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Anyone who’s ever shopped online knows that brands tend to retarget consumers with ads after they’ve searched or shopped for something. It’s a practice called behavioral targeting. But privacy laws and browser restrictions are promising to limit it.

Europe’s GDPR privacy law, new privacy laws emerging in the US, and stricter browser settings across desktop and mobile, mean advertisers will no longer be able to rely on third party cookie data to track users. Today, a brand might drop a cookie on someone’s laptop when they do a search for high-end watches.  Third-party data providers collect and resell this information in a data segment of watch enthusiasts so advertisers can retarget them. But with the new regulations, consumers will be able to opt-out of the process and block cookies all together. This puts a dent in cookie-based behavioral targeting, but that doesn’t mean brands can no longer understand or target consumers’ behaviors.

New approach to customer targeting

Contextual targeting will provide a good alternative to cookies. Contextual targeting used to simply mean placing ads adjacent to relevant content (think Armani cologne during the Oscars vs. a Toyota truck ad during the Superbowl). In the online world, contextual targeting includes much more than the content itself. Brands can get very granular with context by targeting video metadata, titles, and descriptions, related keywords, audio transcripts, and even comments within and surrounding content. All of these additional content signals give contextual targeting some of the benefits of behavioral targeting by drilling deeper into the sorts of things consumers are actively looking for when they search for content. By mining these signals brands can start to deliver more personalized messages.

Furthermore, while consumers might opt out of cookie-based targeting, a website with watch content can share insights with a brand about the type of customers visiting their site. Brands can get insights about when, how frequently, and why different consumers might visit the page, and be able to target ads on that page without using cookies.

Brands can coordinate with publishers to get similar data in a contextual or URL-based format without dropping a cookie or buying a cookie-based data segment. For example, publishers can create segments based on content with categories such as casual gaming or new parents. Keith Pieper of Sovern argues for creating profiles around URLs rather than cookies. As he notes, natural language processing (NLP) and semantic algorithms allow for nuance and scale, where contextual targeting used to be much more manual. It’s also safe from privacy regulation.

Major publishers have already moved in that direction. Google’s “Custom Intent Audiences” feature allows brands to target ad campaigns based on insights picked up from search and content history. This is like getting behavioral insights that can inform contextual targeting on video and display, the best of both worlds. Many other publishers partner with brands to offer contextual insights that inform targeting strategies. It’s time for brands to take a second look at this option as a more important influence on their media plan. (Full disclosure: My company works with Google, but on the YouTube side of the business.)

Likewise, Mike Klinkenhammer from eBay notes that eBay is “turbo-charging contextual targeting by tying it in with new shopper intent capabilities: blending real-time contextual segments with key shopper intent signals – and powered by search algorithms.” So advertisers on eBay could target ads to segments that have recently searched or browsed content on site that indicates they’re in the market for a high-end watch or patio furniture, for example.

The beginnings of personalized context

Diving deeper into contextual targeting also enables a brand to measure consumer approaches to specific content. With this insight, brands can better understand what an individual finds objectionable and weave that into their approach. For example, military content could be broken up into nostalgic content about American history that is appealing to nearly everyone and more polarizing recent political content that might turn many people off. Rather than a static, generalist white list or black list that accepts or blocks chunks of content, brands can incorporate contextual insights into their consumer profiles and create a really flexible, uniquely responsive and proactive approach.

A deeper understanding of content preferences can help brands create a more flexible plan. A purely “inside-out” approach would miss the opportunity to take input from individuals and then tweak media placement to better appeal to them.

With cookie-based behavioral targeting, brands bought into a specific approach to digital advertising that’s proving to have limitations. Contextual targeting offers a new avenue of opportunity. In this case, contextual relevance is in the eye of the beholder as much as it is in the eye of the brand.

Tony Chen is CEO and Founder of Channel Factory.

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