Retargeting Basics for Marketers

What is retargeting?

Businesses interact with customers via many different devices, channels and platforms; and are always looking to get a better understanding of how one channel or device impacts another.

With marketing automation tools, we can collect data from our website, send it to our marketing automation platform and then use that information to change display campaigns. This is commonly known as retargeting.

What’s the difference between retargeting and remarketing?

Retargeting is often used to refer to online display ad placements and display ads, served based on a user’s activity on a site.

It Retargeting can be used as a cross-device re-engagement and upsell tool based on upside events. Some cross-device retargeting applications include:

  • Target individuals based on specific products they have viewed, actions taken or actions not taken (such as abandoning a shopping cart).
  • Target individuals based on how they arrived at their site – use an inbound event to customize messaging.
  • Target individuals who are interacting with your email programs.

Remarketing is often used to describe re-engaging customers via email. These may include shopping cart abandonment campaigns, upsells / cross sell emails, and customer lifecycle marketing programs.

Retargeting and remarketing are useful for different customer segments. Remarketing is suited to customers who have expressed a clear interest in buying something, such as adding it to a shopping cart, but didn’t convert.

Remarketing is designed to help you discover why through heavy engagement. What can you do to help a customer convert? What can you do to get the customer to make a purchase?

Retargeting is more about brand association: keeping your brand in the minds of people who are browsing through repetition of messaging. When someone visits your site or app, you will want to periodically remind them of your brand across their devices. When that person is ready to buy, you will be top of mind.

Many marketers use both retargeting and remarketing. Use cross-device display advertising to nurture top of funnel interest to keep your brand fresh in customers minds. Use email remarketing to convert customers who have reached the bottom of your funnel and who are giving you the strongest buying signals.

Why is retargeting effective?

Retargeting is incredibly effective for brand and performance uplift:

1. A second chance at converting a visitor

Retargeting is powerful because it only targets customers that have visited your website, app or landing page. This means that customers have already had exposure to your brand, product or service. As a result, these visitors are more qualified and likely to be persuaded by continued marketing.

For example, if an advertiser is running a PPC search campaign, where you are bidding on a high cost vertical such as car insurance. When the visitor clicks the search ad, you are charged and have a single chance to convert that visitor.

2. Capture first party audience data

Retargeting works well alongside existing Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization efforts. It may be that you already have a large number of visitors from organic search and search engine marketing and are interested in building your own cross-device retargeting list. This can be especially valuable if over 75% of your visitors are one-time visitors that otherwise would have got away.

3. Appear larger than you are

Cross-device retargeting is still an underutilized technique, and using platforms such as Google Display Network, it’s possible to achieve impressive scale.

That means that it’s commonplace for people to believe that an advertiser is running a very large scale advertising campaign: because they’ll see your ads on many of the sites they visit. This can be very useful for overcoming any trust issues with prospects and building a recognizable brand.

Cross-device retargeting is much more than just a performance or conversion-focused tactic. Cross-device retargeting can be very useful for building brand awareness, particularly for CPG brands, even when a conversion there isn’t an immediate conversion.

4. Improved campaign performance

Retargeting campaigns are more cost-effective than traditional campaigns, particularly when the retargeting leverages all of a customer’s devices. Retargeting campaigns only purchase impressions from individual users; only engaging customers who are already interested in your products or services. From a marketer’s perspective, this can translate into high ROI.

Furthermore, because of the increased levels of targeting, engagement is typically higher. It’s not uncommon to see very high click-through-rates with retargeting: these can be anything from 0.25% to 1%. This is between 3 and 10 times higher than the industry average. In display advertising, where you’re paying by the impression, a high click through rate like this can make a big difference.

5. Upsell high-value customers

If you place a retargeting pixel on “conversion” or “thank you” pages, you can build a retargeting list of your most engaged and high value users. This will allow you to retarget them across the devices they use. If these high-value users have converted in the past, there’s a good chance that they will convert again.

