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Contextual vs. Behavioral Targeting

The best approach to targeting ads is to use a combination of both contextual and behavioral targeting. Find out where and when to use both types of targeting with Cohley!
Parker Dietz
December 13, 2022
April 11, 2024

Let's not beat around the bush - let's define and differentiate between contextual and behavioral targeting.

What is contextual targeting and where is it used?

Contextual targeting places ads based on the "environment in which the ad appears". This technique uses algorithms, keywords, website content, and other metadata to show consumers ads based on the content that they are viewing in that given moment. For instance, if you are online shopping for dog food, you may be shown ads for dog toys, leashes, beds, or veterinarian clinics nearby. Contextually, these ads make sense; if you are searching for dog food, chances are, you own a dog and could be in the market for those other products and services.

Contextual advertising works because of relevancy. An ad that is related to what the consumer is searching for in that moment can be seen as helpful and informative, and therefore, more likely to be clicked on. Contextual advertising is similar to the concept of window shopping but through a screen.

The importance of contextual targeting will increase as we look forward to a cookie-less future. Cookies enable a personalized user experience by utilizing information about web users. They're the reason your ads and browsing experience differ from your siblings' or your friends. But because contextual advertising simply uses the website environment to target an ad - rather than the consumer's personal and private information - this type of targeting is not constrained by any privacy laws.

While this approach is not as personalized as other targeting techniques, some consumers may trust contextual advertising more for this very reason. Building off of this, there is less research needed to successfully place a contextual ad.

What is behavioral targeting and where is it used?

Behavioral targeting is what most people think of when they think of "targeting". This uses audience segmentation - going beyond just demographics - to target an ad and show the ideal audience what they want to see. By researching how certain audiences interact with your business and similar businesses, you can learn a lot of insightful knowledge about who you specifically want to advertise to. Why is this so effective? Because behavioral targeting analyzes both demographic information and real-time online interactions, ads are able to be more personalized and extremely timely.

This personalized style of marketing works so well because by collecting data on behavior, advertisers are able to better determine what kind of messages would best resonate with their target audience.

There are four types of behavioral targeting methods that marketers can use to learn more about audience engagement: website engagement, campaign engagement, purchase behavior, and app engagement.

  1. Website engagement leverages information about products, services, and information that the consumer is interested in to personalize user experience on your website.
  2. Campaign engagement collects data about click-through rates on email and links embedded into your website.
  3. Watching consumer purchasing behavior is one that we are all familiar with. Let's say you are shopping for a new pair of running shoes online, and suddenly, you are seeing ads for running shoes everywhere. This is behavioral targeting using purchasing behavior.
  4. You can use behavioral targeting to increase app usage based on engagement trends.

In general, this approach is much more personalized and narrow focused than contextual targeting. While you never want to use either one of these approaches exclusively, doing the right research to be able to leverage behavioral targeting is crucial to reach the right audiences.

How to test behavioral targeting

So, how can you successfully execute and test each of these marketing techniques? Let's start with behavioral targeting. A good place to start is analyzing the behaviors of current customers. By learning about what your current consumers browse and untimely buy online can tell you a lot about what works and doesn't work for them. Once you have a good grasp on the audience who is listening to you, try targeting individuals who have similar online habits, but do not currently use your product or service.

At Cohley, we can help observe consumer behavior through our integration with Klaviyo. This tool uses image swapping and testing to find which product images lead to the highest click-through rates and order confirmations. This is tested both on-site and through browse-abandonment emails. While it is possible for you to do this testing on your own, it is extremely time-consuming, and much more difficult to collect and analyze the data on your own.

Another way Cohley can help you utilize behavioral advertising is through user-generated content. By observing your ideal audience, we can help you connect with creators that your target will best relate to. What's great about UGC is that consumers tend to engage with these posts quite a lot, providing you with more data to analyze and knowledge to reflect in your ads.

How to test contextual targeting

Contextual targeting can be fairly easy to execute once you have found a platform that works for you.

For instance, using Google Ads, you will input keywords (ex. "cheap holiday gifts", "5-person family dinner") and/or categories (ex. "athleisure", "bluetooth headphones") to give the platform an idea of where you want your ads to be placed. Once you have provided this information, you can sit back and relax while technology finds the right online environments for your ads to run.

Cohley's dedication to improving user-generated content can also be used to test contextual targeting for your business. This is because while cookies can increase the relevancy of UGC, it is not impossible to reach the proper audience through the use of keywords and categories on social media. With more people following specific hashtags, it is easy to run an ad under a hashtag and get the message to your audience without needing any private information.

Combining targeting practices works for most brands

The big question now is: what targeting method is right for my business? The best approach to targeting ads is to use a combination of both methods. This is because a combination of both contextual and behavioral advertising increases the chances of a consumer taking an interest in the ads. Strictly using contextual targeting may not get your message across to the proper audience, and limiting yourself to behavioral targeting may scare consumers away due to their use of private information. Using these two methods together can help you find the most niche and specific audience segment for your business.

So which is better for your brand?

To reinforce the point above, it is always encouraged to use both contextual and behavioral targeting, as opposed to putting all your money and effort into one or the other. As you try out both of these techniques, you may find that one is more successful for your brand depending on the industry you are in and who your audience is. Measuring success and making the appropriate changes using this data is ultimately what will be the best for your brand.

Parker Dietz
Head of Content
With a wealth of knowledge about competitors and pricing, Parker is all about exploring the best way to communicate Cohley's benefits. Outside of work, Parker enjoys poorly playing guitar at parties, watching every Adam Sandler movie ever made, and eating Arabic food.