Audience? Please… Why Context is the Future of Web Monetization

Data-Driven Thinking“Data-Driven Thinking” is a column written by members of the media community and containing fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Jonathan Mendez, founder of Yieldbot.

Context comes from the Latin word contexere. The literal meaning is “joining together by weaving”. The Greeks had a word not just for context but also for the very moment someone weaves together two textures – “Kairos”. Context and timing have been pillars of persuasion since Aristotle.

In today’s world links weave media together and clicks are those most valuable moments when it is joined. With context built into the structure of the web it’s no accident the three most successful digital ad platforms – Search, Email and Affiliate – have context at the core of persuasion. As we move forward into an ever more media fragmented yet always connected world we can easily see how the value of context and those moments are increasing.

For publishers, proof points that context creates the most value in digital media are Quigo and AdSense. Quigo stands as one of greatest digital ad technologies ever created. In many ways, especially around pricing, delivery and creative it was much more advanced than Applied Semantics (AdSense) started two years prior. However, it is the abundance of AdSense and its contextual advertising that is all over the web. AdSense is a $8B+ channel for GOOG, 30% of overall revenues and up 23% from last year. For publishers context remains king.

For advertisers, there is no better place for context and timing than Search. The ROI of Search is without question and its cross-platform future assured. In Search people control context with their own rules and the ad delivery is realtime. Search beautifully leverages the unique benefits of a user-controlled medium for persuasion.

In Display, ad performance and publisher value are handicapped by lack of context and timing. Having multiple graphic ads on a page is the largest issue. The concept of anchoring is a large part of context and ad research has shown that 1) people use adjacent and preceding ads as an anchor and 2) people assimilate and contrast ads with their evaluation of the adjacent or prior ads (In Search click paths query reinforcement and recognition stay in context). These are just problems with the context of ads – we all know about the issues of contextual relevance of ads to content. Ads craves context and I wonder how a future of retargeting and audience buying delivers it.

Taking a look at some emerging channels:

Facebook: Offers little context for advertisers. People come to FB to share, communicate and be a voyeur. Advertising has no thread into that. Facebook does have potential for contextual relevance around local but so far has done little. Look for that to change.

Twitter: When sharing and communication is self segmented intelligent systems can derive relevance and respond with timing. Twitter’s follow filter operates similar to the Search query giving users control over context. The challenges for Twitter are scale and timing.

Video: Google has announced user control and self-selection will be in their Video Ad Selector format. Again, user generated rules can deliver context and a system mirroring pieces of Search should see great results and higher media values.

What the current landscape has shown is that context must be part of the media. In fact context may be the only thing in the future that prevents the commoditization of digital media.

Looking ahead, here are some trends I see related to context:

  • Mobile is all about context and location based services (LBS) can provide deep levels of context and timing.
  • The emergence of realtime data streams and realtime media rules from publishers will deliver both timing and context.
  • Open-source semantic and text mining technology will continue to improve ushering in a new generation of context tools.
  • Attention and focus on creative testing and analytics will help the understanding of context.
  • Open source APIs of contextual data collection and exhaust will allow intelligent systems to “mashup” multiple contextual data streams.

For Pubs: As all media becomes performance media the better they understand context from the visitor perspective the higher their media value and the greater return for advertisers. We know this formula already as much as we know that context is critical to brands and bringing their dollars online.

For Advertisers: Almost all the web’s value is in joining together its seams at the right time. Systems that understand and leverage context and timing will continue to thrive. Those that don’t will be bit players in the future of web monetization.

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  1. Ben allen

    What about intent? Always thought intent would trump context, obviously the combo is best…but particularly on the web where you can be in 20 different contexts in five minutes of surfing it doesn’t say all that much about you and your intent to DO anything. With trillions of pieces of content a simple click away and user involvement lasting all of seconds sometimes… there is a lot of near worthless context targeting out there if intent and involvement is close to zero.

    Location aware mobile ads in spatial context will be so much more powerful than virtual web ads in context of content not only because of their context but because of what that context means in terms of intent, disposition for action and the users level of involvement…. Spatial surfing is a lot tougher than web surfing!


    • Ben,

      I think you need to understand context before you can understand intent (or interest for that matter).

      The point you make about user involvement lasting seconds is critical to having realtime rules as I mentioned in the trends. Thanks for your added thoughts.


  2. Couldn’t agree with you more, Jonathan. Context seems to have gone by the wayside with the rise of behavioral data – but when we think about generating top funnel activity, there is no better tool than context to achieve that.

  3. Very well articulated thoughts. Great job on this one.

    Context – from keywords on the page perspective, does connote a lot of intent. After all, search is about understanding the “matching” of query terms and their synonyms, and the expansion of that into verticals to that contained on the results links. But in display – context is underutilized because of a certain, I might even venture to say, “irrational fear” of allowing that context/content to be utilized. There are two issues:

    1) Publishers really need to stop worrying about malicious interaction with page content and load times due to Javascript ad tags on the page. There are definitely solutions, like Google AdSense and our own Tumri AdPod tags, that allow for context to be leveraged without impacting page load performance. We do this by first leveraging keyword context, but delivering the payload in iframe containers.

    2) It requires a context to content matching search engine to find relevant information to power a user experience. And the way to do this is via forms of “Semantics” extraction with “Statistical Natural Language Processing” and machine learning techniques. Most 3rd party ad servers today that exist have not been built to scale to deal with it.

    Behavioral data and demographic info are axes – and are the most important factors in certain classes of advertiser verticals and campaigns. Overdoing the utilization of this data demonstrably leads to poor performance.

    At Tumri, we have unequivocally demonstrated that given context + behavior + demographics, lifts exceed 100% for all key metrics.

    I’d hope that the IAB starts to specify requirements of semantically understanding ad servers.

    User experience – related to context, and making “ads seem like content” also lead to great returns to everyone.

    Thanks for a well written piece.

    — Pradeep Javangula
    Founder & CTO, Tumri Inc.

  4. As an industry we preach the lack of value surrounding the click and the value of the impression and future action. I’m not sure that saying “clicks are the those most valuable moments.”

    I’m also not sure that the market is demonstrating that context is most valuable. If this is so, why are impressions on very high quality sites going for so little money on ad exchanges? Are market buyers that misinformed?

    Interesting perspective here but it seems that like everything, there are two sides to this story.

  5. Jonathan can you please tell me 7 months later if you still feel that context is king over data?



    • As data continues to get more commoditized, yes, more than ever. But don’t take my word for it. “Contextual advertising is vital to building brand awareness and reaching new prospects at relevant moments.” – Neal Mohan, Vice President of Product Management, Google Display Network.