Fostering Advertising with Greater Integrity

By Jenn Chen


Contextual advertising is enjoying a resurgence as advertisers seek a way to tailor ads to customers without relying on behavioral or demographic data that is disappearing from the market due to privacy changes. But contextual advertising isn't just a highly effective alternative to cookie- or mobile ID-driven targeting — it offers a broader path to advertising with integrity.

Contextual targeting can help marketers develop advertising strategies premised on integrity by equipping them to finance diverse voices, reward publishers who uphold high journalistic standards and move beyond an era of advertising driven by personal data often collected without consumer consent.

Financing an internet of diverse publishers

Contextual advertising provides brands the power to do what consumers are increasingly doing themselves: choosing to spend their money with publishers who share or reflect their values. In advertising, being conscious consumers for many brands will mean supporting diverse publishers who write about issues affecting a wide range of communities. Contextual advertising can enable that choice in a couple of ways.

For one, contextual taxonomies allow advertisers to prioritize buying media from women, queer, or person of color-owned publishers. The companies that provide contextual targeting capabilities build relationships with the publishers whose content they connect with advertisers. So, those companies are able to guide advertisers to publishers with historically underrepresented owners, managers, and creators.

Secondly, contextual targeting helps advertisers figure out whether publishers produce content surrounding issues of high concern to communities that align with their core values. This is especially significant for media formats like video, which have historically been hard to categorize thematically.

Technology can help advertisers analyze content in real-time across formats, determine whether it speaks to diverse communities, and support that content. This granular contextual analysis will usher in more inclusive advertising.

Rewarding quality journalism

In the age of the cookie, advertisers primarily chased audiences of certain behaviors and demographics without regard for where their ads showed up. Advertisers will now focus more on the content they are subsidizing. This will give brands the opportunity to reward high-quality publishers who provide trusted environments in which to connect with consumers.

Pattern recognition will help advertisers avoid backing publishers who traffic in misinformation, spam, or hate. Using contextual targeting, advertisers can select media that provides original, highly trusted, and tolerant content, prioritizing premium publishers over sites that traffic in sensationalism or plagiarized work.

A renewed focus on contextual targeting will also come with innovation, including more sophisticated keyword blocklists. Advertisers used to screen out all potentially problematic topics, meaning serious news publishers would get shut out from advertising revenue for covering, say, stories involving firearms. But advances in contextual targeting are allowing advertisers to avoid sites that traffic in mindless violence without ruling out, say, The Associated Press, which covers crime.

In this equation, advertisers, publishers, and consumers win. Advertisers show their ads in the most trustworthy content-led environments, capitalizing on a "funnel of trust" that will boost returns as ad budgets face scrutiny. Publishers are rewarded for creating trusted, original content on a variety of topics. Consumers get advertising-financed content at an affordable price or for free, and the quality content comes with ads that are relevant to their online experiences, not just retargeted product promotions.

Pioneering privacy-safe digital advertising

Thirdly, contextual targeting is shifting digital advertising away from privacy-invasive practices. The last decade of digital advertising, prior to regulations like Europe's General Data Protection Regulation and Google's delayed but still-inevitable retirement of the third-party cookie, hinged on the individual: connecting messages with the proverbial right consumer in the right place at the right time.

While this sounded attractive to many brands, making it a reality incentivized collecting, sharing, and buying third-party data without seriously controlling for consumer consent. This lax approach to data has alienated consumers and dealt major reputational blows to companies like Meta, which are still facing blowback for repeated data privacy infractions.

Contextual targeting does not rely on ensuring advertising's relevance by targeting individuals based on their characteristics and behaviors. Instead, brands are using the content of audiences' online experiences to provide relevant ads. This will not only spare consumers invasive tracking but also help advertisers reach broad new audiences, not just consumers who have already demonstrated interest.

Ultimately, figuring out an integrity-centric future for digital advertising is about learning how to pair relevant paid messages to the content consumers are reading and viewing while rewarding diverse, high-quality publishers and respecting user privacy.

Contextual targeting is a piece of that puzzle. And as it grows more sophisticated, advertisers and publishers won't be the only beneficiaries. Consumers will win, too, as advertising will sustain the largely free, open web without sacrificing privacy to do it.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Jenn Chen is the president and CRO at Connatix.