ad retargeting


Ad retargeting is on the rise — those ads that stalk you across the internet after you’ve even briefly visited a company’s site. Google is even testing cross-platform ad retargeting, so a site that you visit from your desktop can lead to ads served on your mobile devices.

The potential of retargeting is huge for marketers — highly relevant advertising. The ads promise to reach audiences that have already shown interest in a brand by performing some action on their website.

But retargeting is still a blunt instrument. Visiting a site is not necessarily a signal of intent. Even adding a product to a shopping cart doesn’t mean that you’re interested in advertising about that product. Retargeted ads appear for products you decided against or products you ultimately bought somewhere else. Sometime a store that actually sold you a product will continue to try to sell you that same product in retargeted ads.

Ad retargeting can also seem a little creepy as products you’ve browsed follow you around the internet for weeks. Danny Sullivan wrote an interesting article on “How Ad Retargeting Ruined Christmas” about the ads that divulged his wife’s Christmas shopping list. Christopher Ratcliff wrote about how ad retargeting nearly spoiled his wedding proposal as ads for engagement rings continually popped up on his laptop until he remembered to delete his cookies.

What’s more annoying than a badly targeted ad is an ad that acts like it’s well-targeted, but still misses the mark. This advertising assumes that it knows you, like my cartoon riffing on Minority Report.

Tesco’s Luke Vinogradov recently shared an interesting perspective on the importance of relevance in communication:

“There are some retailers that follow me around everywhere I go. I have since purchased the products they push at me, but they just didn’t pick that up. Ad retargeters do the brands they are serving a great disservice every time they bug me about something I already own.

“If you overmarket to customers they pull back. For irrelevant communications the right number to send out is zero. For relevant communications the right number can potentially be very high. Don’t ping me every day about something I only buy twice a year.”

We’re still in the awkward adolescence of ad retargeting. The promise is revealing itself, but so is the potential to irritate the very people you’re trying to reach in such a targeted way. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on the role of ad retargeting.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

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15 Comments

  1. Jocelyn says:

    I think a lot of marketers jump on the re-targetting bandwagon without really having an overall strategy around their digital marketing efforts. Given the increase in the number of customer touch points, there’s more and more need for messages to be orchestrated, aligned, timed, etc. without this, the ads may as well have been published to the broader base as it just comes out as spammy at the end of the day.

  2. Matt says:

    Banner retargeting is an incredibly complex and interesting subject.

    The idea of the ad being annoying to a user right now because it is not smart enough to understand the real life context of the purchase cycle versus the ‘promise’ of smarter advertising which means the ad companies need more data points on you and everyone else using the internet.

    I personally dont have a problem with data collection for ad targeting, as actual PII data is illegal, but to people not as aware of the digital ad industry (which is the majority) it seems quite difficult to take in. Its a very prohibitive issue for advancement of banner retargeting.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Facebook allows us to specify that we’re not interested in a particular ad type. I think targeted ads should do the same. Let the user say “no longer interested” and then stop stalking.

  4. DSprogis says:

    Great post Tom.
    At re-targeting is not only annoying, it is a waste of ad dollars. The consumer is already aware of the product and may even have bought it.
    Ad dollars are better spent reaching new eyeballs.

  5. Ariel says:

    Ad retargeting is a nuisance since most marketers don’t use it properly:
    - Assuming that a visit to a web site means that you intend to make a purchase on that site is wrong
    - Insisting won’t make me change my mind: why do marketers give the same reasons to buy the article though I didn’t buy it on the first time?
    Retargeting can be properly used by identifying clearly through web analytics the intent of the visitor (did you visit 1 article? many articles of the same category? many articles of many categories?) and extending its usage for actions not directly related to sales (account creation, brand enhancement…)

  6. Trois Hart says:

    I would say there’s a distinction to be made between types of products and length of buying cycles. For example; the traditional undergraduate student seeking a university has a buying cycle of up to 24 months. Staying relevant and retargeting those students is certainly a difficult balance, but retargeting is incredibly useful in yielding new students as a strategic part of other marketing communications.

    As stated above, overuse of any one marketing strategy can come back to bite you. Balance, relevance and strategy all need to be aligned.

  7. LIsbeth Calandrino says:

    I was just discussing this with the person who handles my online e letter. I recently bought a pair of shoes from Nordstroms.At first I thought it was interesting that another pair of shoes showed up on my Facebook feed. But it doesn’t seem like it will ever stop and I feel like I’m being stalked by a pair of shoes. It would be nice if I could “unsubscribe” to the the targeting also. I like Ariel’s statement about people visiting your site.
    Thanks for the the helpful article on a very timely subject.

  8. Stacy says:

    Great post! I hope smarter retargeting is on the horizon, before we just end up making consumers mad and/or completely creeped out. If I had known more about ad retargeting then, it would have ruined my engagement. As it was, I thought I was just seeing lots of engagement ring ads because it was the holidays. I’m very thankful my lack of knowledge at the time meant the surprise was not ruined!

  9. Mary L. Cole (@euonymous) says:

    One of your better cartoons! We have ALL been there. Retargeting is annoying; more so every time we see the same ad. Somebody will make a lot of money by charging a small fee to block retargetable information from being used against us. Maybe we have to surf the web completely anonymously. That can be done now, although it’s a bother. No more bothersome than daily seeing the same ad for clothing I found undesirable at first sight, I guess.

  10. Cat @carocat says:

    I am fascinated by retargeting – I am amazed how well it can work with some services and how well it can pinpoint it down to individual products.

    That said, there are some websites I will only visit with an incognito session as I don’t want to be stalked by their products forever which in one case was a link I followed off Twitter to a rather creepily looking hare statue that followed me on nearly every website for a month. Here it is if you also want to be stalked: http://www.johnlewis.com/frith-sculpture-hare-alert-by-paul-jenkins/p231596092

    An opt out of certain ads or companies would be great. Or if companies properly set impression caps.

  11. Luis says:

    I do not why, but when I sail on-line I feel like a snail leaving track… and that doesn’t like me so much…

  12. Allen Roberts says:

    When the incremental cost of placing an ad is effectively zero, because supply is virtually unlimited, the platforms that have lost the pricing power that scarcity brings have to find a way to deliver something they can tout as having value, hence “retargetting”.
    They do it because they can, not because anyone is interested. The old advertising “shotgun” approach of pre-net days, and the risk is advertiser invisibility most of the time, annoying the daylights out of most people some of the time, and just very occasionally getting a hit. Question what is the cost of the hit, not just in dollars, but more importantly in brand depreciation that such an approach brings.

  13. Veronica says:

    Retargeting is growing up. I see brands start to get smarter about when and who to retarget, but most importantly know when to stop. If you think about it, when retargeting becomes useless everybody loses: the annoyed consumer and the brand that is wasting money on impression that will never lead to a sale.
    But, when done right, retargeting works. I did a research for a FBX retargeting network the other day and the conversion rate went up 5x when the user was exposed to retargeting. Of course, you need to move out from last-click or CPM pricing madness to make it happen.

  14. Chris says:

    Ah.. so that’s what “Private Browsing” is for. I always wondered whether it had a legitimate use.

  15. Steve says:

    Ruin the surprise? There are many other ways computers/internet can’t keep a secret.
    Annoying? I’d just as soon ignore an ad for something I already have as ignore one for something else I never want.
    Go for the fun and game: I chuckle every time I see an ad for a genre for which I have no interest other than the one time I searched for a particular movie because a friend was an advisor for one genre-independent scene.
    Just LOL at all the computation that went into finding a link between A and B when in fact there is none.

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