What is Contextual Targeting? How It Works (in 5 Steps)

Your ads don’t do any good if the intended people don’t see them. Contextual targeting is all about serving relevant ads to the right people.

When it comes to paid advertising – be that on Google, Facebook, Twitter or any other online advertising platform – it can often be difficult to run a successful campaign, especially if you’re not advertising to the right people. 

But the truth is that most online consumers don’t pay any attention to the ads they see. In fact, according to a recent HubSpot study, about 64% of respondents agreed that online advertisements are annoying and intrusive. Another 45% of respondents said that they don’t even take notice of online ads, even when they do see them.  

What this means is that you can literally spend thousands of dollars on online advertisements and still not get anywhere. This is exactly where contextual targeting comes in.

Contextual targeting allows advertisers to place their ads based on very specific factors about their target audience. This makes it more likely that their ads will be seen by the people who are most likely to interact or take action after seeing the ad.    

Let’s take a deeper look at contextual targeting to help you better understand how it works and how you can apply it to your next advertising campaign. 

What is contextual targeting?

In simple terms, contextual targeting is when ads are displayed on relevant websites. This can be likened to the digital version of a print ad in a newspaper or magazine, where the ad would be relevant to the publication’s niche or industry.   

Imagine picking up a cooking magazine. You would likely see print ads for recipe books or dishware. If you picked up a fishing magazine, you would see ads for fishing gear and tackle. This is contextual targeting. These ads are placed on the assumption that a person reading a magazine about cooking is likely to be interested in recipes or dishware, or that a person visiting a fishing website is likely to be interested in ads for fishing gear or tackle

Why is contextual targeting effective?

By placing ads contextually, based on internet users’ specific behaviors, advertisers can hyperfocus their efforts, making it so that their ads will only be seen by the people most likely to take action. 

In the past, marketers were limited in how they could target their ads. Due to this, ads were often placed in high-traffic areas, basing the ad’s placement on quantity over quality of potential leads. 

Today, things have changed, making quality much more important than quantity. Think about it for a second: What’s the point of having 10,000 people see your ad if none of them are likely to take action when they see it?

This is where contextual targeting comes in. Contextual targeting makes it easier for advertisers to reach the right people, at the right place and at the right time.

Cookies and tracking

For contextual targeting to work, online advertisers need information about certain user behaviors, such as the sites they’ve visited in the past. There are a few different ways to track this type of information, but the most common method is tracking cookies. Cookies are made up of a few simple lines of code, placed on an internet user’s browser when they visit a website. Initially, tracking cookies were only used to help websites recognize and remember their users. But today, cookies are often used for profiling and targeting ads to the right type of people.

As you know by now, contextual targeting allows brands to hyper-personalize ad placement, putting ads where they are most likely to be seen by the right people. To create this type of optimized ad campaign, you’ll need to follow a few simple steps:

  1. Building your buyer personas
  2. Mapping out your buyer’s journey
  3. Analyzing the competition
  4. Researching your topic and keywords
  5. Creating a contextual ad

Step 1: Build your buyer personas.

A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of a brand’s ideal customer. Your buyer personas need to outline a few of your ideal customer traits. This will help you learn more about your target audience and where they spend their time online. 

A buyer persona should outline a few common issues your ideal customers face in their lives, as well as where they hang out online and what drives them to learn more about their problems.

Step 2: Map out your buyer’s journey.

The buyer’s journey is categorized into three distinct stages: awareness, consideration and decision. In each of these stages, your buyers will be thinking, needing and experiencing different things.

Essentially, mapping out the buyer’s journey adds another layer to your buyer personas. This helps you better align your advertising efforts to the specific mindset, interests and behaviors of your target audience, according to which stage of the buyer’s journey they belong to.

Step 3: Analyze the competition.

The next step is to perform a bit of competitive analysis. For this, you’ll need to find out what websites your ideal customers are visiting. Knowing and understanding where your ideal customers find their information is vital to properly target your ads at those people who are most likely to see them and take action.

Step 4: Research your topic and keywords.

Once you’ve created a list of websites, you’ll need to create a list of keywords that are relevant to those sites. These are the keywords that your ideal customers are using to find the websites you identified in Step 3.  

Contextual targeting is primarily based on a website’s topic and keywords. So, when creating paid advertisements, you’ll need to select highly targeted keyword topics in order for your ad to show up on relevant websites where your ideal customers are most likely spending their time. 

You can use Google’s Keyword Planner or other online tools to help you find relevant keywords with high search volumes and relatively low competition. Then, you’ll use your hand-selected keywords to define where your ads will appear.

Step 5: Create contextual ads.

The final step is to actually create and launch your contextual ad campaign. Remember that contextual targeting is all about making your ad as relevant as possible. Therefore, you’ll need to keep your buyer personas, their journeys, your competition and your relevant keywords in mind. In doing so, you ensure that your ads will be shown to the people who are most likely to take action and interact with your brand.

Context matters in marketing.

It doesn’t matter how much you spend on advertising – without properly targeting your ads, any campaign can easily become a money pit. 

Fortunately, contextual targeting allows you to hyperfocus your ad placement, making it significantly more likely that the right person will see the ad at the right time. Because contextual targeting is based on an audience’s specific behaviors, a contextually targeted ad is almost guaranteed to be relevant to the people who see them. 

In the end, contextual advertising is all about serving relevant ads to the right people. Most importantly, remember that contextual targeting is about quality over quantity. 


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