Context Is King: Getting Started With Contextual Advertising

Billboard advertising on a highway with cars and truck on a traffic light

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4 Dec, 2019

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Quiz time! Are you more likely to have success running an ad for vegan hamburgers at A) a pig roast or B) a vegetarian festival?

If you answered B, then congratulations! You’re correct, and you understand the importance of context when advertising a product. If you answered A, well, it’s a good thing you’re here. 

This guide is all about context, specifically contextual advertising. By the end, you should have a basic understanding of what contextual advertising is, how to run contextual ads, and how to host them on your own site. 

So, let’s start by getting some (excuse the pun) context:

What is contextual advertising?

Have you ever been on a blog about living in a tiny house and seen banner ads for tiny house plans? No?

Then let me show you: 

A tiny house banner ads that can be seen in a website's sidebar

Those ads on the side? That’s contextual advertising: ads that are displayed on sites with relevant content — or context, so to speak.

All in all, the idea behind contextual advertising is simple: place ads in contexts that attract viewers who are likely to buy your product. If your target audience is tiny house buyers, that would mean advertising on a tiny house blog, or some other site focused on sustainable living. 

The majority of the ads you see online or in the real world are actually contextual advertisements. When you click on a YouTube video, for example, the pre-roll ad that comes on is usually based on the video you’re about to watch. The same goes for banner ads, email ads, and magazine ads. 

In fact, it’s easier to point out the types of advertising that aren’t contextual — TV and radio advertisements (assuming they’re not related to the show you’re tuning into), and billboard ads (assuming they’re not localized). 

How does contextual advertising work?

As you can see, contextual advertising is a pretty broad term, so we’re going to focus on digital advertising here. But even within a digital context there’s a lot of diversity, so let’s start with the most popular implementation, and then we’ll go over other ways to advertise later. 

Google AdSense is by far the most common way to implement contextual ads — it’s practically everywhere. In a nutshell, website owners add Google AdSense code blocks (spots where advertisements will appear) to their sites. Then, Google uses their algorithms to scan the site’s content and keywords to determine what the site is all about. From there, advertisers bid on keywords related to their products, and Google places those ads in blocks on relevant websites. 

The end result, if all goes as planned, is that advertisers get their ads placed only on relevant sites with viewers who are likely to click on them. The process of determining which keywords and sites to go after is referred to as contextual targeting. 

Now, although Google AdSense may be the most popular and well-known way to run contextual ads, it’s by no means the only way. Google AdSense is just one ad network among many, and it’s also possible to run contextual advertisements without using an ad network at all.

For example, you can always contact a site’s owner and ask if they’ll let you run an ad. Or, you can set up affiliate partnerships, in which site owners and bloggers advertise your products within their content itself, but we’ll go over both of those a little later on. 

Contextual ads vs other types of paid ads

When you’re trying to decide on the best paid advertising platform for promoting your business, it’s important to understand that they’re all viable tools that do pretty much the same job: bring more traffic to your business with the goal of increasing conversions. While there are differences between each platform, most of your success will lie in how skilled you are with your chosen tool. Because of this, it’s a good idea to start with one type of ad and master it before moving onto the next one.

So, how do you choose? Let’s take a quick look at two of the big contenders in the paid advertising space.

Google Ads

Google Ads are a different beast entirely from Google AdSense — don’t confuse the two. Google Ads are the paid results you see when you do a search on Google. For example:

Search results if you type in Trello in Google search engine

Notice something odd? In this search for the popular list-making tool, Trello, the top result is actually for Asana, Trello’s competitor! That’s because Asana paid for a Google Ad based on the Trello keyword. Now, anyone who searches for Trello will be presented with a web page explaining why their competitor is a better option as their first result. That’s some smart marketing!

Based on this example, you can see that Google Ads perform exceptionally well for prospects near the bottom of the funnel — if someone’s already searching for Trello, they’ve already moved past the awareness phase, and are now decidedly in the research phase. 

Compared to Google Ads, AdSense promotions tend to be more in the awareness phase of the funnel. For example, if you’re advertising on a food blog, most of that blog’s visitors aren’t in the research phase for your product — your goal will generally be to raise brand awareness.

However, there are exceptions to this. If you use AdSense to advertise on a blog post comparing your product to another one, then you’ll be targeting someone at the bottom of the funnel as well. 

Facebook and Instagram ads

Facebook and Instagram ads aren’t based on context. Rather, they’re based on your behaviors and your likes and interests on those platforms. If you know what you’re doing, they can be an extremely powerful way to target prospects who are likely to convert. 

One major benefit of Facebook and Instagram ads is that, unlike Google Ads and AdSense ads, they’re unaffected by ad blockers that users may employ.  Facebook and Instagram Ads are also quite cheap compared to Google Ads, so that’s another clear bonus. 

For the most part, Facebook and Instagram ads are worth considering for most businesses, especially if your target audience is likely to be on either of the two platforms. 

