Aug 23, 2022

The Power of the Premium Publisher: The Rise of Context

Mike Vorhaus, Vorhaus Advisors, CEO | Dan E. Aks, Undertone, President

Much is being written regarding the death of cookies. But this should not be confused with the end of digital advertising. Before there were cookies, digital advertising was based on “context,” or the type of content being read or service being used. Now that cookies are challenged, there is universal agreement that contextual advertising will rise again. What is not being discussed much is how the publisher landscape will dramatically change, and why in a “Back to the Future” moment, the great publishers will become even more prominent.

What is Contextual Advertising?

Contextual advertising is the practice of placing ads on web pages based on the content or services represented on those pages. Emphatically, contextual advertising is very different from behavioral advertising. Using contextual targeting, the advertiser attempts to surmise what the user might be interested in based on the page’s content and, possibly, the words used to search for that content, plus other signals. A page discussing a new SUV might bring an SUV advertisement. Of course, that is an obvious and simple example.

Brands often place their products’ advertising in contexts that make sense for the audience engaged with the content. However, sometimes “context” doesn’t give enough of a clue. If I search for “red wine”, do I want to know what red wine to serve with dinner, or do I want to know how to make red wine, or do I want to know what a bottle of red wine costs? No doubt, many intelligent minds are working on improving the technology of contextual search and advertising.

Contextual marketing typically involves the elements below*, but we’ve added to those elements the domain of the premier publisher itself as perhaps the most critical element.

Consider this from Rebecca Lieb at Altimeter **

“Content is the atomic particle of all digital marketing. Everything. There’s no owned media without content. There’s no social media without content. And there’s no paid media without content… Pushing back even earlier, when you search, you’re searching for content. Even email marketing, once the darling of the digital arsenal, now relegated to wallpaper status (but still critically important), is a container for… you guessed it: content. …really, isn’t content the alpha and omega of everything you’re doing in digital marketing?”

In behavioral advertising, users will see an ad based on browsing history but not necessarily related to the current viewing experience. Behavioral advertising overshadowed contextual advertising because marketers believed in the 1:1 story that cookies promised. Regardless of whether that story was ever true, the sunsetting of cookies is returning contextual advertisers to the fore.

Contextual advertising technology continues to improve significantly.

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning are making contexts more accurate.
  • By fully understanding the meaning of the page through natural language processing and image recognition – ergo, doing much more than just scanning for keywords – highly appropriate and brand-safe ads can be placed.
  • Furthermore, publishers themselves are becoming experts at making taxonomies of their content to facilitate aligning advertisements to content.

When contextual advertising technology is combined with data – specifically first-party data that larger publishers can provide, specific third-party data, and panel data, a compelling solution becomes available from advertising technology companies. This puts the digital services with walled gardens or log-in requirements in a special place in the advertising ecosystem.

We imagine future content will be composed and presented with contextual advertising in mind. The content will work hand-in-glove with Al so machines will be able to more and more precisely distinguish reader intent. Language – nouns and verbs – won’t be the sole input; instead, user signals such as time spent on the page, potential image enlargements via clicks, page progression, and the like will powerfully signal what is going through the user’s mind as she scrolls through the content.

Machine learning algorithms combine these signals with additional pertinent data and make campaign optimization decisions in real-time. Creative messaging can be dynamically adapted to the weather, the time, and the hour of the day, and soon the context signal from an article can be used to optimize among many creative variations.

Why Contextual Advertising Will Be A Boon To Premium and Specialty Publications

Cookies, while never as effective as their name was appealing, nevertheless became the de facto standard for marketers because they wanted to believe cookies provided a 1:1 match. Cookies also allowed marketers to identify advertising audiences on expensive, premium sites but advertise to them on less costly sites via other cookies that allowed retargeting. Cookies gave rise to thousands of new sites that benefited from this dynamic. Now, without the ability to track users through the browser, advertisers will most likely find audiences through the power of the content itself, which attracts users from organic search optimization, publication subscriptions, and well-constructed editorial specifically shaped for contextual advertising.

In the no-cookie world, premium publishers often have login data that they can help layer into campaigns, but perhaps more important, their content investments will attract customers through search. Further, the content will be deliberately laced with contextual signals advertisers desire. Building contextual signal frameworks will be strategic and difficult to do, something that larger publishers who can spend and attract talent accordingly can more easily do than publishers who benefit from simpler keyword searches and secondary audience targeting.

Also, as more attention and marketer efforts are aimed at e-commerce, premium and specialty publishers will benefit because their content is better geared to a post-cookie world. Contextual advertising works very well in the Commerce content and search environment. For example, reading about cooking or outdoor sports yields critical data for advertisers beyond simple audience demographic data.

Some of the sites that emerged from the cookie world will no longer be able to thrive, or even perhaps survive, in a post-cookie world. Those sites face the unhappy prospect of having to shift from sometimes pure clickbait to higher quality content that requires investment.

Further, to some degree, experts expect authenticated audiences, arguably the essential form of 1st Party Data will only amount to 10%-25% of a publisher’s total audience. That’s because most visitors today don’t log in, especially if the publication doesn’t offer premium exclusive content behind a login and paywall.

Premium publishers will benefit from contextual advertising and will be using tools and agencies to further enhance the quality and meaning of contextual signals as parts of a combined approach using 1st Party data, cohorts, and contextual targeting as needed.


Growth of Contextual Marketing
Global Contextual Advertising Market is Expected to Account
for USD 535.5 Billion by 2027

We believe that Tier 1 publishers are in a great position to monetize the shift to contextual advertising through heavy investments in content built around contextual frameworks, which may require some modest additional investment in technology by the advertisers. The great majority of content is not behind paywalls and the publishers are not receiving meaningful content-based revenue, so they will need to burnish their appeal to advertisers. Specialty/Enthusiast publishers, born by nature around contextual targeting, will become stronger. Those sites that have significant first-party data and can scale will be exceptionally well situated in the privacy world. Content and services will be clearly defined, and high-appeal content will be able to compete for the big digital advertising dollars.

The OPA (now Digital Content Next) once said something to the effect that premium content is the winner in the long term. It looks as if they were right!

* See