An open letter to critics of retargeting

Dear Internet User,

I write this letter to you on behalf of many, if not all, who are in the business of retargeting ads. Being a marketer in the retargeting industry, I keenly follow the term ‘retargeting’ on Tweetdeck. And sometimes I find users tweeting about retargeting ads with terms like “annoying”, “stalking”, and “creepy”.

twitterfeed1 twitterfeed2 twitterfeed3

A few years back when researching for a splendid writing desk for my home office, I was peppered with retargeting ads every time I browsed my favourite news / hobby website. Since I knew how cookies worked and yet did not bother using a cookie blocking product / a safe search mode on the browser, I wasn’t alarmed as much as our friends above (images inset). I wanted to use this letter as a medium to dispel misconceptions about retargeting and also highlight the right way to do retargeting (as a message to advertisers reading this).

Why retargeting is more of a friend than a stalker:

  • Cookies are active for only 30 days. Yes that’s right – so you will definitely not be retargeted beyond 30 days since your website visit. Also, considering the rigorous data science behind retargeting products, there is a high chance you will 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, Vizury research shows 90% of retargeting conversions for baby products happen within 5 days. For hotels, the number is 9 days.
  • Cookies don’t store PII or Personally Identifiable Information. So we don’t know much about you other than the date you visited the advertiser’s website, the pages you saw, and the time you spent. The data your browser shares through the cookie is used only to gauge your level of interest in the advertiser’s products. We don’t know where you live or anything about your financial accounts / credit cards. We only know enough to try to show you a useful ad as opposed to something out of context / unnecessary.
  • Isn’t seeing an ad for something you are interested in better than a completely random ad? Take for example the ads I saw today on Times of India (TOI is one of India’s leading news websites). I do not live in Mumbai and so am definitely not interested in buying real estate there.

irrelevant ads

Or take for example, when I log into Facebook I find the following ads to the right of my newsfeed I am definitely not interested in an MUV or the subject of Hadoop.

irrelevant ads-2

These ads were shown to me either because of poor segmentation and targeting (the TOI ad) or because someone in my network clicked those ads (Facebook). I’d much rather have had the furniture website follow me around till I bought something or they lost interest in me.

  • They can be useful! Retargeting ads increasingly use real time data to build ads. As an example, if you have been on the lookout for an economically sound flight option for a holiday, retargeting ads can often alert you about a sudden sale / fall in price.
  • They contribute to keeping online content free for us. 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!

It is also fair to acknowledge that sometimes a retargeting campaign can indeed become annoying. Retargeting ads then feel like an admirer who has failed to read the signs, or in this case failed to utilize amply available data for the best user experience. Here are some ways in which retargeting vendors like Vizury ensure that retargeting ads are useful:

  • Make the ad very relevant and useful through intelligent recommendations: we build complex algorithms which understand the best recommendation logic, the most optimum content to be shown on the ad to make it useful for the user.
  • Bid high only for impressions of most valuable users: we use a series of algorithms to nano-segment the advertiser’s user base and determine which segment is most valuable and likely to convert. As an example, someone who added specific products to a shopping cart and then did not purchase will see more ads than someone who just landed on a page and then carted off.
  • Understand the ad click behaviour of the user: if you don’t click our advertisers’ ads, we automatically understand that you are not interested in the product or that you generally avoid clicking banner ads. And then we do not show you any further ads. Voila!
  • Build publisher specificity into campaigns: while most advertisers like to reach users across a variety of publisher sites, we also invest in procuring ad space on industry specific websites e.g. how great would it be to retarget flyers for tickets to the Rio carnival on a Latin American travel website!
  • Use frequency caps intelligently: our algorithms take into account the number of ads users should be shown per day, per week, or even in all, before we take a pause or stop completely.
  • Phase out users after average conversion period is crossed: like I said earlier, if 90% hotel customers convert from retargeting ads within 9 days we reduce impression bids after 9 days to ensure we target only those users who are still in-market for the product.
  • Mark out users who converted: this is very simply done using tags on the post-payment “thank you” or “order confirmation” pages. Why bother users who have already converted and also waste time and money on impressions that have already been rewarded?
  • Provide a prominent and easy way to opt-out from ads: like our opt-out page says “we’re sorry to see you leave” but at the same time notwithstanding all of the above arguments in favour of staying signed in for retargeting, users wish to be left alone, it is our duty to ensure it’s easy to do so as and when the user decides “it’s time”!

So there, dear friends, I’ve said it all. The horns and pitchfork make not for a digital devil. The horns are for defending over transgressions into the conduct of free and fair online business, and the pitchfork helps us dig deeper to make ads useful and less annoying for you. Retargeting ads are here to stay. Let’s all contribute towards ensuring they become more intelligent and relevant, and also less repetitive or irrelevant.

Yours truly,

A marketer who loves his audience.

Looking for an all in one 360 solution to grow marketing ROI?

Leverage Engage360 to drive meaningful relationships with your customers.