The Power of the Present: A Guide to Contextual Advertising

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One might say that any form of marketing is inherently “contextual”: Any ad, delivered online or off, is contained within some kind of environment. A standard pay per click ad gets displayed on a search result page. In the real world, a billboard sits along a stretch of highway, which is set in a community, which is set in a larger geographic region, all with distinct consumer preferences. All of these different contexts can have an impact on the effectiveness of an ad, to varying degrees.

When we take this idea into digital space and leverage the targeting functionality of online advertising, we get the modern idea of “contextual advertising.” Contextual advertising is a form of online advertising in which the ad is placed on a site whose content aligns with the ad itself. It hits the user more precisely, as they’re browsing content related to your ad—not before, not after. An ad for shoes placed on a running website is likely contextual—and more effective than it would’ve been if placed on a website for poetry enthusiasts. In this article, we’ll review what contextual advertising is, and how advertisers can use it to reach users with highly specific interests.

Why Not Just Use Pay Per Click?
Although pay per click can reap significant ROI for online advertisers, contextual ads aim to reach audiences who are more likely to be interested in your product or service. In traditional pay per click or display ads, the ad creation and delivery process consists of three steps:

  • What does the ad look like?
  • Where will it appear?
  • How will it be paid for?

With contextual ads, these steps require significantly less legwork and maintenance. They don’t necessarily have to be designed. For example, in-text ads (a common form of contextual advertising) consist primarily of text and are placed as pop-up ads triggered when the user hovers over relevant keywords in relevant web content.

Contextual ads are also automatically placed across thousands of websites on an ad network. And not just any websites—these are websites that align with your audience. That means you’re dealing with less maintenance, less competition, lower CPCs, and better conversion rates. A case study conducted by online advertising firm Grapeshot found that keyword-based contextual advertising on just 4% of a campaign generated 22% of that campaign’s total conversions. (But be careful! Contextual ads have a bad habit of being placed on sites that match your focus keywords, but might contradict your message. Keep an eye on the news and use negative keywords to prevent a potential PR crisis.)

What About Behavioral Targeting?
Similar to contextual ads, behaviorally targeted ads aim to reach customers who are already inching toward conversion. But rather than target users based on the site they’re currently browsing, behavioral ads reach users based on their previous browsing history. Similar to retargeting, which targets users who have already browsed your site or clicked on your ad, behavioral advertising reaches people who have browsed other sites on your ad network that align with your ad. Experts today like to extoll behavioral targeting as a “new frontier” in online advertising. But recent research suggests that contextual advertising outperforms it by several measures.

Last year, SearchEngineLand released a study comparing a veterinary clinic’s behavioral ads and its contextual ads. Across the study’s 28 campaigns, the client saw higher click through rates (CTR), increased ad relevance on its site placements, lower cost per thousand views (CPM), and cost per acquisition (CPA) in its contextual ads. Take the behavioral hype with a heavy grain of salt—let your competition make decisions based on past browsing history, while you reap the benefits of where they’re browsing now.

Our Version
With’s contextual advertising program, advertisers can run these highly relevant ad campaigns with less hands-on management on your part than traditional pay per click. Our service allows customers to import their text ads from existing PPC campaigns, and optimize their ad’s placement on vast networks—instead of wading through thousands of sites individually.

Finally, we allow our advertisers to choose a relationship that works best for their brand. Our clients have the option of managing their campaigns through our self-serve platform, by using our API, or not at all, with a fully managed account.

In life and in advertising, dwelling on the past can be risky business. While pay per click and behavioral ads target users based on events that have already happened, contextual ads hit users as they’re reading the actual content they’re interested in. Behold the power of the present.

Since 2001, has offered competitive online advertiser and publisher solutions to companies around the globe. Our mission is to help advertisers achieve their best ROI with quality, cost-effective ad units, as well as provide our publishers with monetization tools that yield the most revenue. Contact us to learn more or get started with your advertising campaigns.