OPINION27 July 2015

Putting advertising in context


Brand campaigns benefit from contextually relevant placement, according to Guardian effectiveness research says Katherine Miall.


‘Context affects our decisions to a far greater degree than we realise.’ So argued Rory Sutherland at Newsworks’ Shift conference earlier this year; most of the time, he suggested, our decisions are made automatically and only afterwards rationalised by our conscious brains. If we actually stopped to think about ads, then the context in which we see them shouldn’t matter – but of course we don’t usually do this.

So context matters when planning advertising, now more than ever. We know that it’s increasingly difficult to get consumers’ attention. We know that despite the swathes of ad inventory available, premium media environments are still relatively scarce. And we know that despite the benefits of programmatic trading, concerns remain about its ability to place ads in suitable environments. (Clearly PMPs can counter many of these contextual doubts but currently only account for 16% of desktop display sales according to the IAB.)

But what does ‘context’ really mean, from an advertising perspective? Well, it could refer to the consumer’s literal location when they see the ad, or the time of day at which they see it. That will affect their reaction to the ad. Or it could be the media channel on which the ad appears, and the content that surrounds it.

Earlier this year Newsworks showed that regular readers of newsbrands are ‘primed’ to respond more favourably to the ads that they see there, due to the strength of their relationship with the news brand. Readers react better to those ads because they trust the environments in which they appear – research from the AOP has demonstrated a similar brand context effect.

There has been much debate about the benefits of a relevant editorial context, with some research pieces demonstrating the benefits of cognitive dissonance, including higher click through rates (CTRs) for direct response campaigns.

For brand campaigns, however, The Guardian has found overwhelming evidence that a contextually relevant environment boosts effectiveness. Over the past few years we’ve worked with Swedish ad effectiveness experts RAM (Research and Analysis of Media) to survey our panel of more than 3,000 readers/visitors about more than 300 brand campaigns.

From our Brand Aid surveys, we’ve found that when visitors to the Guardian website view brand ads alongside relevant editorial, they are 10% more likely to pick up new information, nearly 20% more likely to feel more positive about the advertiser and, crucially, 23% more likely to think that the ad is relevant to them.

In print too, a context effect is evident; ads are 20% more likely to be seen as relevant to the reader when alongside related content.

However, the impact of contextual relevance varied significantly across the six advertising categories we looked at (travel, fashion/beauty, finance, tech, arts/entertainment, food/drink). A travel ad on the Guardian’s Travel site was 40% more likely to appeal to visitors – maybe unsurprising given that we know that most are browsing for inspiration while planning a holiday.

It’s quite a different story with finance ads, however; contextual relevance doesn’t necessarily make people like those ads more, but does help them stand out to those in-market (they are nearly 60% more likely to be considered relevant). And our audience is 25% more likely to feel informed by tech ads when they’re on the Guardian Tech site, which is great news in a category where consumers often need more education or reassurance.

Clearly there’s much more for us to learn about the impact of context. We need to find out about its value on mobile – as digital traffic continues its migration, the context of where and when a consumer sees our ads will become more and more important.

And it could be that there’s an effective synergy between ads from one category and editorial from another. We intend to explore these theories further – and to keep context at the heart of the planning process. After all, as Matthew Willcox writes in The Business of Choice, “what people see before your ad could be as important in influencing their decision as the ad itself”.

By Katherine Miall, insight manager, Guardian News & Media

1 Comment

7 years ago

Programmatic buying is a huge step forward in targeted advertising which significantly improves ROI. It is a brilliant example of tech enabled science driving marketing innovation. However, the points in this article highlight the critical need to balance this innovation with the "art" of communication. Context has always been critical and this highlights the need to apply this theory to programmatic.

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