This is an exercise in trying to figure out whether or not retargeting can be done effectively and responsibly.

Much like similar posts where I looked at native advertising and content marketing, this is also a 'beginner's guide' in which I uncover what is meant by the term retargeting, how it works and what I generally consider to be 'best practice'. 

First of all, let me tell you of my own experience of retargeting and the almost detrimental effect it had on my marriage proposal.

Being the modern man that I am, I used the internet to peruse various ecommerce sites in order to choose the perfect engagement ring for my girlfriend. Being the tasteful woman that she is, I chose one from a specialist online antique dealer. 

We don’t share a laptop, but we do have a fairly open-door policy on privacy in our flat, therefore various gadgets are often left open and browsable when one of us leaves the room.

Now you can probably guess what's going to happen next, but bear in mind this was nearly 12 months ago when I was slightly more innocent of all things digital marketing.

Even today, knowing what I know now, I still wouldn’t expect to be bombarded with targeted ads on nearly half my regular bookmarked sites from companies I’d visited on an engagement ring hunt trying to sell me rings that I had decided against buying. Call me naïve if you will, I probably deserve it.

And bombard me they did, at every available opportunity.

This led to at least three instances of ‘a fast slamming of laptop lid’ when my girlfriend walked in the room and multiple suspicious glances for the folowing month or two until I remembered to clear my cookies, or just proposed. I can’t remember which I did first.

How wrong I was to assume there might be some responsible consideration or forethought on behalf of the jewellery marketers.

At the moment (long after the proposal) the ads I’m currently being targeting with seem to be a little more accurate. Particularly on Facebook, where I’m no longer treated to engagement ring ads. I’m now privy to ads about hiring suits, booking wedding venues and going on honeymoon. 

This is all clearly because I changed my Facebook status from 'single' to ‘engaged’. What will happen when I change it to ‘married’? I would speculate adverts about home furnishings, mortgages and pension schemes.

This isn’t the only place where I’ve recently experienced retargeting. Last week I filled up a basket in an online blu-ray store, only to abandon it at the last minute after a glance at my bank balance.

I now see this ad from the company every time I click on a film website I regularly visit.

This one is effective because it’s relevant to the site itself and actually reminds me that I do want to buy these blu-rays, I just have to wait till pay-day. I would have long forgotten the basket if it wasn’t for this retargeting.

What is retargeting?

As you’ve probably gleaned from the above, it’s a method by which ecommerce marketers can 're-attract' previous visitors who perhaps abandoned a shopping basket, or who browsed some product pages but then left the site for elsewhere.

I've read from numerous sources that only 2% of web traffic converts on its first visit. Retargeting is the tool companies use to reach the other 98%.

How does retargeting work?

It’s a fairly straightforward, cookie-based practice. An invisible JavaScript tag is placed in the footer of a website which leaves a ‘cookie’ in their browser of every visitor.

That visitor will then be targeted with theoretically relevant adverts when they visit other sites.

What types of retargeting are there?

It seems there are many different types of retargeting methods available to marketers, not just 'site retargeting' (the display ads on third party websites as discussed above). Here’s a brief overview of other practices:

  • Search retargeting: This is a form of ‘behavioural retargeting’ where a user of a search engine will be targeted with display ads based on their search queries. The searcher didn’t necessarily visit the advertiser’s site previously.
  • Email retargeting: This should be pretty obvious from the name. Perhaps if a basket has been abandoned by a registered user of a site, an email can be sent to the user to say: "Hey, why don’t you come back and buy that stuff you wanted?" David Moth includes some slightly more professionally written examples in his nine case studies on cart abandonment and email retargeting.
  • Contextual retargeting: Slightly more complicated than site retargeting, but all it really means is that when websites share similar customers, they can partner up to share their cookies. So if a visitor leaves one site and later visits a partnered site, adverts for the previous site will be displayed on the current one.

    Brands don’t have to pay for highly targeted ads, as chances are the people visiting these similar sites generally have the same interests.

Benefits of retargeting

On a very basic level, every time the potential customer of your site sees the retargeted ad, or retargeted email, this will remind them of their former desire to purchase and possibly steer them back.

Cart abandonment can happen for many reasons. Dodgy UX, hidden shipping costs, excessive security checks. In these cases chances are you won’t get that customer back until you improve the functionality of your site (here’s Chris Lake’s advice on how your site can avoid checkout abandonment).

However if it was a simple matter of an outside distraction, a temporary website crash or a last minute check of the bank balance, then it’s always worth retargeting these customers.

Retargeting also helps to create brand awareness and traction through repeated exposure. As I typed that last sentence I could feel the next segment of this article barging into my consciousness.

The problems of retargeting

As I mentioned right at the top of the page, there can be some major negatives in retargeting with personal problems arising after the wrong set of eyes has glanced at your browser.

Yes, I was a moron for not immediately clearing my cookies, but still I feel that advertisers need to take responsibility in the products they choose to retarget.

After a massively blown-out of proportion health scare thanks to my hypochondria, and a search of various symptoms on Google, I was then treated to weeks of retargeted ads from Macmillan the cancer support charity, on sites that had absolutely nothing to do with healthcare. 

