In a world where Kim Kardashian rules social media and Donald Trump runs for the US elections, it might seem rather easy for things to be misunderstood. However, people aren’t always the cause. Sometimes it’s just the context. For instance, the quote, “Rather thicker than one usually sees…quite rigid…ten-and-a-quarter inches,” didn’t sound wrong at all to a 12-year-old reading the Harry Potter series. He probably just wondered how long his wand would be.
Stepping out of the world of fiction, more recently at the global Festival of Media, we heard someone say, “If content is king, context is God”. In the war between kings and God, can either one really be the winner?
Clash of the Titans
“Content can’t live without context,” says Daniel Vaczi, head of digital at MediaCom. Moreover, context is just common sense for Dimitri Papadimitriou, head of LiquidThread MENA. While context has always been an integral part of advertising, clients are only now beginning to focus on content. Though Papadimitriou doesn’t say content is more important than context, he does say that the latter is easier to get right than the former and, even if the context isn’t right at first, “it [content] will get picked up and put into the right context.” He emphasizes that it’s all about the right idea. “If the content is so good – even if it’s not put in front of the right people – the quality of the content will make it shareable. It will get spread and then hit the people it was intended for, even if it wasn’t released that way,” he adds. However, Nadim Khouri, director of mobile and experiential media, Resolution, says that without good content, you’re nobody and, yet, “the virality of content is all about context. A lot of people stop at content and forget about context. You could have great content, but if it’s not put in front of the right people, it’s not going to go very far,” he says. While Ziad Ghorayeb, digital director, Initiative, finds the sudden interest in context a tad surprising considering it’s been around for a long time, he does admit that its meaning and capabilities are changing as technology evolves. If one thing is clear, it is that “context plays a bigger role than content. You can have the best piece of content, but if you don’t have the right context to push it…” he wonders.
Amer Attyeh, MENA country head, Exponential, further explains that “context in digital advertising has two sides: online content and the online user.” Essentially, an ad or brand message can be in context with the environment or it can be contextual to the user…or it can be both. Attyeh explains that, usually, contextual advertising is “a form of targeted advertising, where the content of an ad is in direct correlation with the content of the web page.” However, that’s just one part. What’s more important is “the online user and his interests, behavior and intentions,” adds Attyeh. For instance, performance marketing agency Criteo’s business relies on retargeting and finding users in the right context. That’s why the content or context of the publisher or the environment in which the ad is placed rarely matters. “It’s all about the user,” says Dirk Henke, managing director Eastern Europe & MEA, Criteo. He also points out that the content and creative of the ad or content are just as important as context. As Attyeh says: “Once the user sees the ad in the right place at the right time, the role of contextual advertising stops and we look at the creative or message itself.”
Getting it right
Context in its most basic form started with Google’s Adwords and keyword tracking in 2000. Vaczi recollects the initial days, when it wasn’t uncommon for an airline’s ad to turn up next to news of a plane crash. Such a faux pas can happen even today depending on the technology used, but it’s unlikely. “It’s really hard to pin down the context when you have just one or two keywords,” he says – and that’s why new keywords constantly need to be added – not just the ones that need to be targeted, but also the ones that don’t have to be targeted.
The keyword-based way of targeting is increasingly become less scientific, considering that, every day, 16 to 20 percent of searches on Google are new searches. Another breakthrough of sorts came when Google introduced dynamic keyword targeting, wherein the advertiser didn’t have to select every keyword; Google would automatically select synonyms.
However, it can’t just be about keywords. For instance, if an energy drink running a contextual campaign uses the keyword “energy”, the ad might be served on an oil and gas website – that’s about as relevant to the reader as an ISIS recruitment ad to a One Direction fan. That’s why Exponential introduced page-level contextualization five years ago. This type of targeting scans the contents of not just the web page, but also any user comments and conversations on the page to provide a better understanding of the content.
