Updated: 28th June 2017

4 reasons why digital context matters

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that my ads are running adjacent to questionable content!”

Just as it defies credibility that good Captain Renault was completely unaware of the rampant gambling at Rick’s Café in “Casablanca,” so too is it impossible to believe that digital marketers don’t understand the risk of buying arbitrary media space via often blind auctions and machines.

The atomization of content via digitalization presents an unparalleled opportunity to achieve the Holy Grail of advertising: consistently delivering just the right message in just the right place (and, by extension, to the right person at the right time.)

Marketers have long known that context matters and have acted on this knowledge to the extent that the available media allowed — for example, with beer and pizza ads during sporting events and clothing ads in fashion magazines.

In becoming “digital,” these same marketers oddly seem to have forgotten this proven precept. The rapid growth of programmatic advertising in recent years has driven an almost cultlike adherence to audience-centric buying, with little if any regard for the importance of the context in which the ads are delivered.

The paradox is that the digital world allows ad content/media context pairings to be programmed on a more granular level than ever before, with each user session capable of creating a unique recipe to get the mix right.

The case for context

To help swing the pendulum back from “audience only” to the right mix of audience and contextual targeting, herewith are four reasons why context matters.

1. Conceptual fluency

Conceptual fluency is the behavioral science principle whereby when a message is presented in a context with which it is consistent, it will be processed more “fluently,” and people generally like things more (and are more persuaded by them) when they are fluent.

Angela Lee and Aparna Labroo proved this in an interesting experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research. In it, the researchers exposed people to a ketchup bottle in varying storyboard contexts — including a hamburger in a restaurant and a woman shopping in a grocery store. The restaurant context produced a fluency effect for ketchup relative to the grocery store context, resulting in a significantly higher brand evaluation score.

This is because the restaurant/burger context mentally cued up associations to condiments, and thus people were more readily able to recall them — so they liked it more. In contrast, the grocery store does not automatically lead to associations with condiments, so there is less fluency.

The implication for advertising is clear: ads presented in a context with which they are consistent will perform better than in inconsistent contexts.

2. Mindset

Fundamental to human motivation is a desire to accomplish one’s goals. These range from low-level goals like learning to drive to high-level ones such as feeling happy or achieving status. At any given time, one or a set of goals are foremost in the mind.

Viewers approach media with a specific mindset which changes frequently based on which goal is top-of-mind. In choosing content to consume, people are essentially signaling their mindset — for example, by viewing a how-to-drive video on YouTube or reading a leadership article in Forbes.

Contextual targeting allows marketers to target mindsets. Audience targeting allows advertisers to effectively target people, but it does not consider to any significant degree the mindset of the person at the moment they are consuming media. These are moments that matter.

This is important as, from an information processing standpoint, research has shown that we are more persuaded with information that fits with our mindset. Thus, ads placed in contexts that are mindset-consistent will naturally perform better as they create a more seamless experience for the viewer by capitalizing on their goal orientation in real time.

3. Priming

Priming in psychology is an “implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus.” For example, showing someone the word “yellow” will make them slightly faster at recognizing the word “banana” because both words are closely associated in memory.

In the marketing world, it has been shown that exposure to contextual stimulus influences a response to advertising.

Naomi Mandel and Eric Johnson conducted a series of simple experiments to prove the phenomenon. As reported In The Journal of Consumer Research, they changed the background images on mocked-up web pages and showed that it influenced the choices people made. For example, if the website had flames as the background image, people were relatively more likely to prefer a safe car, while if the background image was money, they were relatively more likely to prefer a cheap car.

For experimental purposes, this example had to be simplified, but the implications for media context are profound. If a viewer is engaged in content that speaks of quality and authenticity, they are primed to view advertising for brands with the same characteristics more favorably.

This is a double-edged sword, of course; in this same media context, a “Lower My Bills” ad would likely be more negatively perceived than usual.

4. The halo effect

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an impression created in one area influences opinion in another. It was coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in reference to an individual being perceived as having a halo.

The implications for context are obvious here: a positive experience with media content can result in a more positive perception of the advertising, simply by association.

A study done by ComScore on Digital Content Next (DCN) publishers versus all other digital content shows the power of the halo effect. DCN is an industry trade group that represents many well-known digital publishers like The New York Times, Condé Nast and Hearst, among others. Although no specific definition exists, this group is generally acknowledged to represent “premium publishers.”

This study showed that “Display and video ads on DCN premium publisher sites had an average of 67 percent higher brand lift than non-DCN publishers, confirming that premium sites deliver premium performance… while premium publishers are more than 3x more effective in driving mid-funnel brand lift metrics, such as favorability, consideration and intent to recommend.”

The promised land

Taking advantage of the unparalleled opportunity to achieve the Holy Grail of great contextual placements at scale, while overcoming the challenges inherent in understanding the vast media landscape, requires a new approach to both selling and buying.

For media sellers, this means providing a clear and transparent picture of the media contexts in addition to other quality signals, targeting capabilities for precise integrations and utilizing systems for avoiding negative tactical adjacencies.

For advertisers, taking advantage of the opportunity to deliver great contextual placements at scale means applying new strategic lenses to a rapidly evolving landscape and deploying advanced contextual targeting capabilities as they become available. While this places new human burdens on today’s buyers, rapid advances in the use of technology and data are providing new tools, such as the machine reading of context in real time that allows for semantic and sentiment analysis and contextual optimization at an even more granular level.

Context is the new black

The atomization of content via digitization opens the possibility for media sellers and buyers to lead marketers to the promised land of the right ad message in the right place every time. Achieving this ad content/media context nirvana is not without challenges — among them understanding the vast sea of inventory well enough to confidently target the best while filtering out the less desirable.

Contextual targeting in digital is still relatively under-developed versus audience targeting. As marketers rediscover the power of context in the digital world and experience the limitations of programmatic audience targeting, this imbalance will be redressed to the benefit of all, especially the consumer.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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