Jul 15, 2023

Contextual Advertising: Innovative or Obsolete?

Josie Barton

With a slow decrease in use of third party cookies, behavioral advertising is becoming less favorable to contextual advertising. Non-invasive yet deliberate, contextual advertising is making a resurgence in marketing today. But what exactly is contextual advertising and how can it help businesses today?

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. Contextual advertising
  2. Behavioral advertising
  3. Finding a balance

What is Contextual Advertising?

What can contextual advertising teach us? And is it the best possible marketing technique in today’s growing consumer market? 

A person watches a soccer match on tv while wearing a soccer jersey
Based on the content that you consume, contextual advertising is useful, purposeful, and valuable.

Based on the name, one can assume that contextual advertising bases its ads off of, well, context. Invading no users or their data, contextual advertising refers to the purchasing of an ad that is based on the context of its placement rather than following the trends of specific consumers and their interests. Contrary to behavioral advertising, which relies solely on its consumers’ interests and dislikes, contextual advertising is making a comeback, and customers are happy about it.


Lots of ad agencies that use contextual advertising techniques use AI or web crawlers to scan a website for trends following keywords, purpose, and the other ads prevalent on the page. Contextual advertising techniques offer brand-safe marketing and increase brand integrity with its consumer-driven strategies and ability to connect with customers while offering products that align with their key values.

Along with its non-aggressive application of marketing messages, contextual advertising can reach consumers from multiple channels seamlessly and analyze message progress in real time. Marketers have the ability to optimize their messages depending on the feedback they receive immediately, reducing the need for third-party ad agencies and therefore reducing ad dollar waste.

With the decline of third-party cookies usage and a growth of purpose-driven marketing messages, contextual advertising is a non-invasive older technique that is making a resurgence today. 


Although producing a lesser rate of purchases, contextual advertising prides itself on its ability to market to a target audience without invading peoples’ data. Contextual advertising faces some detriment with its tendency to distract, instead of influence, customer behavior. Ads that are more disruptive to user content will often be ignored or forgotten.


A screenshot of a search of “contextual advertising” shows sponsored ads pop up when searched on google
Example a: Sponsored ads pop up in the search results of “contextual advertising” on Google.
  1. Nike buying an ad for the Super Bowl is contextual; some sports fans watch the Super Bowl and more sports fans are likely to buy more sports gear.
  1. Heinz buying a commercial spot during a food network targets customers watching the food network who tend to bake or cook, and therefore, buy ingredients.
  1. A nutritional supplement company purchasing an ad on a vegan or flexitarian company website. Vegans, vegetarians, or people with limited diets can lack in nutrition and supplements are another option to consider.

Why Not Behavioral Advertising?

Although this type of marketing promotes an increase in the percentages of purchases, it can be invasive and somewhat unnecessary, especially in our developing consumer market.

 A person scrolls on their phone online shopping for women’s clothing
Tracking user trends and habits, this type of advertising targets certain demographics to deliver specialized content to consumers.

Behavioral advertising is a form of marketing that companies use to track consumers’ habits. Ad agencies then utilize the information they gather on consumer habits and provide more advertisements on related content.


  1. A consumer views a camera to purchase on Amazon. Later, they search for a pair of shoes on the Converse website, and an ad for a Kodak camera pops up.
  1. A journalist searches a restaurant to review on their laptop, and later, as they scroll through Instagram on a different device that is connected through the same Apple ID, an ad for a local restaurant pops up.
  1. An online shopper puts several items in their cart and it sits there for a week without purchase. The next week the same online store sends that user a reminder email about their full cart, urging them to buy.


Behavioral advertising delivers extremely personalized content to specific users. Because behavioral advertising measures and tracks a users’ progress throughout a website or websites, it can greatly influence user tendencies. For example, a consumer searching for a colorful phone case on Amazon suddenly hops onto a new website, but an ad for an Etsy phone case pops up. This type of advertising highly favors its advertisers- consumers are more easily influenced by this tactic that pinpoints a users’ subconscious. Behavioral targeting increases consumer engagement by supplying purposeful information to target consumers.


While behavioral targeting is purposeful and personalized, it can also pose some threats to privacy and security. Accepting “terms of service” or “cookies” with a blind eye can expose consumers to unwanted ads and publicized personal information. A study showed that 79% of consumers are more comfortable seeing contextual than behavioral ads.


A chart shows a statistic of respondents and their level of understanding website cookies
It’s important to know who is absorbing your information and what it is being used for. Image courtesy of Statista.

When you click on a website, even this one, it might have asked you to accept cookies to “improve performance” or for “advertising purposes.” When accepting cookies on any site, you are allowing the site to send a small piece of text to your browser. Website trackers follow your progress throughout the site: What you interact with, what pages you click on and explore. Basically, allowing cookies allows that website to remember information about your visit. This information is then analyzed and interpreted to deliver related content to that specific user.

In recent times, the use of third-party cookies has decreased, so behavioral advertising has become a less popular marketing technique because of its reliance on cookies. Thus, increasing the contextual advertising technique. 

Finding a Balance

Contextual vs behavioral marketing: Which one is best and how do we choose?

A person scrolls on their laptop in front of them while also scrolling on a phone in their hand
With benefits to improving the consumer market and increasing market profits, both contextual and behavioral advertising have a large influence on consumerism.

The contextual vs behavioral advertising question is a difficult comparison. Similar in their main goal: to increase consumer purchases, contextual and behavioral advertising pose different tactics to increase engagement. Both of these marketing campaigns have advantages in creating both a valuable and a profitable user experience.

A chart on the digital media challenges according to US digital media professionals from October 2020.
49% of marketing professionals believe that third-party cookie depletion is one of their greatest challenges to overcome, and contextual advertising is a valuable solution to their fears. Image Courtesy of Adbutler.

With a combination of both contextual and behavioral advertising, consumers are more likely to perceive marketing campaigns as valuable. Basically, it’s a win-win situation; customers are satisfied, and the market is more profitable.

The Bottom Line

With one main goal in mind, both contextual and behavioral advertising both aim to influence their consumers into buying their product or service. As consumers, we must be careful about what we accept and who we share our content and information with. Contextual advertising is an old technique to the marketing atmosphere but is making a resurgence in consumer advertising today.