What Is Contextual Targeting and Why Everyone Is Using It
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Contextual Targeting 101: An Effective Way to Reach Your Target Audience

what is contextual targeting

Digital advertising has been a staple of internet marketing for years now, but it does come with quite a few challenges. One of the most notable ones is getting your product in front of the right eyes. Luckily, the development of digital technology has given advertisers plenty of audience targeting options that help them serve their ads to the right people. But out of all the options out there, none has garnered as much popularity as contextual targeting.

According to the latest research by GumGum, around 61% of U.S. advertisers use contextual targeting to deliver their ads, while 24% wish to increase their ad spend. But what’s the reason for such widespread popularity of contextual targeting in digital marketing?

It’s pretty simple — advertisers are facing an increasingly prevalent problem of user dissatisfaction with online ads. Why? Because more and more people feel they’re ruining user experience. The results of a HubSpot survey show that 64% of respondents believe that online ads are becoming increasingly intrusive

So what can advertisers do to remedy this drop in user satisfaction? They can serve more relevant ads! And that is where contextual targeting has proven to be the best option.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your online advertising performance, you’re in the right place! Join us as we delve into the world of contextual advertising and see what contextual keyword targeting is, how it works, how it compares to behavioral targeting, and more.

Without further ado, let’s get into it!

What Is Contextual Targeting

Contextual targeting is a form of personalized advertising that allows brands to place their ads on websites by targeting them based on their content instead of the search history of their visitors. In other words, contextual targeting uses keywords present on a website to determine whether it is related to the product or service a business offers before serving an ad. 

Although keyword contextual targeting is most common, advertisers can implement other targeting factors too, like website topic, location, or language

Despite being widely popularized with the rise of programmatic advertising, contextual targeting is far from exclusive to digital ads. Some traditional advertising methods like TV commercials use a similar technique to place ads on shows and programs relevant to their products. Although the medium has changed, the goal of contextual targeting remains the same — serve only the most relevant ads to the visitors based on the content they’re consuming.

Let’s look at a quick example of contextual advertising in action. 

Suppose a user is searching for a legal consulting firm and stumbles upon a website listing the best consulting firms in the area. If the website in question serves display ads, an advertisement for a local legal consulting firm would be well suited for it. Such an ad would fit both the user’s location and website topic like a glove and would be the prime example of contextual advertising in action.

an illustration of how contextual keyword targeting works
When using contextual targeting, users get served ads based on the content of the website they’re on

How Does Contextual Targeting Work?

The most common way to apply contextual targeting is through a demand-side platform (DSP) that will locate suitable websites for your ads and handle the delivery process. These platforms serve as mediators between the advertisers and ad exchanges and help them manage and set up contextual targeting accordingly.

Here is how contextual targeting works in a nutshell:

  • Advertisers choose the targeting parameters — Every contextual advertising campaign begins by selecting your desired targeting parameters. These can broad like topics or specific like keywords. Your choice will entirely depend on your campaign’s goal and desired targeting precision.
  • Google scans all relevant pages in your ad network — After you’ve determined your desired targeting parameters, it’s up to Google to analyze all the relevant pages in your ad network. It will proceed to only serve ads on sites that adhere to your specified targeting requirements. If you opt for a broad reach, it will select sites based on their topic; for a more specific reach, it will choose websites based on particular keywords.
  • Your ad appears on contextually relevant sites — If a website passes all of your targeting criteria, your ad will be eligible to appear on it.

One of the primary reasons so many advertisers turn toward contextual targeting is that you can use it on various types of ads. Whether you’re a brand keen on display advertising or are more into digital video advertising, you’ll have contextual targeting at your disposal. 

Contextual advertising is so widespread nowadays that most social networks, video-sharing platforms, and search engines support it. So wherever you decide to promote your business, you’ll have access to this option.

In the programmatic advertising ecosystem, contextual targeting is handled by data management platforms (DMPs). These platforms collect and process audience data that advertisers later use when serving ads. 

Why You Should Take Advantage of Contextual Targeting

a bullseye in darts

As you can probably guess by now, contextual targeting can be a potent tool in your online advertising arsenal. Aside from helping advertisers zero in on their target audience and spend their budget more effectively, it also comes with several other benefits:

1. Contextual Targeting Doesn’t Have to Comply With Various Privacy Regulations

Every seasoned digital marketer knows that successful online advertising requires collecting extensive user information. Most websites do that by collecting cookies, which gives advertisers invaluable information on their visitors like:

  • Their search history
  • The OS they’re on
  • Their likes and dislikes
  • Their online behavior
  • And more…

However, there is one catch here — you must follow regulations like GDPR and ask your users for permission to collect this data. If they don’t allow it, it will impair your targeting capabilities significantly!

