The Technology of Contextualized Content: What's Next on the Horizon?

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Article ImageBy now, it's become commonplace for most of us. We conduct an online search, view a product on a webpage, and the next thing we know, ads are popping up for the same and similar products every time we go online, whether we're on our desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile device. The world of contextualized ads-or ads that are delivered to individuals based on some context-is exploding. Technology is driving the explosion and making possible some seemingly impossible things.

The idea of using location, interests, and other contextual bits of information to serve up content was illustrated quite compellingly as far back as 2011 when Google partnered with four iconic brands-and the creative originators of ads from the 1960s and 1970s-to re-create those ads for a technologically enabled audience. Project Re: Brief was an experiment that teamed these Mad Men-era advertisers with their technology-enabled, 21st-century counterparts to reinvent iconic ads for a new generation.

The results were heavy on contextualized delivery and quite amazing-content delivered to individuals based on their settings and even personal experiences. Today, only 3 years later, what was, at the time, quite revolutionary is now increasingly common. In fact, technology exists to allow advertisers to get even more "inside the heads" (and devices) of consumers than they may choose to do. Why? Because of the fear of "Big Brother backlash" and a climate where privacy concerns are top-of-mind for consumers, marketers, and regulators.

Mike Wehrs is the president and CEO of Scanbuy and the former global CEO and president of the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA). Scanbuy, based in New York City, uses dynamic mobile triggers such as QR codes or near field communication (NFC) to "bridge the physical world with the digital world." Scanbuy, says Wehrs, "makes it so that the end user can easily take their phones out and engage with objects around them." Importantly, it does it in such a way that the interaction is unique to that individual. For instance, if you're an English-speaking shopper at a grocery store and you scan the QR code on a soup can, you'll receive information in English; if you're a Spanish-speaking consumer, though, you would receive it in Spanish.

"We can do that based on other variables as well," says Wehrs. The variables include location and how many similar products you've scanned. "It becomes a very targeted thing that the creator of the code can set rules on. Then, as people interact with it, they will get varying types of content. We sense at least 40 variables every time someone scans something and then we use those variables to determine what's the best kind of content to give back to that one person."

Those choices can straddle the line between useful and intrusive, of course, and marketers must navigate this terrain carefully. But privacy concerns aren't the only barriers that marketers face. Despite the massive technological developments that have occurred in the past decade, there are still some hurdles to overcome.

TECHNOLOGICAL HURDLES: TOO MUCH DATA?

Speed is one of the major hurdles standing between you and a fully contextualized content experience, says Chip Overstreet, SVP of marketing, business, and corporate development at MyBuys, an ecommerce company that provides cross-channel personalization services for display ads, email, and websites with offices in San Mateo, Calif.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; New York; and London. "One of the biggest challenges is speed-how quickly can one respond to the ad request when it is first necessary to understand the context of the page, and then map that context to relevant creative," says Overstreet. "More significantly, how does one determine consumer intent from the context of the page?"

Diaz Nesamoney, president, CEO, and founder of Jivox, a technology firm headquartered in San Mateo, Calif., agrees that speed is a must for today's marketers. "They see something trending on social media, and they want to immediately go and change something in their ad to change what's being creatively delivered-personalizing the message is becoming driven by the overall trend in real-time marketing."

Another hurdle, ironically, is the sheer volume of data now available to marketers. One of the reasons that contextualized advertising is possible today is the availability of data-a lot of very detailed and fine-grained data, says Nesamoney. "Many years ago, data was being collected, but it wasn't very fine-grained," he says. "You couldn't really personalize a message. Now, it's possible-there's a lot of technology available, and it's also a lot less expensive to use that data for this kind of personalization."

But the availability of so much data can present its own challenges. Gil Elbaz is the co-creator of Google AdSense and CEO and founder of Factual, a technology firm with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Shanghai that uses location, rather than keywords, to create the context for messaging. "I've been interested in bringing context to media consumption for a long time," he says.

"It's much more challenging because there's so much more data, and the data that's relevant to establishing context isn't just about what you're looking at on your screen, but what's physically around you in the real world," says Elbaz. "All of that information about where you are and what you're doing and what people are doing around you is necessary to establish context, intent, and frame of mind."

Still, despite the challenge, he says, it's also been "an equally huge opportunity because the ability for marketers to perfect advertising is really here now." Perfection, though, requires reliable and personalized context. The ability to provide context has also presented a technological challenge as consumers have moved from desktop and laptop devices, in which cookies were used as a means of tracking activity, to tablets and mobile devices in which the prevalence and widespread use of apps has hindered the ability to use cookies, says Matthew Shevach, SVP of ad solutions at Retailigence, a marketing platform with headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., that focuses on local marketing to "connect brick-and-mortar stores with consumers."

"When done correctly, there are mechanisms for enabling those connections to be made," says Shevach. Still, he adds, "I think that's an area that people are still trying to solve for in a very careful way." Retailigence works with retailers to help them connect with consumers through location-based, real-time data. For instance, it recently worked with retailers to advertise snow products based on severe winter weather and an allergy medication based on areas where the pollen count was high. This is the kind of contextualized advertising that technology is increasingly making not only possible, but economical for marketers.

"What we're trying to do is drive the consumer to purchase a product in a store, and we're doing that in the digital environment," says Shevach. In most cases, but not all, he says, this is done through mobile devices. But it could also be a display ad delivered on a desktop computer or on a smart TV.

As consumers increasingly navigate between multiple devices, the challenge for marketers then becomes delivering them a consistent and, ideally, nonduplicative experience across all of these devices. "That's the biggest challenge," says Shevach. "I just showed my consumer this content, this ad, at this time of day, and oh, here they are again-but on a different device." That's just one of the challenges-and opportunities-that marketers will face moving forward.

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