In my last blog, “Building Your Brand with SEM,” I talked about three different ways to improve brand awareness and reputation using SEM tools. One of these ways is running contextually targeted ads on content networks. There are many content networks, some run by the Web’s biggest names in search. In fact, you can opt in to some content networks just by checking off a box when setting up your SEM for certain search engines. Content networks are directories of content providers (e.g. the New York Times webpage for news, or C|NET for product reviews). Content networks split these content providers and their subsequent webpages into categories by affinity. Companies can thus advertise contextually relevant ads on content provider websites via content networks.

The One Drawback of Search

While SEM is certainly timely and targeted, its one drawback is that you can’t make people search for what you want them to. This seems obvious, but SEM ads, unlike print ads, commercials, or billboards, rely on what the searchers search for. Using content networks, you might be able to partially overcome this drawback while still maintaining consumer relevance. Search marketers often use contextually targeted ads on content networks as a way to expand their search networks. Content network ads cannot replace SEM, but marketers should use them to augment the reach of search.

Contextually targeted ads do not rely on the searcher, but rather on the website content. Websites that have content that relates to an ad might feature this ad, although what ads the content provider features is based on the ad’s relevance and quality score—which is based on clickthrough rate among other things. Contextually targeted ads are a way to introduce new things to people who might be interested in them, but have never heard of them. Just like a commercial that introduces a new product to consumers who would otherwise not know about it, content network ads can show new products to people who would otherwise never search for them. The relative advantage of content networks is that these people have already expressed relevant interests.

The Value of Contextually Targeted Ads

Like I said before, you can’t replace search with contextually targeted ads. Not only is the reach limited, but also the consumers are not nearly as qualified as they are in search. So what is the value of running ads on content networks? The greatest value of contextually targeted ads is increased brand awareness. Typically, ads on content networks get lots and lots of impressions, but only a miniscule percentage of those users actually click on these ads. Of those who do click on the ads, conversion rates are decent, but not usually as good as they are in SEM.

With contextually targeted ads, you get lots of impressions, a low click-through rate (CTR) and a decent conversion rate. This is probably because, although targeted, ads on content networks are not nearly as relevant to the searcher as ads in search. Also, ads run through content networks typically run in remnant space, (the space leftover after content providers sell their banner ads) which is not prime webpage real estate. So while contextually relevant ads may get a lot of views, viewers don’t often click on them. The value still exists though, in driving awareness and increasing brand recognition.

Are Content Networks Worth It?

Search marketers often avoid advertising on content networks because of the purported inefficiency and the typically low CTRs. But the point of using contextually relevant ads is not the same as the point of using SEM. Use content networks to build up your brand awareness, or when you release new products. Plus—with content network ads—you only pay per click, so no need to fret about the low CTRs. Think of contextually targeted ads as a way to spread your SEM reach, and a way to introduce your products to new potential customers.