While audience lists of converted users tend to be used to exclude users from further marketing activity (to avoid wasting ad spend), they can also be used creatively to fuel retargeting and sequential messaging campaigns. An example of this might be offering a complementary product to the product that the customer has already bought.

Retargeting effectiveness statistics

You might be wondering how effective retargeting is – and if any studies have been done to show the effectiveness of retargeting. If so, you’re in luck.

A 2015 study by Digital Information World found that:

  • Users who are retargeted to are 70% more likely to convert.
  • Display ads get a click-through rate of 0.07%; retargeted ads get a click-through of 0.7%.
  • Retargeted ads have the potential to increase branded search exposure by more than 1,000%.
  • 46% of online marketers believe that retargeting is grossly underused.
  • 49% of major brands have now set aside specific budgets just for retargeting.

How does retargeting work?

There are two main ways to execute a retargeting campaign – pixel-based and list based. Each works in a slightly different way, and has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Pixel-based retargeting

Pixel-based retargeting is the most common form of retargeting. When someone visits your site or mobile app, a pixel is placed in their browser. When the customer browses away from the site or app, the cookie works with marketing automation platforms to display ads based on the pages the customer has visited.

The main advantage of retargeting using pixels is that customers can be retargeted immediately after browsing away from your site or app. Pixel-based retargeting can be targeted around particular pages on your site or screens on your app, and based on a user’s behavior.

The downside of pixel-based retargeting is that the targeting pool is necessarily smaller. Because pixel-based retargeting requires a user to be ‘hit’ by the pixel by visiting your website or app, there are a lower number of people being retargeted at any given time.

List-based retargeting

List-based retargeting uses contact information that you already have in your database. List-based retargeting works by allowing you to upload a list of contacts email addresses to a platform. The cross-device marketing platform then identifies other devices that belong to the owner of that email address, and allows you to serve ads just to them.

Though a little less common than pixel-based retargeting, list-based retargeting works very well with tracking users from offline to online. A brand might, for instance, capture the email addresses and purchases of physical store customers at the Point of Sale, and then retarget those customers across the devices they own.

How do I set goals for retargeting?

Now that we have the background on what retargeting is, how it works, and the different types of retargeting, we can now move onto the goals you should have for retargeting campaigns. The two main goals for retargeting campaigns are awareness and conversion.

Awareness-based retargeting campaigns

Cross-device retargeting campaigns based on awareness are useful for re-engaging website visitors and letting them know about products, services or announcements that might interest them. These display ads tend to be served to pixel-based lists.


The downside of awareness based campaigns is that it gives less of an opportunity for targeting. Typically, recipients of an awareness based campaign won’t have engaged heavily with your brand or purchased anything (though they may have done).


However, this may not matter too much. If you are managing a CPG or automotive brand for instance, your goal may be to make prospects aware of your business rather than drive an immediate conversion: in which case impressions and engagement are the most important metrics to track.

Performance-based retargeting campaigns

Performance goals are exactly as they sound – the goal of the retargeting campaign is to increase performance, by getting users to click on a display ad and take a further step, such as making a purchase or downloading a brochure.

Performance campaigns work well when you have a specific audience in mind (i.e. people who have purchased from you already, or who have added a particular product to their shopping cart) and can be measured with traditional conversion metrics such as clickthroughs, submissions, and Cost-Per-Acquisition.

Regardless of what you are setting out to achieve, it’s important to align the positioning and ad creative with the next stage in the conversion process – whether that’s an offer for a specific product, or a request for a test-drive or demo – with the specific audience that you are showing it to.

Published by

Kristian Carter

Kristian Carter is a marketing technology advisor (MTV, Global Radio, Coca Cola Japan, Uniqlo, Tesco, Automic, Featurespace, MidVision), and has had work featured in The Next Web, Forbes, Huffington Post, and TechCrunch. Kristian has been called a “social media maven,” and has spoken at conferences including LikeMinds, Media140, WebTrends due to his expertise in targeting the youth market. He is a graduate of Oxford University, receiving a B.A. (Hons) in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

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