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In the early days of the internet, contextual advertising was one of the best (if only) tools available to the digital marketer. But it often proved clumsy, resulting in ads for travel showing up alongside news about sinking ship cruise ships, or fast food logos embedded inside content discussing heart disease.

One hope was that behavioral targeting could put an end to those kinds of awkward gaffes, offering a more precise and relevant advertising experience instead. And it has succeeded, delivering proven sales through hyper-targeted and personalized content. But the creation of that content depends on widespread data collection, and those data collection practices now face intense scrutiny from governments and consumers alike.

Regulatory threats and shifting consumer attitudes toward privacy are prompting renewed interest in the role that contextual marketing can play in advertising and branding strategy. Brands may be tempted to see contextual marketing as simply a backup plan, but in fact its power has been undersold. When deployed in conjunction with zero-party behavioral targeting, contextual marketing can provide the tailored, relevant content and experiences that consumers expect without the potential legal risks.

The pros and cons of behavioral marketing

Behavioral marketing's disruption of the digital advertising landscape was a boon to customers and businesses alike. The ability to track consumer behavior across the web, coupled with algorithms to synthesize and act on that data, gave advertisers the ability to serve personalized, relevant content to even the most microscopic of niches. 

But just because advertising is hyper-targeted doesn't always mean it's going to be effective. There are innumerable examples of advertising driven by first-party data that has proven embarrassing to brands, if not explicitly harmful. Worse still, some businesses that have failed to appropriately use and safeguard consumer data have been subjected to huge legal fines and outright operating bans.

When context beats clicks

What marketers have missed in the rush to rely on behavioral marketing is that when context is used well, it can serve advertising that is less disruptive, more dynamic, and more cost-effective without sacrificing relevance.

Because contextual digital marketing is driven by the content of the webpage, the advertising feels less intrusive and more natural to the audience, both of which increase engagement. It can also reduce the experience of ad fatigue. When the same content follows someone everywhere they go, it's likely to produce frustration at the levels of surveillance or disinterest in the product on offer. Because the ads provided by contextual marketing are situationally relevant, it's far less obvious when an ad is following a user around, so it's less likely to trigger a negative reaction.

Surprisingly, contextual marketing may be more future-proof than behavioral marketing, and better able to connect with the audience in cookie-less environments. By using the interest that brought a visitor to the current page at the current moment to target ads, brands can tap into a source of information that won't dry up with the deprecation of third-party cookies. And because different contexts require different content, brands can serve multiple creatives to highly interested audiences, further eliminating the risk of fatigue.  

Context also neatly sidesteps one of the pitfalls of behavioral marketing: current relevance. Behavioral targeting pulls information about past online activity to determine the content currently on display, but last night's Google search might not be remotely relevant to the consumer's needs this morning. In contrast, placing contextual ads in direct conversation with the content the viewer is seeing helps brands ensure they serve the most relevant advertising for the user's current mindset.

Easier to implement, easier to maintain

Because contextual advertising doesn't require the hyper-targeted personalization of behavioral marketing, it creates a far broader reach for content and a more effective way to drive visitors to another website. The development of more refined templates and rules for where content should (and should not) appear means that brands can avoid the missteps that characterized early contextual marketing and serve immediately relevant ads in environments consistent with the brands' values, without needing to manage an enormous pipeline of user data.   

Behavioral marketing, while powerful, relies on that data pipeline. Without loads of first-party data, it's impossible to effectively create a personalized experience. And that's expensive to maintain; in addition to the capital expenses associated with data collection and analysis software, behavioral advertising requires constant optimization and strategic input from employees.

Emergent privacy regulations, coupled with shifting consumer sentiment about data collection, are also putting new limitations on the reach of behavioral targeting. Because contextual marketing doesn't require any personal information in order to serve content to the audience, it also provides brands with a legal safety net (not to mention a reputational fail-safe), at least when it comes to following data protection standards set by the GDPR or CCPA.

Getting the best of both worlds

The contextual approach might be the missing piece in the modern marketing puzzle. By introducing a more holistic perspective into behavioral-driven marketing—focusing on the content as much as the environment in which it will live—brands can provide consumers with authentic and organic experiences more likely to drive future sales.

Behavioral targeting plays an important part in digital advertising, but it doesn't have to be used in isolation from the tried and true strategies found in contextual marketing. Combining behavioral tracking and contextual targeting allows marketers to better reach their audience on any platform and future-proof their advertising strategy for a privacy-focused world.

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