What is retargeting?

For those (like me) whose only previous experience of retargeting is being chased around the internet by a Flymo electric 900w lawnmower, I’ll briefly explain what the term means. 

Retargeting is a method of re-attracting visitors who’ve browsed products on your site without actually buying them.

Through the use of cookies, visitors can be targeted with ads relating to those previously abandoned products as they browse through other websites. 

What if it happened in real life?

Picture this: you walk into Argos, flip through The Laminated Book of Dreams (as Bill Bailey calls it) and decide that, on second thought, you’ve got all the Flymo electric 900w lawnmowers you need. 

You’re tired of shopping now, so you wander down the road, pick up a newspaper and settle down in a nice little café.

As you sit down to enjoy your coffee a poster on the wall catches your eye. It looks… strangely familiar. You lean in closer. And when you see what’s written there beneath a gleaming picture of a Flymo electric 900w lawnmower you nearly spit your drink across the wall.

“Hi Jack. We know you were browsing our shop back there. We’ve been watching you. Please come back and have another look. We’re waiting for you…”

Yes, I’m totally exaggerating to prove a point. But let’s face it, exaggerating is fun and the concept of retargeting is fundamentally creepy if it isn’t executed in the right way. I’m saying this as a consumer, not a marketing expert.

In the above example the retargeting feels weird because it’s out of place and unexpected. The same applies when thinking about retargeting online. 

Retargeting should help, not intrude

This article is not intended to bash retargeting. When used properly I have no doubt that it’s an effective marketing tool and can actually be useful to the consumer. After all sometimes I do forget where I saw the really cool thing I wasn’t quite ready to buy yet.

But the way it can achieve this is by being helpful rather than intrusive. Easier said than done of course, but there are some basic principles that can help.

Don’t skimp on the creative

Spending your time building retargeting ads for Flymo electric 900w lawnmowers might not be what you spent your uni days dreaming about, but strong creative is just as important in this format as it is in any other. 

Look at this example from Natwest. Through the use of animation the ad manages to tell a fairly engaging story within the confines of a tiny square box. If nothing else it makes you want to watch until the last frame.

Natwest retargeting

Natwest retargeting

Natwest retargeting

Nat west retargeting

Natwest retargeting

Tailor to individuals

Like anything in marketing or advertising, taking a blanket approach is unlikely to achieve much. For the best results, retargeting should be tailored to the individual user. 

Argos, for example, seems pretty intent on selling me this television. But I haven’t been searching for televisions on Argos or any other site (in this browser at least). 

The creative on this ad is, incidentally, an abomination.

Argos retargeting

I might be interested in buying a television, but it’s a long shot given that I can’t remember the last time I browsed for one. Sticking to products I’ve recently shown an interest in would be a safer bet.

Provide value

Let’s go back to my frankly ludicrous story about coffee shops and Flymo electric 900w lawnmowers. If the poster had read: ‘We saw you were looking at lawnmowers. These ones are 20% off at the moment’ I’d have forgotten all about the creepiness (probably). 

Why? Because I genuinely was looking at lawnmowers with the intention of buying one at some point (why else would anyone look at lawnmowers?), so a 20% discount is going to be useful to me and might make my buying decision easier. 

In short, I now have a reason to engage with the ad because it offers me something in return.

Here’s a nice example of this from Waitrose. If I’d been trying to decide which online supermarket to use I reckon the free bottle of champagne would have swayed me, for the first order at least. 

Waitrose retargeting

Waitrose retargeting

Go easy on the frequency

One very easy way to make your ad appear spammy is to show it to the same person too many times. At worst, it could actually harm your brand’s image in the eyes of the person being bombarded. 


Putting a frequency cap on your retargeting display ads is a simple way to get around this issue. That said, you want people to have a good chance of seeing it, and of course it depends on the type of product or service you’re selling. 

The best way to get the balance right is to test different frequencies and see what works, although if someone sees the same ad more than 30 or so times in a month I’d say that’s moving into overkill territory. 

Stop retargeting converted customers

Not only is this annoying for the consumer, it’s also a massive waste of money for the advertiser. 

The quickest and easiest way to avoid this is by using a ‘burn pixel’ (I definitely had to look that one up). A burn pixel is a snippet of code you can place on your post-checkout page that will ‘untag’ users who’ve made a purchase and stop them being targeted for further ads. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t target them with a different campaign of course. You could show them products that compliment the purchase they’ve already made, for example. 

Conclusion: quality over quantity

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I am by no means an expert when it comes to retargeting. But all of the above has been written from the point of view of a consumer who does pretty much all their shopping online.

Some of the points I’ve made probably seem like common sense to most marketers. But when companies like Argos are making basic mistakes there is a real opportunity for brands to win customers through better quality retargeting campaigns.