In many respects this is brilliant positioning, if you’re worried about cancer you’ll be searching online for support but may be too scared to reach out for it. Macmillan’s retargeting is a constant reminder that there is help out there if you need it and frankly if only one person clicked-through to its site and found some help, then it’s entirely worthwhile.

However if you suffer from health anxiety and are terrible for looking up the most innocuous symptoms on a search engine, this constant reminder from retargeting on websites that are meant to serve as an entertaining distraction from the real world, can lead to more anxiety.

This argument doesn't really stand up though. It's like saying there shouldn't be UNICEF commericials during advert breaks because people don't want to be reminded of starving children while watching Come Dine With Me. Of course they bloody should.

There’s also a major practical concern when it comes to site retargeting effectiveness. Do display ads actually work? I’ve just written an article about good and bad practice in native advertising in which I highlight the fact that 60% of consumers do not remember the last display ad they saw.

Then again those are untargeted adverts and according to SeeWhy 26% of customers will return to a site through retargeting. This is up from 8% of customers who return to a site without retargeting.

More best practice tips for retargeting

  • Ads shouldn’t be retargeted to any customer who has already purchased that product.
  • Retargeted ads should be tailored to individual customers through segmentation. Just because the website I visited happens to sell slippers doesn’t mean I want to buy slippers. I hate slippers.

    Target me with graphic novels and obscure horror film soundtracks because that’s what I browsed through on your weird graphic novel and obscure horror film soundtrack website.

  • Don’t hit customers with the same ad over and over for weeks on end. If that customer hasn’t come back to your site after a few reminders they probably never will. In fact that ‘brand recognition’ will turn into something far more negative.
  • Provide a clear call-to-action button in the ad, and upon clicking through, take the user to a relevant landing page or product page, not just the homepage.

I think that’ll do for now. If there’s anything you can think of in terms of best practice, then please leave a comment below.

Further reading for beginners

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things… 

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 9 January, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (6)

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Paul Lovell

This is a great article.
The business that are not using remarketing are really missing out on a trick.
what better way of turning a non-converting customer to a converting customer that targeting them directly with a great offer.
I hope this article really opens up some people’s eyes to a part of their advertising weaponry they are not taking advantage of

over 4 years ago


Gail Walker

When re-targeting is done well, it's very effective. But there are far too many examples where it's done poorly. For instance, I am still being served ads (very frequently) nearly a month on for car insurance that I actually purchased from said provider. This doesn't make me feel particularly valued as a new customer.

over 4 years ago


Patrick McFadden

I hate to say it, but I have a controversial point of view about retargeting. I think of retargeting as a throwback marketing technique. I think retargeting feels like the savior to people who want to go back to being in charge.

The mindset a of a traditional marketer is that human beings are consumers and that they are captive. That their job is to consume what you make and that you can go get them (their attention) whenever you want.

I’m not seeing a company go from not big to really important merely because they use retargeting.

over 4 years ago


Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Data, Insight & Analytics at Eurostar International Ltd.

Nice article. For me the two major flaws that always fall down in re-targeting are the relevance and timing. The problem is, typically, even a really poorly executed re-targeted campaign will outperform any other display activity purely as a result of coincidence in that you are targeting people who have already shown an interest in the product (by visiting the site previously). As a result, even if the user doesn't even so much as see the ad, there is a stronger chance that they will return to the site than a mass reach campaign against the general public.

The problem with this is as a result, many marketers (and in particular agencies / networks) are content that they have a well functioning re-targeting program (ignoring the fact that their conversion rate, particularly when looked at on a click basis is minuscule). As a result, little is done to limit the timeframes they target over or target intelligently. I've seen more re-targeting campaigns set with a rule of 'a maximum of 3 impressions per day for 30 days' than you could imagine in recent years!

If you manage to target it well (and abandoned basket reminders are an excellent example, especially if they allow you to return to the site with an already pre-populated basket to save you the hassle of having to select everything all over again) then this can be a great way of re-engaging the user.

Another type of re-targeting we're seeing as very effective of late is re-targeting lists for Search allowing you upweight, downweight or even stop showing users ads on a particular keyword depending on their previous behaviour on the site, For expensive generic terms, this is hugely effective and should we reach a point of being able to do so on a one to one basis, could provide a great way to be even more targeted with prices and products relevant to a users exact behaviour,

over 4 years ago


tyler malin, Partner at Exoteric Growth

If you are buying any advertising, retargeting should be very high on your list as it is infinitely more effective then any other form in driving sales. We are seeing clients @exotericgrowth with 300% higher CTR's on retargeted campaigns and you can't argue with the metrics. Now if a client has a sensitive product category there is obviously a responsibility to recognize that and not retarget in an embarrassing or careless way - but engagement surprise ruining jewelry dealers aside the industry has improved significantly in that regard.

about 3 years ago


Jerry Low, Internet Marketing Officer at HIV RNA

Re targeting works best for eCommerce website. I am an affiliate marketer and use retargeting to get my website users back on to my website so that they can buy the products that I promote. I majorly work on

over 2 years ago

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