The Role of Market Research in Effective Contextual Advertising

By definition, contextual advertising is ‘targeted advertising that typically occurs on a banner or pop-up ad on a website’. More recently of course, such ads have extended to pretty much any Internet enabled application including mobile browsers. Internet enabled billboards can also be considered in this realm as well as inanimate billboards used to push readers to online interactions of a specific nature.

Contextual Advertising Systems

A contextual advertising system scans the text of a website for keywords and returns advertisements to the web page based on those keywords. For example, if the user is viewing a website on the subject of football and that website uses contextual advertising, the user may see advertisements for football-related companies, such as football shirt retailers or match ticket sellers. Google AdSense is a contextual advertising program, as is Google Content-Targeted Advertising.

5 Approaches to Contextual Advertising and Supporting Market Research Practices

Like any form of advertising, the success of contextual advertising is more likely when it is supported by customer intelligence. But the type of customer intelligence and as such the market research methodology required varies greatly depending on the approach taken. Here are the 5 fundamental approaches to contextual advertising as I see them, as well as the market research best practices for each.

Market research objectives in relation to contextual advertising change depending on the approach taken.

1. Mass Contextual Advertising (Online)

Based on the original AdSense premise, all you know about the user being served your ad when they land on a web page is that they have some interest in an area related to your product and their rough location based on IP … Not a lot then! When you consider the nuances of your target market — age, gender, demographics, psychographics, etc. But what if it doesn’t matter? What if contextual advertising is actually the pathway to the return of good old mass display advertising?

This is certainly one way to approach it. Targeting all potential keywords via AdSense style programs with a one size fits all mass marketing creative. But whoa, if you’re putting all of your eggs in the basket it has to be right. To resonate with all of your target market customers nuances aside.

So where does market research come into play? In the creative, unless CTR isn’t something you’re into. If you know who you want to target, you need to make sure that the ad you’re proposing speaks to them. Design and messaging can be inspired with a creative qual study. Projective techniques, reverse assumption and diary studies are fantastic methods for revealing the unconscious emotive needs of your customers. You can read more about these methods in Dorota Rewinskas recent blog: 6 Creative Examples of Ethnographic Research in Action. Iterative qual testing can be integrated into the visual development process to support creative specifics and to evaluate completed ads pre-launch consider a quant study representative of your mass market.

2. Focused Contextual Advertising (Online)

If you want to have more control over your ad, you can make the decision to place online advertisements on specific pages of specific websites directly. Using this method the’ placement’ decision comes back to you as well as the ‘creative’ one.

Here market research plays an additional role in establishing ‘which’ sites your target market is visiting and ‘why’ and this is where big data comes in handy. Sites such as ComScore can make your life easier with digital audience metrics, i.e. ‘which’ sites your target market visits, how long they spend on each page, etc. But they lack the fundamental ‘why’ element that only a qualitative study can truely provide. Knowing the ‘why’ is what makes the difference between an eye-catching, relevant message, and another one of those annoying ads that somehow managed to get past your ad blocker.

3. Contextual-Behavioural Advertising (Online)

New approaches to contextual online advertising have seen more emphasis placed on the user’s surfing behaviour in prior sessions. Such behaviour is tracked via cookies stored on users’ computers. Contextual advertising systems are also developing the technology to identify a user’s age and gender as well as their location… Now we’re cooking! Different people can be served entirely different advertisements even though they are visiting the same site.

If you don’t want to be playing a guessing game about what to show to whom, qualitative research of a creative nature (as suggested to support mass contextual advertising above, but this time highly segmented) is really useful. For large scale continuous advertising insight, ad tracking and/or multi-channel campaigns a VoC community panel can be incredibly effective.

4. Contextual Billboard Advertising (Physical — Animate)

Contextual advertising is no longer the domain of the desktop or even mobile with billboards which can now be programmed to display real-time information. Passive data collection makes knowing where your target market is and when easier than ever before, which leads us back to the creative — And ‘why’ your target market is in a certain location as well as their emotions surrounding it.

Contextual advertising is no longer the domain of desktop and mobile applications alone.

I would lean towards a moderated qual study to achieve the depth of understanding required here, especially as billboards are now able to personalise adverts displayed to onlookers via recognition sensors. Mobile ethnography for example, is perfect for lifestyle studies of this nature. Social media analytics can be a valuable resource in conjunction and online communities are ideal for customer led insights.

In terms of mass brand engagement and emotional pull, the British Airways’ #lookup campaign of 2013 is a great example of electronic billboard advertising at work. Billboards were erected in Piccadilly Circus and Chiswick in London that respond to their planes flying overhead. When the billboard detected a BA flight visible to passers-by, a child starts running, pointing up to the sky — chasing the airplane. The billboard then updates to reflect the flight details, like ‘BA flight 475 from Barcelona’, along with a URL ‘’. Onlookers can then go online and view destination details and ultimately make a booking.

Seriously clever — The ad plays on our tendency to wonder where the planes are going and dream of an amazing holiday or warm destination. I wonder where that idea came from… #marketresearch

5. Contextual Outdoor Advertising (Physical — Inanimate)

Physical advertising. It’s not a forgotten art form and done well it can have a phenomenal impact. Google got all the elements of an effective contextual outdoor advertising campaign spot on during the launch of their new mobile app in the summer of 2014. They placed site-specific ads at various landmarks around the city — each asking questions about the landmark, which the app could of course answer.

It’s was bold. It’s was contextual. And although the billboards themselves were inanimate, the call to action was interactive. Google may or may not have used market research in order to achieve this ad campaign, I couldn’t say for sure — but the use of research in order to achieve the right message, for the right people, in the right place, is from my point of view, essential to the success of such a campaign.

An interesting side effect of this ad campaign was its ability to produce insight as well as serving the immediate marketing purpose. Data in terms of location, time and response could be gathered in a loosely ethnographic by-product.




FlexMR is The Insights Empowerment Company. We help brands to act decisively, stay close to customers and embed agile insight at the heart of every decision.

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FlexMR is The Insights Empowerment Company. We help brands to act decisively, stay close to customers and embed agile insight at the heart of every decision.

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