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In an industry where change is the only constant, there is one strategy that has continued to stick around: contextual targeting. Why? It all comes down to reaching people during moments of intention. For example, a person already reading an article about the best hotels in Hawaii would clearly be more likely to click on an ad for Hawaiian hotels. Intention markers like this are everywhere, and when you consider the changing identity landscape, you can see why contextual targeting is an important strategy for marketers to have in their wheelhouse.

Contextual targeting is not only a tried-and-true advertising strategy, but also one that has gotten better with the help of ad technology. Today, marketers can expect richer, more powerful context-based solutions that work across devices and formats.


What is contextual targeting?

Simply put, contextual targeting delivers relevant ads by analyzing the content being consumed instead of the person consuming it — providing advertisers an alternative to cookie-based advertising.​

As opposed to audience-based strategies (such as behavioral targeting) that look at past behavior as a way of predicting current needs — for example, a person who browsed a garden website yesterday may see an ad for a nursery the next day while reading the news — contextual ads target the content on the page. Taking the prior example, the person would see the nursery ad in real-time as they browsed the gardening website. The ad is served at the moment of intent, making contextual targeting a strategy that can produce amazing results.

In fact, a recent study conducted by neuro-analytics company SPARK Neuro found that contextually relevant ads generated 43 percent more engagement and 2 times more ad recall.


So how do I get started?

The easiest way to dip your toe into the world of contextual targeting is by using standard and custom contextual categories. Let’s look at both of those in more detail.

Standard contextual categories allow advertisers to easily select curated categories based on appropriate topics for your brand. We recently expanded our own contextual offering to include 650 categories — such as Arts and Entertainment, Sports, etc. — and this allows you to either target or block ads from running on inventory associated with those categories across web and in-app environments. By selecting broad categories, you reach a larger audience while still aligning with content that suits your brand.

Custom contextual categories allow advertisers to build custom segments using lists of keywords and phrases that advertisers can either target or block in bidding.


Here are a few recommendations to consider when building custom categories:

Use contextual keywords

Building a keyword list for contextual targeting is different than for SEO. With contextual targeting, you want to narrow in on the content that you want your ads to appear next to. For example, if you’re a ketchup company, you may want your ads to appear next to content about grilling recipes, BBQs, and summer holidays. If you have a well-known brand, consider including branded keywords too.

Keep user intent in mind

Keep in mind what type of content is more likely to reach a person with intent to purchase. For example, including keywords that will target review sites could result in better ad engagement and return on ad spend (ROAS).

Align your creative to your keywords

Think about the creative and messaging you have in market. What content would be a good complement to the call to action in your ad? You could even build out new creative that specifically plays well with certain content.

Be set up for success

When setting up custom categories, finding the right balance between relevance and scale is key. One way to do that is by controlling how content is matched to your keywords. For example, our platform offers buyers two kinds of matches — similar and exact. Similar offers more matches and greater scale, while exact offers greater precision and is best used in categories you want to block. Our tool also estimates the scale of each keyword as well as the category overall. This is a great way to troubleshoot categories as you are building them.


Best practices to consider when setting up contextual campaigns

1. Go beyond standard banners and use a variety of ad types to help you reach your goals.

  • Native ads: When done right, contextual ads enhance the user experience, making native advertising a natural fit, as they blend seamlessly with the surrounding content. This can increase engagement and deliver more efficient return on your contextual campaign.
  • Video ads: With video becoming more popular, serving contextual ads alongside video content is a strong strategy to implement. Our account teams can help you evaluate video capabilities and find the right contextual partner for your video needs.

2. Test and learn by creating separate ad groups for each contextual ad placed to help ensure the ads that people see are relevant. Creating separate groups will also allow you to compare performance across ad groups and better understand the context and categories that work best. Core areas to consider evaluating are scale, business performance, and the amount of inventory available to support the campaign.

3. Combine tactics to cover all your bases. Running behavioral ads along with contextual targeting can be a powerful tactic to drive performance within your campaign, as both strategies help to reach people with expressed interest in products similar to yours. Some contextual providers are also starting to offer smarter solutions that use artificial intelligence (AI) to auto-select categories based off first-party data.

Contextual targeting is a strategy that enables advertisers to reach people during moments of high intent and is fueled by the innovation of ad tech — and it’s only getting better. Our platform is integrated with many leading contextual providers to make it easy for you to target and reach your audiences based on real-time intent signals found in both written and video content across in-app and web environments. We also offer proprietary solutions you can activate directly from the platform.

For more information on these solutions, or to get started with contextual targeting today, reach out to your designated account manager.

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