What Is Retargeting?

Definition & Examples of Retargeting

Caucasian woman shopping online with digital tablet
•••

Kevin Dodge / Getty Images

Retargeting is the strategy of serving advertisements to customers on external websites based on their previous browsing history on the firm's website. It's a powerful way to re-engage customers who have previously interacted online with your brand.

Learn how retargeting works through an example, the types and benefits of the strategy, and how to use it to convert website visits into sales.

What Is Retargeting?

Retargeting is an online marketing strategy whereby a firm serves ads to a customer on a social media or other external website that are related to the information the customer viewed earlier on the firm's own website.

The goal of most retargeting campaigns is to call on a prospective to take an action they did not take on their initial visit—known as a "call to action."

How Retargeting Works

You’ve probably experienced retargeting in the past while browsing the web. If you visit a website and look at a product or service, and then notice that the advertisements for that offering start to follow you around the web on other sites, that’s retargeting.

Here's what's happening behind the scenes when you see those ads:

  1. A business puts a snippet of tracking code known as a retargeting pixel on its website.
  2. Each time a customer visits a product or service page on the website, a pixel is downloaded containing information about what they viewed. That information becomes part of a customer profile kept by an ad network used by the business and tracked via a cookie placed in the customer's browser.
  3. When the person visits another website (for example, an email, social media application, or another site with specialized advertising), the cookie tells the ad network—like Facebook Ads—that the person earlier visited the firm's website and viewed specific products or services.
  4. The ad network serves ads to the customer that are broadly applicable to the business or reflect specific products or services that were earlier viewed, accomplishing the retargeting campaign.

You'll never know the exact identity of the person you’re retargeting, but the pixel will contain information about their behavior, allowing you to create a unique user experience based on that behavior.

Benefits of Retargeting

Retargeting is a valuable online marketing strategy for several reasons:

  • It reminds customers of forgotten information: Whether generic or product-specific, retargeting ads put your business back in front of customers, reminding them of the brand's value or the appeal of specific products or services.
  • It boosts return visits to your website: Research has shown that retargeting increases the likelihood that a customer will revisit a business website even when the ad itself has no more information than the customer gained from their initial visit.
  • It can increase sales and revenues: Every return visit provides another opportunity to sell and bring in revenue.
  • It can help you win over the competition: Retargeting reduces the reach of competitors' ads by serving your firm's ads on external websites.

Types of Retargeting

Retargeted strategies can be classified as follows:

  • Generic retargeting: With this type of retargeting, customers are shown generic brand ads when browsing external websites. For example, if you run a travel agency, the ad network might serve general ads for your brand featuring an image of a travel agent or vacation-related imagery.
  • Dynamic retargeting: Firms can also use retargeting to display product-specific ads relevant to an earlier product or service a customer earlier browsed on the firm's website. Going back to the travel agency example, the customer might see ads for a current discount on flights to a certain location.

How to Design a Retargeting Campaign

The marketing campaigns you run via retargeting can be as simple or complex as you’d like. Depending on the desired call to action, a campaign could encourage visiting a specific webpage, supplying an email address through an opt-in form, filling out an appointment form, booking a webinar, or making a purchase.

When you design your retargeting campaign, identify the call to action and then develop a sequence to lead prospects to your goal. You can create sequences that are as straightforward as a user visiting a product page and then getting ads for that product, or as comprehensive as an entire sales funnel or multi-step sequence that culminates in a purchase.

Employ retargeted ads early and often. Research has shown that ads served in the first week after a customer visits a website are more effective than those displayed in later weeks. But ask the advertising network to limit the number of times it serves a retargeting ad to avoid spamming customers.

To provide an example of a more complex retargeting sequence, say you have users visiting a blog post on your site encouraging them to attend an upcoming webinar, but they don’t register for the webinar after that initial visit. By employing retargeting, you can serve them multiple ads that promote the webinar as they visit other sites and social media networks across the web. In this case, you would design a retargeting sequence to build trust and get them to register for the webinar. Here’s how the retargeting strategy might work:

  1. Users visit your blog post through an online ad or a search engine query and get a pixel and associated cookie placed on their computer.
  2. The cookie for the specific webpage of the article triggers the ad sequence.
  3. On days one to four after the customer visits your website, serve the first ad: a video that briefly introduces your brand and explains what you do.
  4. On days five to eight after the customer visit, serve a second ad: a link to an article that talks about the benefits of the webinar.
  5. On days nine to 12 after the site visit, show customers a third and final ad: an invitation to join the webinar.
  6. As soon as the user joins the webinar, fire another pixel that takes them off the first retargeting list and puts them onto a second list that reminds them to attend the webinar.

For complex retargeting campaigns, consider using professional retargeting services, which can set up entire retargeting campaigns for you from start to finish based on your customer’s journey.

Is Retargeting Worth It?

If you have an online presence and get organic or paid traffic to your web properties, you should consider retargeting your visitors who leave your website without taking the actions you wanted them to take on the first visit.

Retargeting reminds your users that you exist after they leave your website and can lead them to respond to the desired call to action, giving you a second chance to persuade or sell to someone who is already familiar with your business offering.

Key Takeaways

  • Retargeting is an online marketing strategy that involves serving customers who previously visited your website with relevant ads as they browse external websites.
  • Businesses must place retargeting pixels on their website to capture customer browsing information, which is held in user profiles kept by ad networks and tracked with cookies. The ad network then serves relevant ads to customers when they browse the web.
  • With generic retargeting, the ads served are broadly applicable to the brand. Dynamic retargeting ads are product- or service-specific.
  • Retargeting can boost return visits and sales and revenue, making it a powerful marketing tool for online businesses.

Article Sources

  1. MIT Open Access Articles. "When Does Retargeting Work? Information Specificity in Online Advertising," Pages 3–7. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  2. Stanford Graduate School of Business. "With 'Retargeted' Advertising, Sooner Is Better Than Later." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.