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Behavioral Vs. Contextual Targeting

February 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Written by Ted Dhanik.

The battle between contextual and behavioral targeting is just now coming to the forefront of display advertising. For a long time, advertisers utilized in-context links and ads to sell their products. Because of the nature of search, mainly that people tend to ask questions of search engines, contextual advertising was a reliable means for advertisers to draw upon text from the pages they were present on.

Google’s Impact

Google search ads were excellent tools for context, then organic optimization came around. This became a new twist on the idea of context, namely that you could use existing articles to try and sell your products. Google’s platform, and the size of its customer base, was a turning point for banner advertising.

Mobile Ads

The addition of mobile changed the playing field yet again, emphasizing the ability to target users by location. Aside from the changes to design that were ushered in by mobile, marketers started to toy with behavior. The theory suggested that users on smartphones were already in a position to buy if they just had the right information.

This is where behavior has become such a hot topic. Smartphones enabled marketers to experiment with new methods of tracking user behavior. Google’s Analytics program futher bolstered these efforts with the inclusion of event tracking. Soon, marketers could measure everything from a user’s location to whether they hit “play” on a video and how long they kept watching. The more marketers learn about the behavior of their audience, the better equipped they are to catch the user at a point in time where he is likely to buy.

Behavior Tracking

Behavior helps marketers adjust their efforts based on what a user does and has done. Now, a user searching for new shoes is shown ads based on what he has actually looked at. If he has placed shoes into a shopping cart, but not bought them, he may be shown a coupon for the purchase. This “next level” ad technology has helped marketers better connect with their audience by retargeting them.

Behavior tracking also helps marketers identify contrasting trends, like people who continually shop for one model of car and end up buying another. Behavioral targeting allows marketers to review this behavior and show effective ads to the end user based on what he actually wants.

Behavioral targeting has given way to the newest trend, retargeting. Through identification of users who have already seen an ad, marketers can further adjust their value propositions to try and sell again. These ads “follow” a user around the Web and serve relevant content based on past experience.

There is not one clear-cut winner in this skirmish. Most marketers will inevitably test both of these strategies in an attempt to improve conversion, but understanding which is likely to be more successful for your campaign is key.


Ted Dhanik is the co-founder and CEO of engage:BDR, an advertising network for direct marketing. Ted Dhanik has been a thought leader in the sales and direct marketing industries for over fifteen years. For more information, view Ted Dhanik online.

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