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Contextual Advertising is making a comeback

Do you want a cookie? How about now? Or now? Maybe now?

Yeah, constant cookie warnings are absolutely awful for user experience on your website but if you're making your money through selling advertising there's just no alternative, right? You've got to have cookies to target the ads, haven't you?


Actually. No. Cookies and the tracking techniques that they power are only required when adverters are being targeted at specific users based on their known profile. These are called targeted ads and there's an increasing amount of evidence that they don't work and an increasing amount of backlash from users against them.

Targeted Ads are bad and users don't like them

In the EU, we have GDPR. In the US, different states are different privacy rules. Across the middle of the Atlantic, there are frequent breaks in compatibility between legal requirements that mean even ubiquitous tools like Google Analytics are sometimes verboten in the eyes of lawmakers.

Despite this, most major websites you visit will be asking for permission to drop cookies into your computer and let advertisers track you. Say "yes" and, basically, you're handing over your browser history from that point forward to whoever runs the advertising on that website. Say "no" and you can be certain that the next time you come back to that same website it's going to ask again. And again. And again. Like a toddler that doesn't understand the meaning of the word "no", websites will badger and nag you until they get their way and they get those cookies.

Despite this, there's evidence that users are saying "no" to cookies in increasing numbers and there are plenty of plugins that you can get for your browser that will block those pesky cookies even if you say "yes", like the excellent cookie blocking Privacy Badger.

Social networks are also under increasing pressure to de-personalize advertising and stop using the intimate, personal information that users share with them as a means to target advertising.

Yeah, we all know that cookies suck but, there's like, no alternative. Is there?

Welcome back, Contextual Advertising

In the days before Google, Facebook, and a myriad others tracked our every move on the internet, advertising was sold in a different way. Advertisers picked publications (including websites) based on the type of people who were going to read that publication.

Want to sell something to people who like cars? Simple - put your ad in a car magazine. Want to sell something to people who ride bikes - put your ad on a website about cycling. Simple and effective - but contextual advertising can't possibly work as well as targeted advertising - can it?

Well, it turns out it works better in a lot of cases.

In this article from Wired magazine, documents how Nederlandse Publieke Omroep (the Netherlands equivalent of the BBC) applied the strictest possible interpretation of GDPR and set up its website so that unless you explicitly opted into tracking cookies, you were not tracked at all.

Unsurprisingly, 90% of users did not want to be tracked and so NPO had to find a new way of selling advertising that didn't rely on Google Adwords and similar platforms. So begins a year long development of a contextual advertising system that allows advertisers to bid not based on who the user is... but what they are looking at at the time.

When a user looks at a page, information about that page but not about the user is set to the advertising server where advertisers can bid to show their advert. It doesn't matter who the user is, it matters what they are looking at.

During the development of GDPR, Google warned that removing tracking would reduce the revenue that publications earnt from advertising by more than 50% (although independent research pegged the value at around 4%). NPOs decision, therefore, should have led them headlong into financial apocalypse.

The opposite turned out to be true. The system has been a huge success, generating more advertising revenue for NPO and delivering better performing adverts for advertisers. NPO have now switched off all tracking and exclusively use their contextual advertising system.

The reason it works so well is simple and is summed up beautifully by NPO's Ster van Bentheim.

“When do people want to buy a Snickers? It’s not because someone is in a specific age or in a specific region or has a high income; it’s because they are hungry and they are looking at food at that moment.”

Ster van Bentheim - https://www-wired-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.wired.com/story/can-killing-cookies-save-journalism/amp

Should you switch to Contextual Advertising?

Based on the results from NPO, you could get a better return on investment from a contextual advertising platform than from a user tracking and targeting platform. Moving forward, tracking tech is going to be more restricted and controlled by legislation and I would expect that difference to increase.

More importantly, if you are currently showing adverts on your website, a contextual advertising solution could provide a better experience for your users and increased revenue simultaneously - a rare win-win for internet advertising.

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