Imagine having the ability to target consumers at the very moment they're thinking about your product. Now imagine connecting with those consumers immediately by drawing their attention to your business via a relevant text link or pop-up ad. Sound a little like pay-per-search advertising or keyword banner advertising, perhaps? The concept may be similar, but media buyers are learning contextual advertising is a very different animal -- and it isn't always in the form of a green cartoon alligator.
Contextual advertising has been around for several years. But what began as the occasional targeted pop-up window appearing on a competitor's Web site has morphed into a mammoth (and multifaceted) business, in both sales volume and reputation. Recently, companies such as Google and Sprinks added their own programs to an existing mix that includes established contextual advertising players such as Gator and WhenU. The popularity of contextual advertising is escalating in advertising circles -- if not with publishers, who argue some forms of it infringe on editorial copyrights, among other things.
For those who aren't completely familiar with this method of marketing, one of the most clear-cut definitions I've heard comes from ClickZ's own Danny Sullivan, who describes it as "when ads are delivered based on the content of a Web page being viewed, usually in an automated or semiautomated manner." Traditionally, consumers must download the company's free software -- which generally provides some other functionality -- before they can be served the ads. The software delivers the advertising based on the nature of each Web site the user is visiting.
Visual ads such as pop-ups and sliders are still the most common ad vehicles in contextual advertising. These are deployed by Gator and WhenU, with whom most buyers are already familiar. But for those advertisers who prefer the idea of text advertising to the eternally reviled pop-up, there's Google's Content-Targeted Advertising, ContentSprinks, and eZula, all of which offer keyword-based advertising on content pages across the Web.
Google and Sprinks don't require consumers download any ad software, distributing their ads instead through partnerships with chosen Web publishers. eZula's model, however, is more traditional contextual advertising. When a keyword relating to an advertiser's business occurs on a content page a consumer is viewing, that word appears underlined and highlighted and links directly to the advertiser's Web site. eZula's software is able to "read" and analyze the content within a Web page, instead of placing its ads based on domain names alone.
From a media buyer's point of view, all forms of contextual advertising -- as controversial as they can sometimes be -- should be quite intriguing. Think of the reaction your client, an electronics retailer with a killer sale on DVD players, could provoke from a consumer by informing him of the deal at the precise moment he's reading up on DVD players online. Then think of the pleasure your client would muster learning a conversion occurred while a consumer was visiting his biggest competitor's Web site.
The options, and possibilities, for contextual advertising campaigns are manifold. Before you sign up to use this promising technique, though, keep in mind just as with any other online advertising form, there are variables to consider before making the buy.
There's the consumer's perception of the ads. Consider software-generated contextual ads, for instance. Since the user had to agree to the installation of the necessary software on her system, one would assume she would receive the ensuing flood of ads with open arms. But what many media buyers may not realize is to grow their database of registered users, some (but not all) contextual advertising firms partner with other software companies, bundling their products in a fashion that is sometimes imperceptible to the consumer.
Others take things even further, requiring Internet users agree to the ad-supported software download before they can obtain the software they are actually seeking. Media buyers considering this form of contextual advertising should be very aware, depending on the way in which they acquired it, not all consumers with the software will be happy to encounter ads wherever they go -- even if the products being advertised are more relevant than the customary mass-market ads they're used to seeing.
How consumers perceive your clients' brands is principally determined by the advertising you release into the world in an effort to reach them. Can certain forms of contextual advertising send the wrong message, alienating existing and potential customers? What do consumers have to gain by agreeing to view software-based contextual ads? Are they suspicious of ads that are a little too targeted? Find out next week when I look at contextual advertising from the consumer's point of view.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.