Criteo’s Henke reminisces that, back in 2005, there were less than ten factors involved in a contextual campaign, but, today, there are a several hundred at the least. Vaczi also says that, today, with machine learning, we’ve come a long way from the days of keyword targeting. “Using regression techniques, it [the technology] understands the relationship between different words. It also looks at the environment and the whole page and, sometimes, goes further and looks back in the database to see if that relationship has been identified before and, if yes, what was the click-through rate (CTR) and the action after that,” he explains. If the relevance and the predicted CTR are high, then the ad gets served. However, as can be expected, this is a trial-and-error process that the algorithm learns over time. That’s probably why Vaczi adds that optimization is key and the volume of the campaign is a key factor. “Low-volume campaigns probably never get a chance to be optimized,” he says. Henke says that, across the world, there’s one common challenge for e-commerce players: Roughly 90 to 95 percent of website visitors leave the web store without any action, purchase or conversion. Criteo finds these users again – somewhere across the expanses of the web – and shows them a relevant ad based on their online shopping behavior using an algorithm. The real relevance is determined through the clicks. If an ad is not being clicked on after being served multiple times, Criteo changes the product in the ad, as well as the message and creative. “This is machine-learning information that we will use the next time we show an ad,” explains Henke. This is why contextual campaigns need to be given some time before they can show results; it’s also where lookalike modeling comes in handy.
An e-commerce player may be hugely successful, but it can’t rely solely on existing customers; it needs to get more people into the purchase funnel. Lookalike modeling finds previous customers in the database, analyzes their online behavior and then matches it with potential customers to serve them relevant ads and help them convert. “Behavior is very important, because you need to know what happens before the person gets to your content,” says Vaczi.
While Papadimitriou admits to the wonders of machine learning and automation, he emphasizes the need for the human element. For instance, LiquidThread uses technology for social listening and data acquisition to get more insight around conversations in the social sphere. Once it finds a conversation that it can tap into, “the human element has to come into play because the tool will shoot out the different conversations, but you still have to go in there and get the idea to get yourself in the conversation and, all too often, we’ve seen it being done in an incorrect way,” he says. Initiative’s Ghorayeb agrees: “You can’t rely on automated machines and keywords to actually do contextual [advertising]. There’s a human element to it.”
The reason for this is what he calls scenario planning, wherein you plan ahead and prepare content for different contexts and then run the piece of content that’s most relevant at the time. However, Papadimitriou cautions against what he calls “analysis paralysis”. “I don’t want to be creating 76 different versions of the ad to target 76 different target groups every time I have to do a piece of content. We’re not all that inherently different as people. Yes, there are language and cultural differences, but you’re not going to be efficient if you’re going to take one piece of content and adapt it 20 different ways for different target groups,” he says. He does concede that it is warranted at times like when there’s an event, but on a daily basis, it is inefficient.
Interestingly, Exponential’s Attyeh says that contextual advertising is better suited to niche brands trying to reach a very specific audience versus mass brands. Yet, what if a big mass brand wants to reach a specific target audience? “Even mass brands can target, but it’s better to focus on areas other than contextual because it will limit the reach, so you miss out on a huge audience,” he says.
The game plan
A lot of contextual advertising is rather tactical – from a radio ad talking about juices on a hot summer afternoon to an ad for a weekend getaway when you’ve been searching for ways to beat the heat – although it might be safe to assume that everyone does the latter anyway. Is contextual only limited to tactical promotions or can it be used in a more strategic way? “The first campaign you run will be tactical,” says Attyeh, simply because running more campaigns will help in understanding users better and this will eventually help in being able to plan smarter, more strategic campaigns. Vaczi cites the example of a recent brand-building campaign the agency worked on. “We know that the person is in the market; that means they’re going to look for our product in the future, although they’re currently not considering it,” he explains. When the right audience visited a business website – since the target was high-net-worth individuals – they were served with a banner, which didn’t ask users to interact with it in any way or include some call-to-action. “It is literally just a nice branding,” says Vaczi, comparing it to the P&G Olympics ads; it doesn’t sell you a product, just creates an emotion and tells a story. However, Attyeh insists that it’s important even for strategic campaigns to have some kind of call-to-action. “Since digital is more lean-forward than lean-back and it allows online users to click and discover more about the brand” – obviously something the brand wants too – users should be given the option to click on it, explains Attyeh. The reason why most contextual campaigns are tactical is because “contextual lends itself to tactical,” says Papadimitriou. However, “when it comes to strategic, the right content is more important at that point than the right context,” he adds. As Papadimitriou sees it, brand building and strategy rely more on content, whereas tactical advertising relies more on contextual. For Ghorayeb, contextual advertising has already become more strategic as agencies have been planning for moments and scenarios. “Even when publishers come and talk to us, it’s no longer about how much traffic their websites receive and what kind of audience they cater to,” he says. It has changed to the moments that the publisher can create and instigate in correspondence with real-life events and how advertisers can reach audiences who are in the right mindset and moment at any given time. “What is the one thing that will get an ad to reach that person and break the clutter? It’s context,” concludes Ghorayeb.
