In the early days of digital, context was paramount. Web 1.0 was like a digital newsstand and digital media plans weren’t far off those put together by press teams. The digital bit was around ad serving, site tracking and reporting.
Context was then ignored during the programmatic Klondike. A time when everyone turned to audience targeting and context targeting was seen as old school.
Nowadays brands need to take a context + audience approach to win attention, which is something I’ve been thinking about recently, so here are my scribbled thoughts in 3 parts based on some of my experiences over the years…
The final interview question that got me into digital media was one of context. It was in 2000 and I was going for a job at Zenith Interactive Solutions. After explaining what an ad impression and a banner was; the interviewer asked where I’d put banners to reach people interested in new and used BMWs. I answered FT, Economist, Sunday Times & Autotrader.
The interviewer (a balding fella who since ended up at Spotify) liked my answer and then explained how it was also possible to show banner ads to people searching for BMWs and competitor brands on sites like Ask Jeeves and Excite – my mind was blown – and I got the job.
The UK digital ad industry was worth less than £100m annually back then and agencies like Zenith had invested heavily into Interactive Strategists and grads like me which meant we had a lot of time to craft and book our campaigns (we even optimised them).
A step in the BMW media plan approval process was to go through it in detail with WCRS to ensure the sites, sections, and pages were on brand and that each banner would work not only in the context of the site but at page level too. WCRS would tweak imagery, copy and sometimes even the background colours and borders of the ads to ensure an aesthetic fit.
The sites and sections we planned were proxies for the audiences we wanted to reach; no one could argue that the 7 Series belonged contextually in FT.com or in Sky Golf rather than Football. The closest we could get to targeting people in the car buying mindset was through sites like AutoTrader or the magical keyword triggered banners on Ask Jeeves.
A few years after leaving Zenith I saw a BMW ad on the Yahoo homepage, and it annoyed me. I would have been shot for even proposing that spot; the craft in the job had definitely gone downhill. It was obviously one of those behavioural banner buys Yahoo was peddling after buying Right Media.
Fast forward to the first programmatic era when everything (outside of B2B) was audience first. Many publishers were caught out at this time; frogs in pots; unaware of the rising temperature. They continued pitching their sites based on qualitative surveys proving the audience was more likely to take holidays off the beaten track or eat a certain type of food.
Most didn’t grasp that to digital planners, each publication was a proxy for broad audience segments who may be interested in certain products. (e.g. Guardian = Quinoa, The Sun = Fish Fingers)
The moment we could begin to cherry-pick the exact audiences we wanted based on data signals everything changed. Ultimately the pendulum swung too far and we ended up with a murky long tail that got us all into a well-documented mess.
3: Context + Audience
The most successful piece of work I have been involved in was for The Economist a couple of years ago. The pitch brief was to make The Economist salient enough to recruit paid subscribers in a world of limitless free online content.
The Economist isn’t only about economics, so we had to communicate the breadth of topics it covered. We had to reach a lot of people we thought would be interested when they were most interested.
The core equation at the heart of our plan was: Data + Programmatic + Content = Smart Content delivered at scale. In plain English, this meant that every ad would be of interest to the person viewing it and be relevant to in the context in which it was viewed.
It was a recycling of the BMW / WCRS approach from my Zenith days, but ad tech now meant we could supercharge it.
Like the old (school) days we worked hand in glove with the creatives (Proximity), but in an entirely new way that allowed us to scale thousands of ads across digital channels. Proximity delivered a stream of brilliantly simple ads that made use of our tech framework. The best bit about this was that the tech set up faded into the background and put the creative at the forefront – all in context. (2 min Case Study Here)
Our job has always been to reach desired audiences with messages, in the right context, at the best time. It isn’t a trade-off between audiences and context. The correct approach is to augment quality thinking with the best technology.