Contextual advertising isn’t dependant on cookies, making it a much more reliable choice. Considering that contextual targeting is done based on keywords and content present on a website, it doesn’t rely on user behavior signals and search history. That means your ads will stay relevant regardless of whether users accept or reject data collection.

2. Contextual Advertising is Cost-Effective and Convenient

Studies show that contextual advertising is substantially cheaper than, for instance, behavioral advertising. Why? Because it takes fewer resources and is sustainable with a significantly smaller advertising team. While other targeting methods require you to track and optimize their performance meticulously, contextual advertising requires a one-time setup, and you’re all set!

The above factors make contextual targeting one of the most suitable targeting techniques for small businesses with lower marketing budgets. Who said that online advertising on a budget was impossible?

3. Contextual Targeting Is Brand-Safe

In today’s tumultuous digital landscape where social media posts, online content, or videos can go viral overnight, brands can make it big quickly with a little bit of luck. However, they can just as quickly tarnish their reputation and lose all credibility.

The online world is no stranger to controversial ads and personalities, which is why advertisers are putting extra emphasis on brand safety. Although most targeting options let advertisers choose not to have their ads displayed among violent, adult, or controversial content, slipups are bound to happen. Considering that most advertisers don’t want people to associate their brands with such content, they started looking for ways to exercise more control over their ad placements.

Contextual advertising eliminates the risk of ad placements damaging to your brand’s reputation since it relies on a website’s topic when placing ads and not user behavior and search history. That means there’s no risk of having your brand associated with controversial figures or content whatsoever!

That is likely one of the most common reasons brands are turning toward contextual targeting in today’s volatile online landscape!

4. Contextual Ads Are a Potent Storytelling Tool

In today’s fast-paced world, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to grab and maintain people’s attention. That is why storytelling has become a widespread and potent tool in visual content marketing. And that is particularly true for video ads!

Combining video content marketing with contextual targeting can help advertisers distribute series of engaging, visually compelling ads that complement the content users are consuming. A well-targeted product video can achieve incredible lead generation potential. 

The above is only possible thanks to the massive growth of the online video industry over the last few years. But how does contextual targeting come into play here? It’s pretty simple — it helps advertisers get their ads in front of the right people. When you combine that with the power of video storytelling, you get a recipe for success!

As you can see from the above, contextual targeting comes with many benefits. However, it is not the only option available. So why should you opt for contextual targeting in favor of, let’s say, behavioral targeting?

Let’s find out!

Contextual Targeting vs. Behavioral Targeting

When it comes to comparing contextual to behavioral targeting, it’s tough to determine which one is better. Both of these methods have their pros and cons and are suitable for different purposes.

While contextual targeting is much easier and cheaper to set up, is more brand-safe, and doesn’t require visitors’ permission to achieve peak performance, it does come with the downside of not always serving the most relevant ads. That is because users are not constantly browsing websites that fit their interests.

Behavioral targeting does allow brands to serve highly personalized ads to their audiences and is excellent for retargeting campaigns, but it’s far from perfect. The most notable downside of this targeting type is that many people find it intrusive to their privacy

At the end of the day, there is no clear winner between these two targeting methods, so you should choose the one that best suits your needs and budget. Ask yourself, “What would my audience prefer?” and pick accordingly!

Contextual Targeting:


  • Cheaper and easier to set up
  • Fewer privacy policy regulations to worry about
  • Gives advertisers more control over their ad serving process


  • Doesn’t always align with visitors’ interests

Behavioral Targeting:


  • Highly personalized as it serves only ads relevant to users’ interests
  • Excellent tool for retargeting campaigns


  • Some users may consider it invasive to their privacy
  • Requires users’ permission to collect the data necessary to use it

Is Contextual Targeting the Best Audience Targeting Strategy?

As effective as contextual targeting is, we’d be remiss to call it the best targeting strategy out there. However, it’s pretty close to it!

There is no such thing as a single best targeting strategy out there, as each has its pros and cons, and contextual targeting is no different. Still, with programmatic technology on the rise, this targeting method has been gaining a lot of popularity recently, and for a good reason.

Although contextual advertising saw a decline in usage after behavioral targeting technology surfaced, it has since returned into the spotlight. The driving force behind that comeback was the change in GDPR in Europe and CCPA in America that forced advertisers to seek user consent for collecting cookies. These hurdles weakened the potency of behavioral advertising, so many advertisers turned toward contextual again!

We’re confident that this trend is only going to continue, especially now that Google and Apple have announced they’ll soon be getting rid of third-party cookies. Without them, behavioral targeting will fall off even more as it will require alternative ways of tracking users’ online behavior

So whether you’re an advertiser who’s going to be affected by this change or are just weighing your options, giving contextual advertising a shot is well worthwhile! It is a brand-safe, cost-effective targeting option that’s easy to set up and delivers reliable results. So don’t hesitate to give it a shot!

We wish you plenty of luck in your advertising efforts!