On the move
For Ghorayeb, the revolution of technology and the way consumers deal with media have been brought about by a single device: the mobile. This has led to an explosion of data unlike the relatively simplistic forms of data that existed prior to the mobile boom. “Today, if I have a Nike FuelBand and an app on my phone that is location-based and I’m consuming media with all the trackers, then you can imagine how many micro-moments you can target,” exclaims Ghorayeb. For Khouri, content is simply more effective on mobile. Although programmatic media has improved the ability to understand, track and retarget users on desktop, its accuracy on mobile is still limited. However, “mobile has more infrastructure and device capabilities,” explains Khouri, one of them being location services.
Since mobile is a cookie-less environment, tracking users on multiple screens can be difficult, although it’s achievable to a certain degree. “I wouldn’t say mobile is better or stronger than desktop, but the mobile device itself allows for more contextual understanding,” adds Khouri. At the bare minimum, you know where someone is located. And, as Ghorayeb says, this bare minimum can mean “endless possibilities to target users. Today, it’s [contextual advertising] about content, location and mind-set – amongst other things.” He cites statistics indicating that approximately 70 percent of consumers interested in buying a car look at competitor’s cars while in the showroom – “which is at the bottom of the purchase funnel.” So, if you can target them right then and there, when they’re about to make a decision, it’s far more effective.
Khouri remains hesitant about the accuracy of location-based targeting, but with beacon technology and WiFi triangulation, it could get more accurate. Geo-targeting an interested automotive buyer doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hit him with a message while he’s at the showroom; you could wait till he gets home to send him a relevant message, adds Khouri.
In fact, even wearables have to be connected to mobiles in order for them to work fully. “You can pick and choose the gadget [wearable], but it has to be connected to the mobile. Mobile is the core,” emphasizes Ghorayeb. Furthermore, since mobiles have a smaller screen versus that of a desktop or TV, it means consumers are less distracted. “Even the ads on a mobile occupy two-thirds of the screen versus an ad on the desktop that only has a small placement,” continues Ghorayeb.
Globally, 34 percent of all sales on e-commerce websites come from mobile across Criteo’s 7,800 clients. In the Middle East, this number is much higher, with Lebanon and Qatar touching 50 percent while the UAE and KSA match the global average of 30 to 35 percent. That’s why cross-device targeting and tracking are growing in importance to users. And yet, the integration of devices and media channels is what multiple experts call the elusive Holy Grail.
“The digital media space is so broad, but you have to find the right angle for contextual, because the capabilities are there,” cautions Khouri. He says that there is room for error within automation, but it depends on the agency. Geo-fencing isn’t foolproof either “and has very little wiggle room in terms of precision, but it is better than what you can do on the desktop,” he adds.
Media experts around the world have welcomed programmatic like a cinephile enjoying a Guy Ritchie movie – with an appreciation for its intelligence, even if its workings can’t fully be understood. Considering that programmatic is automated and, often, the advertiser doesn’t know where the content is going to be placed, could it lead to bad context? Khouri doesn’t think so: “It is automated, but it’s a very smart automated system that’s not humanly possible.” Vaczi says that private inventories and targeting a forum or blog, where there’s limited supervision, can lead to trouble, but the environment is more controlled when it comes to bigger publishers.
