Privacy and advertising

Contextual ads

Liam Shaw on Unsplash

Jeremy Keith’s piece on Clean Advertising is an excellent read. One of the key takeaways is that behavioural advertising may not be as effective as its contextual counterpart.

To recap:

  • Behavioural advertising centres around tracking users around the web to build profiles about their behaviour. Users will are shown ads specific to them, irrelevant of the context: e.g. a user visits a shoe shop, then sees an ad for those shoes on Facebook.
  • Contextual advertising doesn’t track users or build profiles of them. Users are shown ads based on the context: i.e. a user searches for tennis racket and is shown an advert for one.

Keith’s article references the New York Times who, in 2018, turned off behavioural advertising for European readers. Digital advertising through their site increased through to early 2019.

They aren’t the only ones.

In August 2020, WIRED reported on the Nederlandse Publieke Omroep’s (NPO) strict approach to European cookie laws. Instead of assuming users are ok with targeted advertising if they skipped the cookie consent screen, they opted users out (incidentally, this is the correct approach).

The company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

If behavioural ads aren’t more effective than contextual ads, what is all of that data collected for?

If websites opted for a context ads and privacy-focused analytics approach, cookie banners could become obsolete…

What about small businesses?

The attraction of heavily targeted advertising is strong for small businesses. For a start, it’s frequently the only recommended advertising method, but the pull of tweaking adverts to maximise small budgets must be strong.

In the spirit of investigating alternatives to invasive marketing techniques, I want to find out more. I’m interested in collecting more examples of businesses — large or small — that have bucked the trend and opted for contextual ads over behavioural ones.

Large and small businesses may advertise in different ways, but there will be lessons to learn from any business that’s gone against the grain here.

Send examples to the lists below are updated with examples as I find them.

Last updated: 31st December, 2020



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