What the removal of third-party cookies will mean for contextual marketing

Outbrain’s head of programmatic business development Bostjan Spetic examines how the return of contextual marketing is about to make the industry better.

When it starts to rain in New York, all the street vendors suddenly start selling umbrellas. They appear on every street corner, nobody knows where they get them, but they sell extremely well – while it’s raining.

And that last part is important – without the context of the rain, umbrellas aren’t hot property.

In the early days of the internet, context was all we had – targeting banner ads at sites with an appropriate audience profile. Then we began to overutilise a mechanism called cookies and started chasing people around the web with ads. Many began popping up in inappropriate places, totally out of context, and the user experience was worse for it. But there’s a watershed moment coming where every marketer will need to start to embrace context again, when Google’s Chrome finally removes support for third-party cookies in late 2023(delayed from 2022).

With this move away from third-party data collection, context is now king, and contextual marketing is about to come back into the spotlight.

The lost art of context

Today’s possibilities for contextual marketing compared to what we had just ten years ago are as different as night and day.

Machine learning and accumulation of new data sets have created revolutionary breakthroughs over the last two-three years. Now, as we look ahead in 2023, the focus should be on three types of context:

  • User context: This is everything one could surmise about the user just by looking at them. In advertising this has traditionally been reduced to demographics. However, there are ways to do demographic analysis without relying on unreliable cookies and third-party data vendors, deducing it from a user’s behaviour.
  • Request context: This is all the circumstances of the specific time and place where the interaction occurs – from the weather to local events.
  • Page context: This is what was traditionally understood as ‘contextual’, trying to understand meaning or classification of the text on the page. There have been significant improvements in precision and granularity of this type of context.

Thanks to this ‘Cookie Apocalypse,’ marketers may finally realise stalking people around the internet wasn’t what they got into the business for, and remember the need to think about what people do and focus on user personas instead.

This contextual approach ensures the customer is in the right frame of mind to listen to that message, and more importantly, more receptive to the offer being presented.

It also creates unforeseen benefits for brands, like being able to streamline the tools they use to communicate with their audiences and to stay more relevant and engaging.

Enriching stories and experiences

Demographic targeting was always a very crude tool not fit for the diversity of the 21st Century,  where consumers have developed a much broader range of preferences. Ironically the internet has enabled a broadening of tastes and interests for everyone, so understanding advanced contextual targeting will in turn enable richer stories and experiences.

From this, the publishing landscape will start to evolve.

Publishers will start to require users to log in in a bid to harvest more data. Logged-in users will receive targeted advertising, paid subscribers will see less advertising, but the vast majority of casual visitors will only see contextually targeted ads.

These will, for the first time, be based on signals like weather in the local area, sports events or general sentiment, as well as what’s on the page.

This new context-led strategy will also meet new regulations and expectations surrounding targeting and privacy, because publishing content is an invitation to a conversation.

When consumers interact with content, they are willingly and happily choosing to engage in the conversation. They are also, assuming the provenance of content is clearly marked and disclosed, free to make opinions and react to it, positively or negatively.

In the next two-three years of uncertainty, contextual targeting will experience a renaissance of new ideas and technologies that will tailor ads to the users in real-time better than any time before.

The loss of cookies will no doubt send shockwaves through our industry. But this change can be used as an opportunity to reposition your strategy to talk to audiences in a more enriching and engaging way.

If you haven’t started planning your shift away from cookies, it’s not too late, provided you understand the context of what is happening.

Bostjan Spetic is the head of programmatic business development for Outbrain.


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