Why AI alone cannot guarantee better user engagement

It may be one of the buzzwords of the moment, but artificial intelligence (AI) has been a fixture of digital marketing for over a decade now. 

It’s the technology that underpinned the programmatic advertising revolution, which allowed marketers to sit back and let complex algorithms target millions of people at scale based on cookies and demographic data.

It was meant to make online advertising much more relevant to the consumer and, thus, significantly improve user engagement. But, with ad blocker usage still worryingly highand publisher revenues coming under increasing pressure,it’s clear the traditional, AI-driven approach to targeted ads wasn’t as effective as many had thought it was. It might have made things a lot more efficient and measurable for advertisers, but it didn’t make advertising particularly engaging for the people it was intended to serve.

Thankfully though, a new shift is emerging that is seeing brands move away from targeting people based purely on cookies and personal data to harnessing the power of context and consumer intent to vastly improve advertisers’ audience understanding. And, when merged with the sophistication of AI, this new approach promises to boost user-engagement in ways previously unimaginable.

Channel 4 embraces context

Set to be a market worth almost $300 billion by 2023contextual advertising involves pairing ads with the content an internet user is viewing at that exact moment. A recent example of the increasing popularity of context-based strategies was the launch of a new AI-driven advertising technology by Channel 4that allows brands to place ads that are relevant to scenes in linear TV shows for the very first time.

However, while the benefits of context are clear, it’s only when a contextual approach is merged with an understanding of intent that user engagement rates really start to skyrocket.

Capturing consumer intent

Contextual targeting teaches us a lot about when and where people are most likely to interact with digital ads, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us why a person might be more likely to buy a certain product or service. For this you need to take a more holistic approach, analysing the broader omnichannel journey of each user to identify actual signals of intent, for example search data. Advertisers are now able to create detailed maps and anonymous user profiles based on their search activity on both search and publisher sites, allowing them to better predict what else they might be interested in and what they are most likely to respond to.

Using this holistic data view in a way that does not compromise the user’s privacy, brands can then deliver their messages in contextually relevant environments, in the exact instant that consumers search around a given category or subject territory. 

Channel 4’s study has shown a strong correlation between context and brand recall. Now imagine the benefits that could be unlocked by marrying a contextual approach with a genuine understanding of user intent. Research a few years ago from Millward Brown found that as many as 70 percent of potential mobile shoppers could be missed if brands failed to identify intent.

A post-GDPR world

With the upcoming ePrivacy regulations from the EU likely to make cookie-based tracking increasingly difficult, the new rules have been crucial in spurring the current movement towards context and intent. Marketers by necessity have been forced to find new and better ways of targeting people online to avoid the huge repercussions that can result from a strategy based largely on targeting through third-party cookies.

This shift in strategy couldn’t have come soon enough for our industry, with more and more consumers showing their dislike for how brands serve them advertising online. The answer is for advertisers to take a more holistic view of their audience and start putting their needs first. With a digital strategy built around context and intent, and backed by the power of AI, we can finally start to do that and deliver on the holy grail of marketing – the ability to serve ads with the right message, in the right place and at the right time.

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