Contextual Ads: Online Media’s Ace in the Hole

Contextual advertising has become an online media ace in the hole for many interactive media buyers. It allows us to deliver highly relevant content to target consumers. It provides value to potential customers and can have a positive effect on both sales and brand perception.

In addition to search engines such as Google and Yahoo, which offer contextual delivery of paid search ads, several ad networks offer contextual display advertising. It’s easier than ever to ensure banners you submit to your media vendor will appear in association with content relevant to your product.

That said, there’s a dark side to contextual advertising not all media buyers are aware of. Before you launch your next contextual campaign, read on.

Imagine you’re one of the big three automotive manufactures preparing to run a campaign to promote a Red Tag sale at your dealerships. Your marketing department strikes a contextual advertising deal with a series of publishers. The ads begin to appear alongside articles about automotive issues.

But this campaign coincides with a particularly bad month; that bleak period last year when American automakers were forced into round after round of layoffs. Naturally, those job cuts spawned countless news articles bemoaning the state of the auto industry in general and your company in particular — the company that’s running ads for its sales event next to dynamic automotive content. You can guess how this story ends.

The scenario isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Media buyers and contextual publishers work together every day to establish key content areas relating to their product. They rely on contextual technology to seek out appropriate articles and news clips. And every day, journalists report on ailing companies, human tragedy, and bizarre events. Sooner or later, ads are bound to turn up in objectionable places.

Like traditional ad networks, most contextual networks won’t disclose the specific sites on which your ads will run. Instead, banners are placed into content channels. But even if your vendor can provide you with a list of sample sites, you run the risk of negative ad association. There’s far too much dynamic content out there to independently monitor every placement in a campaign.

If all this sounds rather bleak, don’t abandon hope. Contextual networks are well aware of the problem and have provisions in place to prevent contextual advertising missteps.

I spoke with contextual advertising network ContextWeb to get a sense of how they handle the issue. According to Shanthi Sarkar, SVP of operations and product management, ContextWeb’s patent-pending technology analyzes every word on each Web page to find the appropriate category bucket for that word. It then runs an algorithm that analyzes various parameters, including how often the word is mentioned and where on the page it appears. From there, it assigns a rank to each page that corresponds with its various content categories. This makes it easy to determine which site sections are best suited to your campaign.

“On negative articles,” Sarkar says, “the quantity of negative words in relation to the other words is higher, and therefore the article will get a lower ranking for a particular category.” If an article is about a plane crash, for example, words like “plane crash,” “ambulance,” and “death,” will rank higher than words like “travel,” “hotels,” and “holiday.”

“So our technology will not rank the ‘travel’ category as an appropriate match for that article and, therefore, will not show travel-related ads next to an article about a plane crash,” Sarkar says. Instead, it will “roll up to either show broader offers that are not targeting specific content or house ads.”

The value contextual advertising brings to online media strategies is another reason not to omit it from your plan. Our media buying team had a few thoughts to share on why it’s important and how to ensure it doesn’t deliver negative results.

“The advantage of putting contextual advertising on a media plan is that it helps increase the branding and reach metrics, and there is an increased response to your ads,” says Smita Kapur, our senior interactive planner. “It also serves the consumer by serving up ads more relevant to them.”

“My suggestion would be to stick with reputable publisher-based contextual networks [rather than those that involve software downloads] and ‘negative-out’ words that might be detrimental to your brand,” adds Andrew Lovasz, a former media director and our associate director of search marketing.

It’s also a good idea to maintain a close relationship with your contextual ad sales rep to ensure he has your best interests in mind. As you discuss the type of content you’d like your ad to appear in conjunction with, emphasize the content areas you absolutely must avoid. Your rep should work with you to achieve all these objectives, personally keep a close eye on your buy, and watch for any red flags (like reduced click rates) that might indicate a negative content match.

There’s hope for eluding the dark side of contextual advertising yet.

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