Advertising Guest Columns
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Google is nixing identifiers: Why people-powered contextual will be the next chapter

So, Google won’t be replacing third-party cookies with other identifiers when it removes them from Chrome in 2022, and it won’t be allowing others to within its ecosystem, either. Whichever way you look at it, this is very interesting news for publishers. By this time next year, it seems the vast majority of ad targeting will be contextual.

Yes, ID replacement solutions are being developed, and yes, it seems these still plan to operate in non-Google parts of the web. But speaking to audiences on some of the world’s biggest platforms, including Chrome, is soon going to be about content, not cookies.

This is a sobering reality for advertisers and many are worried that the granular targeting, insights and measurement functions they’ve come to rely upon will bow out alongside cookies. And scanning the horizon for alternatives, they could be forgiven for thinking that a return to contextual targeting was an unwelcome step backwards into the dark. Quality publishers, on the other hand, will be waving goodbye to an era which saw their content devalued and their users tracked around the internet and targeted in the cheapest possible places. As owners of first-party data and quality content, they hold many of the key playing cards in this interesting next round.

Contextual, powered by behaviour

Traditional contextual targeting, which is driven by keywords set before a campaign and more recently, by implied sentiment, has always been privacy-compliant. But now, advances in AI and machine learning mean contextual can find relevant new audiences beyond these predefined and limiting frameworks, and even offer some of the precision and insights currently available through cookies.

Learning from group behaviour, but targeting contextually – Google points to this key trend in the early trials of its Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) and Illuma has been working this way since 2016. Fusing these two styles brings the best of both to advertisers and publishers, while also complying with the spirit and the law of GDPR, CCPA and ePrivacy. 

Illuma takes this concept one step further – it actions these group behavioural learnings on the fly. Very few limits are set pre-campaign, instead, using AI, our technology considers hundreds of topics simultaneously and dynamically adapts the campaign while it’s running, funneling budgets into content based on what’s working across platforms.  Crucially, this approach means advertisers can expand without losing audience relevance and bring much-needed scale – something that identity targeting was always going to struggle with.

Ahead of the game

Smart brands, agencies and trade desks are already working this way – American Express, Pernod Ricard, Denstu and Xandr to name just a few – and they’ve been doing so for years – long before GDPR, the ICO investigation and the CCPA heralded the death of third-party cookies.

Why? Because it works. A recent 360i campaign for a global software giant saw ROAS lift 128% above what they’d expect using ‘traditional’ keyword contextual. And a brand campaign for Shelter saw a 14% uplift in affinity – smashing all Kantar UK benchmarks for similar studies. On the sell-side, progressive publishers are already working with Illuma to bring value to ‘anonymous’ inventory. Freed from the restrictions of keyword targeting, publishers can evolve their PMPs and deals to sell inventory based on what is actually working for a campaign in real-time, irrespective of topic. This allows them to get the most out of every impression and to open up huge swathes of hard-to-monetise quality content, delivering great results for both sides in the process.

Removing the guesswork

Working this way, traders and publishers are harnessing the unknowable element of user behaviour which tells us you don’t only tap on a sportswear ad if it appears against sports content. You might do this on any number of unpredictable pages where you are deeply engaged with the content. In fact, our work shows that up to 60% of ad engagements happen on content that has nothing to do with the brand. It’s only now, by leveraging these live insights, that we can do something about it.

For publishers who’ve been limited by keywords and, on the flip-side, by ad-blocking; and for advertisers seeking both relevance and scale post-cookie – it seems people-powered contextual may well be the next chapter. 

Peter Mason
Co-Founder, Illuma Technology

Illuma is an independent contextual AI specialist which uses proprietary technology to intelligently expand advertising campaigns without relying on personal data or cookies. The technology reads the live contextual signals that are driving brand awareness and engagement and expands to find new audiences at scale, when and where they are most likely to be receptive to advertising messages.

Illuma was founded in London in 2016 by data scientists from Cambridge University, UCL and Imperial College. It is now integrated into the world’s leading DSPs and has been deployed in thousands of successful advertising campaigns worldwide.


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