HomeBlogHow to Drive Low-Cost Conversions with Contextual Display Ads

How to Drive Low-Cost Conversions with Contextual Display Ads

Author: Guest Author
Last Updated: March 3, 2022 | Display Ads

At our PPC management company, we have been able to significantly improve the performance of our client accounts with contextual display campaigns. Nearly all of our accounts benefit from either highly targeted, low-spend campaigns, or from broader high-spend campaigns. From ecommerce businesses to software as a service, contextual targeting through Google’s Display network has proven its value.

In this article, I’ll explain how contextual display advertising campaigns work, and provide an example of a real account that has seen amazing benefits from this campaign type.

Bridging the Gap Between Search & Display: Why Contextual Display Ads Work

Traditional display campaigns can be great at driving brand exposure to a wide audience at a relatively low cost, but it will often be much harder to generate direct conversions through display.

contextual display costs

The average cost per click of a display ad is about a quarter of the cost of a click on the search network.

Just like with many social ad platforms, display campaigns don’t show your ads based on search queries—meaning you may be getting in front of a solid audience, but there is simply no way to guarantee that you are exposing your product or service to them at a time when they need it.

This is why search ads are so effective. By focusing on keywords, you are able to target individuals when they are actively searching for what you sell. You don’t just have to hope you are top of mind when a need arises.

That’s where contextual display comes in. Contextual display allows you to not only get a large audience to see your ads, but to incorporate keywords into your campaigns, making it possible to get in front of the right people at the right time.

How Contextual Display Works

Contextual campaigns make use of websites in Google’s Display Network and support a wide array of display ad sizes, as well as responsive ads, just like any other display campaign type.

When selecting where to place your ads, Google will use the keywords specified in your targeting and display your ads on pages that include those particular keywords. By showing your ads only on pages that use your keywords, you can be more confident of the user’s intent on that page, as they clearly show interest in a relevant subject matter.

This operates in a similar manner to broad match keywords within search ads, making it important to exclude placements and use negative keywords in your campaigns.

Case Study: Contextual Display by the Numbers

One of our most recent success stories with contextual display comes from a client selling a desktop and mobile application for small businesses.

By using the same keywords that were converting in our search campaigns, we were able to increase conversions by 1,600% with the same budget, which in turn dropped our cost per conversion from $825 to $53.

We were using the same landing pages and the same conversions. These sales-ready conversions were free trials and demos of the software. Search ads were highly competitive, making the cost per click more than three times that of our display campaigns.

adwords contextual display

This client’s search competition was heavy, making the need for display essential. With only a $2,000 monthly budget, we needed to find a way to drive far more than just a few free trials each month. Simply put, we were able to increase our conversion rate through contextual display while also increasing paid traffic by 155%.

*Data is based on the 40 days before launching a contextual display campaign and the 40 days after.

Want to try this campaign type out for yourself?

Setting Up Your Contextual Display Campaign

Setting up a contextual display campaign is just like setting up any other display campaign. But when it comes time to set up your targeting, instead of using topics, remarketing lists, placements, affinity or in-market audiences, you will simply select Display Keywords. You have the option to select “Audience” or “Content.”

contextual display settings

Selecting “Audience” will broaden your reach significantly, and turn this targeting into something that is similar to a topic-based campaign. Targeting by content will narrow the audience, helping to avoid unwanted clicks.

The most effective ad groups are those that use a small list of keywords, with very targeted ads to that audience. Breaking contextual display campaigns up into numerous ad groups will allow you to more effectively manage and see what terms are worth pursuing.

How to Select the Best Keywords for Contextual Display

If you have an account with a history of conversions, choosing keywords is going to be nice and easy. All you need to do is select some of your top performing keywords from search campaigns and use similar messaging in your ads, and you’ll likely see good performance from your new contextual campaign. Both responsive ads and designed display ads can perform very well with contextual display, so use whatever your resources will allow.

If you are starting from scratch, use similar ad groups to your search campaigns. Contextual display allows you to bring across the messaging and intent from search, while also adding a visual element. Capitalize on this with catchy images that will contrast with most website ad backgrounds.

Optimizing Your Contextual Display Campaign

Placements are key. Check your placements to make sure your keywords are creating high-quality impressions for your ads. If they aren’t, you have a few options. Exclude the placement, add in negative keywords or remove keywords from your ad group. Filtering your campaigns this way early on is the best way to get results fast.

Some keywords may be causing poor placements. Be sure to add in negative keywords to help prevent poor placements from showing.

Additionally, try testing new display ads. Sometimes, the intent of an individual is slightly off due to the placements your ad is showing on. This gives you the opportunity to tailor your ad, whether designed or responsive, to hit the pain points of that individual. Having well-defined ad groups will make this strategy successful.

For example, our client had display ads running for months that weren’t converting (see below). The ads weren’t the issue, but the targeting was. By simply changing the existing broad keywords to keywords that focused on the terms within the ad, we saw huge improvements.

contextu display ads

Increasing Budget, Without Increasing the Cost Per Conversion

Depending on your target audience, your campaign may be limited in size due to the tight targeting. If you are seeing some strong results, you may want to try increasing your budget, or adding in keywords to expand your reach. Here’s how to do it without hurting your cost-per-conversion.

Include ad groups similar to what is working.

Sometimes, and only sometimes, Google has good keyword suggestions. When adding in contextual keywords, make sure to research them as you would for search campaigns. Also pay attention to your audience size that Google estimates every time you add in a keyword. Don’t be afraid when Google says 0-1k, as these can still yield great results. Some of our best ad groups have a 30k-60k impression estimate.

keyword research for contextual display advertising

Add top performing keywords from search.

Converting keywords from search, regardless of the cost per conversion, should be tested with contextual targeting. Often you can use the same or similar search ad copy within the display ads and immediately see success.

Don’t be afraid to try keywords that were converting at a higher cost than other keywords. It is possible that the lower cost-per-click in display, mixed in with a solid display ad, will make these keywords convert at a lower cost.

Success in eCommerce

When competition rises, your cost per click goes up. One of our clients in the ecommerce vertical experienced just this phenomenon. We had been running search campaigns very effectively, generating hundreds of conversions each month, but competition had steadily been pushing our cost per conversion up. We decided to make a budget shift to display that generated incredible results.

Not only did we surpass our best performing months in history, we increased traffic to the site by 67%, further feeding our successful remarketing campaigns. All without changing the budget.

In a four-month span, three new major players had entered the auction for our keywords, driving our cost per conversion upwards.


contextual display ads conversions

(September was the transition period.)


cost per conversion for contextual display

Shifting the budget away from search allowed us to blow away our impression numbers, substantially increase clicks and nearly double conversions in a time period that normally experiences traffic drops for this industry.

I encourage you to try contextual display out in your own campaigns or with clients, whatever the industry. Feel free to comment with any questions.

About the author

Max DesMarais is an SEO & PPC Specialist for Vital Design, a web design, digital marketing and PPC management company. He manages clients’ Facebook, Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords), and LinkedIn campaigns in a wide array of industries. He is also a part of the SEO department, allowing him to help clients balance efforts on both organic and paid fronts.

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WordStream’s guest authors are experts, entrepreneurs, and passionate writers in the online marketing community who bring diverse perspectives to our blog on a wide range of topics.

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