Website retargeting: hot on the user’s heels

Whether it’s Facebook advertising or running an ad with Google AdWords: website operators are bound to run into the term, ‘retargeting’, sooner or later. As an integral component of most web strategies, remarketing seeks to win over users that have shown interest towards a particular product or company in the past. This means it’s important to always stay hot on the user’s trail so they can be presented with advertising material at a later point in time.

What’s retargeting?

Retargeting refers to a method used in online marketing whereby users are marked with the help of technical aids so they can be presented with relevant advertisements in the future. Given that users theoretically have already shown their interest at some point throughout their prior search history, the goal with retargeting is to address them in such a way that leads to a conversion (i.e. to them becoming a customer). Generally, remarketing is used in the e-commerce industry. When properly implemented, this method carries the potential to increase the relevance of the ads presented to individual users, and by addressing these target groups of ‘potential returners’ in the hope of cutting down on scatter loss.

How does retargeting work?

Understanding retargeting’s technical background requires further explanation of two of its most important components:

  • Cookies: cookies are small files that are automatically saved on a user’s computer when they visit a website. Throughout the surf process, these files then save different bits of information regarding specific elements of the user’s behavior. Settings like the user’s preferred language are then automatically adjusted during future visits. Log-in data is also noted, allowing them to forgo this step should they return to the site at a later date.
  • Ad server: an ad server is a web server that’s responsible for placing different types of advertising content. The different mediums used for an online campaign (e.g. banners) are saved by ad server software and then displayed to potential customers in a targeted matter. Ad servers are responsible for monitoring and ultimately executing campaigns; they also deliver information on impressions and clicks.

When retargeting takes place, ad servers integrate a targeting pixel into the website’s source code. Once a user visits the site, the pixel is called up again and a cookie is deposited onto their computer. While this is happening, the pixel also saves a corresponding reference on the ad server (e.g. ‘visitor X viewed skirt Y’). If the user then visits a site that is connected to the ad server, the cookie is read and then the relevant ad will be shown (‘skirt Y now on sale’).

Additional forms of retargeting

The processes mentioned above aren’t just used on websites with display marketing. Along with website targeting, there are also additional models:

  • Search retargeting: Here, keywords that users have entered into search engines in the past are the main focus. This model is especially used for winning over new customers.
  • E-mail retargeting: Here, users that are known to have received newsletters or other mailings are directly addressed through e-mail channels.
  • CRM retargeting: CRM retargeting employs already-available CRM data, like e-mail addresses or zip codes, in order to reach customers online.
  • Social retargeting: with social retargeting, marketers are able to directly address users of social media networks, like Facebook or Twitter.

Advantages of Remarketing

Retargeting seeks to turn undecided perspective shoppers into customers. By confronting users with ads after they've visited a website, a reminder of sorts about the company or brand in question is signaled to the viewer. These efforts increase the brand’s appeal and recognition. Tailoring ads to specific target groups helps cut down on scatter loss and cost, and ultimately helps achieve a higher click through rate (CTR).

Addressing the target group

Properly addressing target groups is one of the most important factors for a successful ad campaign; the same also applies to remarketing. Not all ‘returners’ are the same – what counts here is what stage of the purchasing process users are in during their initial visit. For this, marketing experts follow the AIDA model. This acronym refers to the four phase potential customers go through before finally making a purchase:

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action


During the first phase, users are aware of the brand and, under certain circumstances, may have already seen ads and logged on the product’s website; however, at this point, no clear intention of purchasing a product can be derived from the customers’ actions. In order to increase the brand’s profile, specifically targeted banners are displayed through retargeting measures. These ads shouldn’t aim to take the customer directly to the product or service’s site; instead, they should should steer them to blogs or social media pages where they can then find more detailed information and start to build up trust in the brand or product.


Once the user has clicked through the product page and has spent a bit of time looking at the offers, it’s then safe to say that some sort of legitimate interest in a purchase exists. Marketers can then run banners with corresponding ads to customers; the goal here is to excite interest in the product. By steering users to pages with high-quality offers, the chances of a concrete purchase occurring are boosted.


In this phase, it’s clear that users have a clear intention on making a purchase. Different products have been viewed, prices have been compared, and perhaps some searches with transactional keywords have been made (e.g. ‘buy coat brand XY’). A transaction seems imminent, and marketers can help finalize one with the help of targeted banners highlighting USPs (unique selling propositions), like free shipping.


Users in this phase have decided to purchase an item offered on a particular product’s or service’s website. After this step, customers are now familiar with the online store and how products or services are ordered on it. And by carrying out measures to increase customer loyalty, the odds of subsequent orders also increase. Addressing return customers is also an option, as their prior transactions are already known. Providing further information on the purchased product or service gives customers a greater sense of trust. Next, the campaign is continued by advertising traditional follow-up products.

Criticisms of Remarketing

Remarketing tactics are often the subject of criticism, especially in regards to Big Data. User information collected through cookies is compiled into massive data sets that not only affect user privacy, they are also prone to misuse. Those responsible for running commercial websites should make sure to also include a line that anonymizes users’ IP addresses when adding code snippets.

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