Running a contextual advertising campaign

If you’re set on running a contextual advertising campaign, you’ve basically got three options to choose from: using a network like AdSense, making a private deal with a company, and setting up an affiliate partnership. 

No matter which option you go with, you need to make sure you have a clear idea of who you’re marketing to. Without truly understanding your target demo, you’re going to be D.O.A. 

Once you’ve got that nailed down, here’s what you need to choose between:

Ad networks

Ad networks like Google AdSense,, and Adsterra place your ads on relevant websites for you, without forcing you to make deals with individual sites on your own. Advertising through these networks is a streamlined process similar to launching a PPC ad campaign

If you’re just starting out with contextual advertising, AdSense is generally the way to go, if not just for the huge amount of documentation and advice you can find about using the platform online. Google’s reach is huge, and their contextual targeting tools are extremely robust and precise. 

Private deals

If you prefer to have a more personalized interaction with your preferred ad publisher, you can try to strike up a private deal with a website owner. Doing so requires a bit of negotiation skill, but you can sometimes get a better rate than you could if you were to use an ad network.

Furthermore, being in a private advertising deal with a website offers you a level of security against a major ad network’s constantly shifting policies. These days, compliance with each advertising platform’s policies is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for businesses that are paying for ads. We’ve all heard horror stories of sites suddenly having their organic traffic all but destroyed due to a sudden change in a search algorithm, so when you enter a private deal, you’ll be safe from a similar type of disaster, like having your ad campaign suddenly disapproved due to an overnight policy change, at the very least.

Affiliate partnerships

When you advertise through an affiliate partnership, your affiliate will include your advertisements in their content. For example: if you have a YouTuber as an affiliate, they might end their videos with a short, personal recommendation for your product.

The benefits of this are pretty clear: influencers, bloggers, and vloggers have tons of fans that trust them. When they promote a product their fans treat it as a personal recommendation from a friend, which means there’s a very high likelihood of conversion.

If you want to advertise with an affiliate partnership, you’ll need to start by finding a blog, influencer, or other content producer that reaches your target demographic. Then, discuss a compensation structure with them. You can either do this as a lump sum, i.e. $500 for an Instagram post, or you can provide them with a link that tracks sales and award them a commission for every sale that’s made.

Email and newsletter ads

Email is by far one of the most profitable marketing platforms around. With an average ROI of 3,200%, email marketing needs to be on every marketer’s radar. 

However, most people don’t realize that you can use the power of email even if you don’t already a huge list built up just by placing ads in other businesses’ emails. In fact, doing so is a form of contextual marketing: you find a relevant business, and then you place your ads in their emails. It’s pretty similar to running ads on a blog. 

To get started, you can use a platform like Ampjar, which connects you to brands selling email advertising space. 

Hosting ads as a publisher

If you run a blog or a website, there’s no doubt that monetization has crossed your mind. Out of all the monetization options available to publishers, hosting advertisements and promoting affiliate products are the two most popular, so let’s take a look at what’s involved. 

Signing up for an ad network

If you want to run ads on your website, your best bet is going to be Google AdSense. To sign up, you’ll just need to fill out a form on the AdSense site. However, Google takes quite a while to vet everyone that signs up, so don’t expect to be up and running right away.

To expedite the process, make sure you don’t have any content that violates any copyrights, that you have proper legal pages on your site (terms and conditions, privacy policy, etc.), and you have high-quality content. 

When signing up for AdSense, there are two things you need to be wary of: diminishing your site’s credibility and being beholden to Google’s shifting policies. 

Unfortunately, placing ads on your site can hurt the viewer experience and make your site feel a bit spammy. Stay cognizant of this when considering running ads on your site, as it’s always possible you can damage your site’s reputation a bit when ads start showing up.

You’ll also need to remember that Google can ban your AdSense account at any time. Because of this, it’s important that you don’t rely on AdSense as your sole revenue source. It’s unfortunately all too common for sites to be generating revenue one day and completely banned the next with no clear reason. In fact, if someone simply doesn’t like your business, they can start clicking your ads, and get you banned for ad manipulation. 

Affiliate partnerships

Affiliate partnerships are another popular option among content creators looking to make a pretty penny from their websites. In short, an affiliate partnership just means promoting someone else’s products organically in your content. 

For example, if you run a financial planning blog, you might do a roundup of all the best credit cards, and include affiliate links to each of your top picks. Each time someone clicks your link and signs up, you get a commission. 

You can set up private affiliate agreements, or seek out pre-existing ones. Most bloggers go for the latter, but if there’s a business you really want to promote that doesn’t already have an affiliate program, you can always reach out to them and negotiate one on your own. 

One of the primary benefits of affiliate partnerships over ad networks like AdSense is that they diversify your income. AdSense is entirely dependent on one network, but when you engage in affiliate marketing, you typically have quite a few products you’re linking to, reviewing, and promoting. That way, if one partnership fails, you always have a few to back it up. 

In the end, contextual advertising should play a key part in almost every business’s marketing strategy. We hope that this guide has given you a base to start from. 

If you have any questions on marketing, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at!

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