The Simple Truths About Why Retargeting Is Broken

As a parental co-founder (or dad) of 3 girls, I often have to teach them hard truths for their own good – ‘no, your science experiment can’t be asking your sister to stick a fork in an outlet’, ‘no, you can’t marry your 8 year old boyfriend’ and ‘you are absolutely not going out in that!’.

Sometimes, as marketers, we also need to hear similar truths – I particularly find myself telling those about the myths of ‘retargeting’.

No, site retargeting is not a prospecting tool

No, using 5 simultaneous site retargeting vendors is not a good idea, even if they all think they are doing a great job

and my favorite…

Your digital marketing performance is not as awesome as it looks because your site retargeting is hiding the real results’

These aren’t new ideas by any means, but it feels like there are only a few of us openly saying them. In part, it’s because marketers don’t want to hear them due to the ‘retargeting high’ – they are seeing some great results, which in turn makes them look great, and so want to believe in them and keep them coming.

Yet, the CMO or budget holder needs to be responsible for understanding what these retargeting truths are so that they can ensure their teams are using them correctly, measuring it correctly and not making big mistakes with budget allocation.

Truth #1:  Site Retargeting Is Not A Prospecting Tool

The very definition of site retargeting is to show display ads to those people who have visited your site before – that is not prospecting, it is conversion optimization!

Site retargeting is never going to find you someone new, its only pool of opportunity is people you have already paid to bring to your site – it may help people buy from you for the first time, but it will never find that new person in the first place.

Just like my daughter should be doing science experiments (just not with her sister, a fork and AC power), you should absolutely be doing site retargeting, but not with the expectation that it will find you net new customers.

A tactic that is (surprisingly) still relatively unknown is Search Retargeting – this is a prospecting tool and is designed to find brand new people. It works by finding those individuals who have searched for a term relevant to your business, but who have NOT yet visited your site.

Truth #2: Why Using 5 Site Retargeting Vendors Is Not A Good Idea

I hope many of you are rolling your eyes at this one and thinking that such a situation can’t be common? You would be amazed!

I was in with an agency team just a few weeks ago who are using 5 different vendors on their client’s site, all of which are specialist site retargeting companies, all have their pixels on every page. The overlap in targeting is crazy. Every vendor is giving the agency a report from their own systems that show they are kicking ass, and so the agency keeps increasing their budgets.

Every vendor is targeting the exact same audience. Every vendor is taking credit for the same conversions. The reality of this came as quite a shock. Now, that said, there are occasions when using more than one site retargeting vendor makes sense, but this has to be managed very carefully with exclusion rules and is not very common.

Note that Search Retargeting, despite the ‘retargeting’ tag, does not overlap with your site retargeting buy, it is talking to the exact opposite audience whilst it’s doing its prospecting job.

Truth #3: Site Retargeting Is Giving You A False View Of Performance

This is a big one, the one that has some marketers giving me the same look at my daughter did when at 9 years old she wanted to go out wearing what could only be described as stripper shoes!

To understand, it takes some understanding of attribution, how ad servers work and what each of the main 7 types of retargeting are actually doing.

Put simply, at the center of the problem are tools like DoubleClick; ad servers that are used commonly to make the whole process of marketing measurement simpler. But in that lies the problem – they provide an over-simplification of your data, and that leads to bad budget allocation.

The ad server will look at all the conversions each marketing tactic is claiming to have generated, and because many of these tactics will overlap with each other, the total number of supposed impressions equals more than what has actually taken place.

To overcome this problem, the ad servers most commonly use a last-touch model – the last tactic to touch the individual convertor with an impression or click gets all the credit.

Given the very role of site retargeting is to find those people who are in the final stages of consideration, by its very nature it will and should get the last touch – often unfairly.

Some say that if the person left the site then site retargeting should get all the credit for getting them back, but this doesn’t work in a multi-tabbed browsing world.

On my laptop right now I have Chrome (for personal stuff) and Safari (for work stuff) open – in Chrome I have 7 tabs, and in Safari I have 9. In Chrome, I opened a session to book a flight and hotel for a trip next week but am waiting for someone to confirm the times on Skype, and so I am in another tab doing research for this article and am seeing retargeted ads for the airline and the hotel.

Another example: Let’s say you use something like Search Retargeting to find a brand new individual who has never been to your site before, and during the consideration process they do some price comparison elsewhere; they then see a site retargeting ad before coming back to convert.

With a last touch model, the site retargeting buy looks awesome, and the prospecting buy looks not so hot, even though without it, site retargeting would have had no one to talk too.

I have seen marketers cut budget from their prospecting buys simply to give it to their site retargeting company, who then struggles to spend it wisely because the cookie pool is getting smaller.

Simple Truths, Simple Fixes

It doesn’t take much to get back on track. Both Site Retargeting and Search Retargeting are great tools for the marketer, but now you understand what they are meant to be doing, you can use them more appropriately. Now, I am off to go buy my daughter some new shoes.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Display | Search & Display


About The Author: is the Chief Strategy Officer at Chango, the solution to programmatic marketing and "big data", and is based in San Francisco and London. You can follow him on Twitter @DaxHamman.

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  • Tiggerito

    Could retargeting be used to block competitors out of the advertising space? If so, is this bad for Google as they may get less. Clicks.

    On most websites I now see the same business domination all ads. Why would I click as I’ve already checked them out months ago.

  • Pat Grady

    Excellent! Our clients often buy the hype (and misattribute it’s value), glad to see you discuss reality.

  • Alex Acker

    Search re targeting is good in theory however I’ve seen it perform wildly from successful to not even close. I agree that it’s purpose is to capture NEW users that are low within the purchase funnel, however the method in which certain vendors/networks hit users varies so I would investigate the processes before investing.

  • Steve Masters

    “It works by finding those individuals who have searched for a term
    relevant to your business, but who have NOT yet visited your site.”
    That is not search retargeting, it is what Adwords has always done. People search for something, your ad appears as a result. It’s targeting, not retargeting.

  • Dax Hamman

    Tiggerito – Not really. You could have a high saturation campaign for anyone that has searched for competitors, but unlike SEM, you can’t simply bid higher and own all the media. Nice idea though.

  • Dax Hamman

    Hi Steve – there are similarities, but because the ads are shown away from the search event itself, it is the action of the search that is being retargeted. But I am not married to the term by any means! If we could go through the search retargeting big bang again, I wouldn’t have called it ‘search retargeting’.

  • Dax Hamman

    Alex – completely agree! If not done right then it can fail miserably. You need keyword-level capability and really smart people. Our algorithms are great, but smart client services people make a big difference. The entire RTB industry is less mature than many think.


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