targeting only – Enhanced relevancy through semantic, sentiment, and NLP* technology
– Used for brand safety (exclusion-based) – Ability to align with brand suitability content
– Primarily text-based – Analyse the full page beyond text (image, audio, video, etc.)
– No additional data signals – Target dynamic & trending topics using AI & ML*


Quite often a question which comes my way is: how different is contextual advertising from behavioural targeting?

So, technically we have covered that behavioural targeting is cookie or PII (personally identifiable information) based to identify consumer interest and target audiences, while contextual is more about showing ads based on the content on the page.

Here is a real-life example:

A coconut water seller, reaching out to you when you are sitting at a beach, would tend to give the coconut seller a better opportunity to sell their product because it is more contextual to the place you are sitting. Against the time when you are in a club, partying with your friends and then this coconut water seller appears and try to sell you their product just because you have bought or shown interest towards coconut water in the past (basis tracking your behaviour), and you would not be interested now because you are having a good time with your friends.

Similarly, if you are reading extensively about monitoring or a security system for your house and an ad of an IOT enabled security brand appears during the article which have a better propensity to grab attention and action versus you being in-market for this product and ad appearing on cricket score feed may not have attention and action due to lack of context and environment to which this ad appears in.

Hence, we have seen that contextual advertising is more effective against behavioural.

While contextual advertising comes with a lot of advantages like being cookie-proof, more cost efficient and more relevant, there are some parts where it lacks and – to be fair to the current scenario – it will have to work towards solving for and making itself more addressable and provide stronger measurement and scale on video opportunities.

Another key hurdle is lack of standardisation of contextual classification

As the industry strives to find alternatives to third-party cookie tracking, third-party governing organisations are also working to curate a controlled and common language for publishers and platforms to follow when categorizing content. While there is no mandate across the industry to adopt specific taxonomies issued by governing organizations, there is a rising trend of contextual partners taking a stance to align or update their taxonomies to follow IAB’s Content Taxonomy 2.2.

Currently contextual advertising allows you as an advertiser to contextualise Text, Images, Videos and Audio content to stitch together the most relevant consumer ad experience.

This can be leveraged via channels like, DSP – Programmatic, Social platforms and large publisher partners.

Hope this journey helps you drive growth for your businesses like the coconut sellers at the beach rather than coconut water seller at the club!


Author: Vibhor Mehrotra, Chief Digital Officer, Zenith India

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