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Roughly 7 in 10 brand marketers find it difficult to balance audience and context, and it’s not quite as simple as simply trying to achieve both, research from Sizmek [download page] has found. In surveying 522 advertising decision-makers in the US and 3 European countries, Sizmek discovered that targeting both audience and context often has a detrimental impact on the scale and performance of campaigns for 81% of respondents.

In response, almost 9 in 10 hope to increase the scale of their contextual targeting and find new audiences, as 8 in 10 reported that achieving both audience and contextual targeting at scale is either a critical or high priority in the coming year.

The results are interesting in light of a recent study from Lotame, which asked marketers to consider their most important factors when deciding which audience segment to buy. In that survey marketers were far more apt to target accuracy and the quality of data than scale (size of data segment) when making such decisions.

Returning to the Sizmek study and evaluating the audience versus context debate, the results show that there’s a tendency among many to prioritize them equally. However, respondents appear to skew more towards audience than context.

For direct response campaigns, 42% said they’re either “all about audience” (19%) or that “audience is more important” (23%). By comparison, 37% prioritize audience and context equally, whereas fewer (21%) lean more to – or rely exclusively on – context. If you’re keeping score, that means that these decision-makers (most of whom spend upwards of $500,000 on digital media per year) are twice as likely to favor audience over context in direct response campaigns.

There’s a similar pattern in play for brand campaigns, though not to quite the same extent. Some 37% say brand campaigns prioritize audience over context to some degree, while 35% treat them equally and 28% favor context to some extent.

Regulation may play a role in how these sometimes conflicting priorities play out. More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents predict that data privacy regulations – such as the GDPR – will make it more difficult to target audiences using third-party data. As the analysts note, “this means that advanced contextual targeting will become essential to build out new audiences.”

Indeed, almost 8 in 10 respondents plan to improve their contextual targeting in the coming year.

What About Brand Safety?

In the context of discussing context (pun intended), it’s worth examining the recurring issue of brand safety, which continues to be a concern for digital advertisers.

How widespread is the issue? While a slight majority feel they’ve avoided any problems for now, a hefty 38% say that to the best of their knowledge, their brand has delivered ads at some point on harmful webpages.

Complicating the move towards brand safety – which is a high or critical priority for the vast majority of marketers surveyed – are a number of disincentives. For example, almost two-thirds are finding it hard to implement an effective solution, and close to 6 in 10 complain that their current solution is too expensive. Moreover, close to 2 in 3 (64%) have found that achieving brand safety often negatively impacts the speed at which a campaign optimizes.

Still, brands recognize that they can be held to account for these issues. Although consumers typically direct their ire to social platforms rather than brands for privacy and brand safety issues on those platforms, a plurality of marketers surveyed by Sizmek believe that they are primarily responsible for brand safety, not publishers, ad tech vendors or demand-side platforms.

As for what ensuring brand safety even means? Most commonly it’s about blocking the most harmful pages and about managing a blacklist of sites, more so than delivering only on premium publishers or on a whitelist.

Other Findings:

In other highlights from the report:

  • Roughly 3 in 4 respondents agree that artificial intelligence (AI) increases performance in digital ad campaigns, and 81% plan to increase their use of AI in digital display advertising in the next year;
  • Some 63% of respondents agree that “walled gardens” don’t give them enough inventory transparency;
  • 3 in 4 (74%) feel that the context in which ads are delivered is better outside of “walled gardens;” and
  • About 6 in 10 agree that the digital media landscape has become too complex.

About the Data: The results are based on a survey of 522 brand marketer decision-makers from the US (184), Germany (105), UK (154) and France (79). Respondents come from a variety of job levels and industries, and 71% spend at least $500,000 annually on digital media.

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