Is Retargeting Really a Creepy Stalker?

Returning from the holidays fresh at my desk on a toasty Jan 2, Twitter seemed abuzz with people critical of retargeting including reports of how it’s responsible for spoiling people’s Christmas gift surprise. Also on Twitter, the usual tweets calling retargeting “creepy”, “stalker”, etc raised their critical heads amidst other more educational sound bites.


To an industry insider like me, such criticisms of retargeting sound uncannily like that directed towards hitherto unknown technology breakthroughs like Google Autocomplete and back in the 19th century, trains! It’s a result of the general lack of awareness into what retargeting is and how it works. Some criticism is constructive, for example when people complain that ads don’t stop showing up after they’ve made a purchase.

In this column, I’ll try to respond to all of the criticisms and prove that retargeting is a helpful friend rather than the creepy stalker it’s usually made out to be.

Quick recap of website retargeting

Yet again, someone is trying to explain retargeting succinctly. When you want to buy a silk tie or a watch for yourself or family or friend and visit a few pages of an e-commerce site e.g. eBay and not buy, eBay tries to bring you back on to its website and convert you to a customer by showing you ads with ties / watches on them when you visit other websites for news / sports / videos. For a more detailed explanation, please read my previous column: What Makes Retargeting Successful.

How this happens and what data gets stored

1. The advertiser adds a third party cookie to your browser in order to identify you as the user interested in an Omega Seamaster watch.

2. The data stored by this cookie typically includes the pages of the e-commerce website you visited, the time of your visit, your geo location at a city level. This data is typically referred to as non-PII or non-personally identifiable information, because that’s exactly what it is.

3. When you visit a website like say to read news, and if belongs to the advertiser’s publisher network, the advertiser identifies you from the cookie on your browser and shows you a dynamic retargeting ad based on the products you’re interested in.

4. The ads are optimized in order to attract your attention and to entice you into a purchase – the basic premise of all marketing.

Why retargeting is really a helpful friend

  • The cookies on your browser have a maximum life of 30 days. That’s right – so you’ll definitely not be retargeted beyond 30 days since your website visit. Also, considering the rigorous data science behind retargeting products, there’s a high chance you’ll not see retargeting ads for more than a week or two based on metrics like the average conversion period for the advertiser or the industry. As an example, 90 percent of retargeting conversions for baby products happen within 5 days. For hotels, the number is 9 days.
  • Retargeting cookies don’t store PII (personally identifiable information). The data your browser shares through the cookie is used only to gauge your level of interest in the advertiser’s products. They don’t know your street address or anything about your financial accounts or credit cards. They only store data to show you a useful ad as opposed to something out of context or unnecessary.
  • Isn’t seeing an ad for something you’re interested in better than a completely random ad? Take for example the ads I saw today on Facebook. I’m definitely not interested in an MUV or the subject of Hadoop. These ads were shown to me either because of poor segmentation and targetingor because someone in my network clicked those ads. I’d much rather have had the furniture website (that I’ve been visiting to buy a sofa) follow me around till I bought something.hadoop
  • They can be useful. Retargeting ads increasingly use real time data to build ads. As an example, if you’ve been on the lookout for an economically sound flight option for a holiday, retargeting ads can often alert you about a sudden sale or fall in price.
  • They contribute to keeping online content free for consumers. Advertising is the key form of funding for many websites. Thus re-targeting ads contribute towards keeping the Internet and the content that you browse free.
  • Retargeting ads are usually relevant and useful as they’re based on intelligent recommendation algorithms.
  • If you ignore them they tend to go away. Advertisers are getting better with setting appropriate impression caps and identifying users that tend to not click ads.
  • There’s always the option of opting out. Look out for the triangle icon or use cookie blockers or use the browser in a stealth mode.

All said and done, retargeting is still a relatively new marketing tool that advertisers are still getting better at using. There’s a lot that they still need to work on. For instance, understanding users’ ad click behavior, building publisher specificity into campaigns, using frequency caps, using average conversion periods, and marking converted users out of the campaign etc.

Even in its current evolving shape, retargeting is not the devil it’s sometimes made out to be. These campaigns conduct themselves freely and fairly and help advertisers dig deeper to make ads useful and less annoying. Retargeting ads are here to stay. Let’s all contribute towards ensuring they become more intelligent and relevant and also less repetitive or irrelevant.

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