Cookies Versus Context: Supplement Programmatic with Contextually Relevant Advertising for Better ROI

By Vijoy Gopalakrishnan
Principal, Media Center of Excellence

Digital advertising has saved CPG advertisers millions of dollars, as the vast amount of digital data allows marketers to carefully tailor messaging and personalize digital campaigns to improve return on ad spend (ROAS) and reduce the waste of sending ads to consumers who don’t and won’t buy specific products.

Programmatic advertising has been celebrated for reducing ad buying costs and allowing advertisers greater precision in reaching target audiences. However, there have also been concerns about brand safety and the effectiveness of programmatic ad buying. Some large advertisers have reduced programmatic in an effort to steer clear of objectionable content near their ads.

Contextually relevant advertising, which focuses on where an ad is placed, is gaining more traction among advertisers. Unlike programmatic, contextual advertising takes into account what the consumer may be thinking or feeling at the time that the ad is viewed.

While contextually relevant advertising has long been a common practice in television advertising (for example, food delivery commercials during televised sporting events), the practice has not yet carried over to digital advertising indefinitely.

Late last year, IRI and the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) partnered on an industry study to learn if and how more purposeful, disciplined and contextually relevant advertising impacts sales and ROI.

IRI and ARF studied three major CPG brands across food and non-food categories, and analyzed mobile and desktop ad placements varying as high-, medium- and low-relevancy based on attention and alignment (view more details on the study’s methodology). We define context effects as the content prior to the ad, or the medium or platform on which the ad is served.

Ultimately, the study found that ads placed on websites with high consumer attention and higher thematic alignment with the brand will have a higher ROI than less-aligned ad buys.

Key takeaways from the study:

  1. Programmatic ad buying is affordable but not as effective as other options, and it can sacrifice topline growth for profitability.
  2. There is no need to sacrifice that topline growth. The study suggests that marketers need not be forced to make a trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency. Simply mixing in relevant context strategies can make for greater effectiveness, while still benefiting from the efficiencies of automation.
  3. Context, attention, and alignment can increase sales lift and ROI. When we drilled down on research findings to sales lift and ROI, the overall evidence suggested that context does matter.
  4. The fundamentals are still vital. The right target, message, frequency and creative remain the foundational pillars of any successful digital advertising campaign

A panel of media industry experts during the 2018 IRI Growth Summit agreed: today’s marketers are weaving together moments of partial attention. Consumers often view ads while out with friends, at work or otherwise distracted.

Chris Bacon, executive vice president, Research Quality & Innovation for ARF, moderated the panel, “Maximize Media ROI with Contextually Relevant Advertising.” I was thrilled to also be joined by advertising gurus including Gunnard Johnson, head of measurement science and insights at Pinterest; Pradeep Kumar, executive vice president and director of analytics at FCB RED; Prasad Joglekar, vice present of data strategy and solutions at Viacom; and Tanya Yuki, chief executive officer of Shareablee.

The discussion largely centered on the tools available to marketers to meet the challenge of putting these moments together in a meaningful way. All the experts concurred that contextually relevant advertising is a proven approach to meet this challenge and connect with consumers.

I mentioned that there has been a flip in the traditional marketing funnel: lower-funnel attributes are now starting to inform top-of-the-funnel attributes like awareness and engagement. Tanya Yuki from Shareablee agreed, describing the impact of influencer recommendations on mid-funnel attributes such as trial and trust, while Prasad Joglekar emphasized the need to deliver memorable experiences from top to bottom. “Each marketing measurement is only one touch point in the customer journey,” he said.

Chris Bacon concluded the session by saying, “Context can work, but don’t forget the fundamentals of targeting, messaging, creativity and frequency. All of those things have to be in place before you can leverage the benefits of context.”


To find out more about why context matters, read the study and/or email me at for more info.

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