The Evolution of Facebook as an Ad Platform: Contextual Targeting Has Yet to Come

Opinion: Striking the right balance between the needs of consumers and advertisers remains an ongoing challenge

Improving contextually targeted content marks the next big step lvcandy/iStock

Lured by the site’s 2.234 billion monthly users, marketers have flocked to Facebook in droves, driving a disproportionate share of the growth in digital ad spending. But nagging questions swirling around third-party data usage and the changes ignited by the Cambridge Analytica firestorm are forcing marketers to get creative with their ad-targeting strategies.

As marketers adjust to this brave new world, Facebook continues to roll out a suite of new innovative formats and tools for advertisers, such as augmented reality, playable ads and unskippable Stories. While these new ways of reaching consumers are a boon to advertisers, Facebook still has a great deal of ground to cover.

A shifting landscape

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook eliminated partner categories, a tool that allowed data-mining companies to access user information beyond their activity on Facebook and target them accordingly.

Similarly, the social network’s redesigned privacy tools now give users more control over the advertisements they see, the ways they interact and the amount of information they share.

These changes reflect Facebook’s dedication to user privacy but pose challenges for advertisers, which need to find innovative ways to reach consumers.

The evolution of innovation

Beyond changing existing features, Facebook is introducing new features reflecting the evolving marketing landscape. Through AR, playable ads and unskippable stories, Facebook is leading the deployment of innovative advertising techniques.

The new AR ads cater to high-paying advertisers by enabling users to try virtual renditions of various products before purchasing.

Playable ads capitalize on the growth of videos, especially across mobile platforms, by giving users the opportunity to experience games before purchasing them. This feature is meant to drive more high-intent installs, and it is already seeing promising results.

Another new feature, unskippable Stories, harnesses the story creation and user consumption boom, which has increased by 842 percent since 2016. Stories may become the primary way for people to share information with friends, and advertisers are seeking ways to monetize viewership. Facebook would be able to charge more for premium advertisements and promise much higher impact in return, while publishers would benefit from an increase in time spent on pages, leading to higher user engagement.

While these additions have increased reach and engagement among potential clients, brands’ needs are continuing to change rapidly. Facebook, as an advertising platform, must continue to keep its finger on the pulse of the marketing industry to meet these needs.

The contextual ‘black hole’

As brands shift toward contextual intelligence, transparency and control over ad placement are top priorities. This will enable them not only to control which Facebook users they reach, but to ensure that they’re accessed in exactly the right context.

Although often confused, brand safety and contextual targeting are not synonymous.

Brand safety concerns any negative content that in proximity to a brand, with potentially damaging reputational consequences. Facebook’s machine learning scientists are monitoring the platform for harmful user-generated content to ensure (as close as possible to) 100 percent brand safety for its advertisers. Marketers want to know what negative content may be contaminating their image, but the next step is allowing them to determine which content they do want to appear alongside their ads.

So, what about contextual targeting?

Contextual targeting relates to the material surrounding the ad that will match brand values and sentiment. Placing advertisements in a context that enhances positive brand messages adds measurable value to campaigns, ensuring that messages reach the right users at exactly the right moments, and allowing the brand messages to sink in and achieve optimal resonance.

It follows, then, that contextual targeting is a powerful ally for brands seeking to make sure that every dollar devoted to their campaigns represents a dollar well spent.

While many marketers are under the perception that these capabilities already exist, contextual targeting is only beginning to fulfill its potential. Indeed, Facebook already allows for very specific targeting by content and interests. Sure, you can reach a user based on their interest in basketball, but that targeting does not ensure that ad placement will be adjacent to basketball- related content.

Moving forward

Facebook recently unveiled its newest ad control tool, meant to give advertisers pre-campaign insight into the exact placement of advertisements before purchase. The tool will allow for more transparency, and it underscores that Facebook is taking measurable steps to meet its pledge of user accountability. While this feature includes some contextual intelligence in the text component, Facebook has yet to analyze images and videos to provide the data that will allow them to reach users in the right visual component.

Through enhancing natural-language-processing, image-recognition and video-recognition technologies, Facebook will have the additional technology needed to analyze content and better service the needs of both advertisers and users alike.

Improving its contextual intelligence offerings will position Facebook to remain ahead of the curve in managing the complicated relationship between digital advertising and brands. Moreover, brands will enjoy access to greater transparency and control, without Facebook losing autonomy and compromising user privacy. Contextually relevant ads will also significantly improve user experiences and engagement, potentially generating a boost to Facebook’s advertising revenue.

In recent months, Facebook has instituted reforms that reflect a change in the consumer market and an evolution in the rapidly expanding digital advertising environment. Although striking the right balance between the needs of consumers and advertisers remains an ongoing challenge, improving contextually targeted content marks the next big step in meeting the needs of users and advertisers alike.

Gil Becker is CEO of video-content library AnyClip.