Consumers have had enough of advertisers’ relentless pursuit, and regulators are stepping in. You don’t have to be the savviest digital user to realize that the only reason ads for the shoes you looked at two weeks ago are chasing you around the internet is because someone collected your data and passed it along. Consumers are worried about their privacy, and the result is understandable restrictions, in the form of regulations like GDPR and CCPA, on how brands can collect data and what they can do with it.
Google’s announcement that it will phase out support for third-party cookies in its popular Chrome browser created quite a stir. For anyone watching the space closely, well aware of the cookie’s unsuitability for long-term user tracking and targeting, it came as no surprise. But there is still much discussion as to what happens over the next two years as the cookie phases out.
And of course, regardless of regulations, it’s getting harder to accurately target consumers across their online journey. The value of the cookie has greatly diminished, and will continue to do so as Google launches its new privacy tools. As privacy concerns and tracking restrictions become ever more prevalent, the pendulum is swinging back toward using content as a proxy for audience.
What’s old is new again. Once upon a time, if a brand like Pan Am wanted to reach an international audience, it did so in Time magazine. Why? Because that’s content its target audience was reliably reading.
As marketing continued to mature, so did behavioral targeting. Thus, ad targeting based on content affinity became a leading ad marketing tactic. Over time, however, marketers became more focused on audience targeting—regardless of, and at the expense of, context. The same human being an advertiser targets on a well-lit website might also frequent less suitable, more nefarious places online; to focus on reaching that human regardless of context is a risky practice.
The power of content and context
Embracing content as a guiding principle for media placements isn’t a regression—it’s a return to what makes advertising great. Data is practical. Audiences are useful. But as an industry, we lost sight of the power of content and context to both advertisers and consumers.
Deep down, advertisers know content matters. They know it because they shiver at the thought of their ads running next to content about white nationalists, pedophilia, conspiracy theories, and North Korean propaganda. Airline companies don’t want their ads appearing next to commentary about death and tragedy. YouTube might say that’s fine as long as it’s the right audience, but the airlines know better. What advertisers have forgotten is that the flip side is also true.
There is content that should be sought and valued above other content. Advertisers shouldn’t just be taking control of their placements to avoid the wrong content. They should be seeking out the valuable content that will contribute to their brand reputations.
We got into marketing because good advertising is a powerful, creative, exciting thing. It connects with people on a deep level, and that’s the kind of advertising that marketers today want to be a part of. And guess what? The best ad creative in the world is neutralized when it runs alongside low-value, commoditized, or offensive content—even if you managed to find the exact right human. That ad is in the wrong context, and the opportunity to make a connection is lost.
Remember: Brand loyalty and purchase decisions are emotional decisions. Truly connecting with a person requires doing so at that quintessential “right place and time,” and content matters immensely in that pursuit.