Contextual vs. Behavioral Targeting

Contextual Vs Behavioral Targeting

With cookie targeting on the decline, consumer privacy concerns on the rise and new media environments gaining traction, marketers are weighing up the best solutions to connect with consumers online. This is sparking a great debate: Contextual vs behavioral targeting - which is better?

With the advent of Google's behavioral ad targeting program in 2009, behavioral targeting has been constantly compared to contextual targeting. In this blog post, we will discuss both contextual and behavioral targeting and provide the fundamentals for each solution to help you decide where to invest your marketing dollars to guarantee campaign success next year and beyond.

What is Contextual Targeting?

Contextual targeting is targeting on a web page based on the page's content. For example, an ad for gym equipment in an article about the best wellness tips, or an ad for coffee next to a cappuccino recipe. Contextual targeting uses the information already present on the page to match a brand's ad to the content the user is consuming.

Backed by AI-driven algorithms, contextual advertising places ads based on keywords, website content and other metadata. This way, ads are shown to users based on the content they are consuming at any given moment online.

Illustration of Contextual Advertising in Ad Campaigns for Digital Advertising

How Does Contextual Targeting Work?

A contextual intelligence platform, backed by Artificial Intelligence technology, such as computer vision and natural language processing, scans the information on a web page as shown above.

This information is then translated into actionable insights to target consumers.

The contextual intelligence platform then places contextually relevant ad units within the web page that align with the user's behavior and the content they are consuming.

Key Facts about Contextual Targeting:

For a better understanding of contextual targeting, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Contextual targeting delivers ads that are always relevant and align with what users are watching, reading and browsing online.
  • Contextual targeting delivers ads that are not subject to privacy regulations because they do not use or collect third party cookies.
  • Contextual targeting focuses on what users are currently interested in online and therefore give advertisers the opportunity to align with a consumers' active frame of mind.

What is Behavioral Targeting?

Behavioral targeting, also known as audience targeting, serves ads based on a user's web-browsing behavior. For example, if a user searched for leather handbags, it can be determined that this user is interested in hand bags and can now be targeted with relevant ad messaging.

Behavioral targeting relies on the user’s past actions to understand the kind of purchase they are likely to make. If a user performs an action, online or offline, this information is tracked and used to serve them ads based on their behavior.

Illustration of Behavioral Targeting in Digital Advertising

How Does Behavioral Targeting Work?

When a user visits a website, searches for something online or starts a shopping cart, companies identify his or her browser and behavior via an identifier like a cookie on their device.

Companies then develop an audience segment based on this behavior and sell these segments to advertisers.

Advertisers leverage these segments to target audiences online.

Key Facts about Behavioral Targeting:

For a better understanding of behavioral targeting, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Behaviorally targeted ads rely on hard, historical data of users’ search history and what sites they spend the most time on.
  • Behaviorally targeted ads are subject to privacy regulations because they track personal user data.
  • Behaviorally targeted ads rely on historical buying patterns and may not always align with a user's current frame of mind.

What is the Main Difference between Contextual and Behavioral Targeting?

Illustration of How Contextual Advertising Campaigns and Behavioral Ads Differ

Now that we have a fundamental understanding of contextual and behavioral targeting, what is the main difference between these two methods?

In the simplest terms, behavioral advertising makes uses of a consumer's personal data to serve ads to prospective buyers, whereas contextual advertising places ads in environments which align with user interests with no reliance on personal data.

So, the biggest distinction is that behavioral campaigns serve ads to prospects based on their past behavior while contextual campaigns try to place ads where potential customers are going to be browsing.

Behavioral Advertising is on the Outs

By now, it's no shock to anyone that third-party cookies, and in turn, behavioral targeting, is on the decline. In fact, 60% of global web traffic will go cookieless by 2023 and Google will phase cookies from Chrome in 2024.

The demise of cookies, coupled with rising privacy concerns, has left advertisers looking beyond behavioral targeting towards the next best strategy. Which other promising new technologies can replace cookies? For some, the answer is contextual advertising!

Contextual Advertising is on the Rise

Contextual advertising is quickly establishing itself as a future-proof, brand-safe and effective alternative to behavioral advertising. Companies all over the globe are shifting their marketing dollars towards building a powerful contextual strategy. In fact, contextual advertising spend is expected to more than double by 2027 to 376.2 billion dollars. (Statista)

GumGum as a Contextual Advertising Partner

GumGum’s contextual advertising solutions can help you reach the people you want to target without the use of personal data now - and as the digital advertising industry continues to evolve.

GumGum’s contextual intelligence technology, Verity™, scans text, image, audio and video to derive human-like understandings.

Verity™ identifies a full suite of contextual signals, allowing both the buy-side and the sell-side to truly define and implement brand safety and suitability.

Illustration of How GumGum's Contextual Advertising Focuses on Relevant Content

The Media Rating Council (MRC) has granted GumGum's contextual intelligence technology, Verity™, content-level accreditation for contextual analysis, brand safety and suitability.

Why does this matter?

While some contextual providers have property-level accreditation, which requires the consideration of just text signals, Verity™ has content-level accreditation, which requires the consideration of all available signals including text, imagery, audio and video.

This accreditation makes GumGum the only independent ad tech provider to show that our content-level contextual advertising capabilities meet the MRC’s rigorous guidelines.

GumGum's Contextual Advertising Works!

In a recent study with dentsu, we compared GumGum Verity™ with other contextual vendors to test the power of our contextual advertising solutions.

Illustration of GumGum's Contextual Targeting and Its Success in a Digital Marketing Strategy


  • GumGum's contextual solutions were 69% more accurate than other contextual vendors
  • GumGum's contextual solutions had 41% lower cost per viewable impression
  • GumGum's contextual solutions had a 48% lower cost per click

To take your advertising to the next level with GumGum's contextual solutions, please click here.

Undoubtedly, both contextual targeting and behavioral targeting are effective advertising means, but with third-party cookies phasing out and consumers demanding more privacy, advertisers are left with no choice but to explore more sustainable means to reach consumers online. This is causing more advertisers to replace or augment their behavioral strategies with more contextual ones. With advancements in contextual technology, more nuanced targeting techniques and a grip on consumer mindset, contextual advertising is quickly becoming a leading solution to replace cookies in digital advertising.

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