However, Papadimitriou says that, with programmatic, building the right context can be a little more difficult, because “you don’t have pure visibility on everything”. It is up to the team managing the account and that’s where, once again, the human element is important. “It’s a technology to assist rather than implement fully. Our guys are constantly looking at the exchanges, updating the list of sites and striking deals with new publishers to make sure their inventory is listed and in the right way,” he adds. Yet, Khouri absolutely believes that programmatic goes a long way in aiding better context, as it allows you to follow a specific user during the entire customer journey.
For Henke, programmatic is a great solution because it is real-time buying and trading. Naturally, the right timing is very important for the context to be right. In the digital sphere, right timing also means fast. “Typically, 80 percent of the ads we show are within the first three seconds of a user being on a client’s site,” says Henke. However, “Today, there’s not enough inventory that we’re interested in available to programmatic,” he says. The lack of access to data is a hindrance for Ghorayeb too. “With the rise of programmatic, it’s about opening this data to advertisers. A lot of publishers don’t share their data because they want you to use them,” he says, further adding that even though programmatic has been around for three years, there are no proper display side platforms (DSPs) yet.
While experts work toward the advancement of technology and its applications in advertising, this could actually pose a problem to users. “I remember when Google came out with Gmail and, shortly after, people noticed highly relevant ads next to their email, which is quite private, of course, [they were] concerned,” says Vaczi. Henke, too, adds that when Criteo started, users were surprised with the relevancy of ads they were seeing. However, today, they are accustomed to relevant targeting – and even appreciate it. “People don’t like the fact that ads follow them, but I put it down to bad practices by online marketers,” says Vaczi. That’s why, Henke says, all of Criteo’s ads come with a little information icon that explains why they have seen a particular ad, how it works and offers an opt-out option. In fact, approximately 80 percent of products purchased in the fashion category, aren’t the ones that users have actively looked for before. “So, we add value to our clients and users,” says Henke. Moreover, “when we started in Europe, people clicked more often on the information button but, over time, even the clicks on those icons have decreased,” he adds. Khouri suggests that privacy concerns are based more on consumers’ annoyance from being bombarded with ads than with giving up personal information. With the addition of wearables, “if you’re getting a contextual experience while talking to your watch, you’re getting much more out of it than you would otherwise,” he says. Usually, any notifications that can be considered annoying come from an app or platform that users have signed up for: this can always be turned off.
As Ghorayeb says: “The only way we can get to a solution where everyone’s happy is a time when the consumers understand that they can control the data they want to share.” And as long as sharing data adds value to users’ experiences, advertising can become more complementary than invasive.
In what privacy rights activists might consider good news, certain technology automatically lends itself to a non-invasive experience…such as biometrics. For instance, when a camera in a mall captures a user’s picture and classifies him or her as belonging to a certain target group and then serves a relevant ad, that is contextual. “So, there’s a lot more to contextual that’s not happening for the lack of sharing or accessibility of data,” Ghorayeb points out.
Reel to real
However, Khouri thinks that context does extend to other media. While outdoor remains a challenge, TV surely is a part of contextual, with several tools enabling cross-device targeting, but “it just gets more intricate on digital and so it is a more precise [medium] for contextual,” says Khouri. Papadimitriou cites the various ways of bringing offline to online: QR codes, NFC technology, agile TV and such. However, he cautions that it should be done very carefully and has to be a seamless part of the consumer journey. “Hit them [consumers] in one space and you have them,” he says, further warning that leading consumers from one channel to another could be asking for too much.
Whether contextual remains digital’s forte or progresses to bring media channels together in order to truly serve the consumer remains to be seen. Meanwhile, at least it’s clear that we’ve moved on from the days when Amazon and eBay aggressively bought every cheap and available keyword that existed. “Even if you searched for human remains…eBay would have that,” says a very amused Vaczi.
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