There’s a lot of talk in the online advertising industry of late about retargeting. Google are pushing advertisers to use their own “remarketing” offering and more ad networks than ever before are available for retargeting. But where most of the information about retargeting is put out by its advocates and agencies keen to sell it in to their clients, there’s less talk of the potential drawbacks and risks associated with retargeting visitors, some of which I’m going to discuss in this post.

Inflating ad costs

I’ve seen a lot of PPC accounts lately where the previous PPC manager got carried away “testing” remarketing lists in Adwords and inflating the cost of the campaign. When I’m running campaigns I like to be in total control of my spend and I feel like Adwords bid adjustments, which let you increase your search or display network bids for visitors on your remarketing lists take away some of that control. Psychologically its very easy to add a +25% bid adjustment to an advert, where you don’t see the amount you’re bidding as dollars or pounds but rather as percentages. +25% doesn’t feel like real money when you’re setting it but on a £4 bid its an extra £1.

Negative brand image

Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”, he might not of been talking about retargeting but I doubt he would of thought much of it either. Despite what other online advertisers may tell you, people do notice retargeting and it does annoy them. You have to be very careful using retargeting when you’re advertising a brand with any kind of prestige because in increasing your website conversion rates by a few points you could be doing unquantifiable damage to the brands reputation in the long run. No brand wants to be known as “that annoying company who stalk me on the internet”. Using retargeting sparsely and sensibly offsets some of the risk here, but retargeting is always an aggressive form of advertising which is likely to have at least some negative impact on your brand.

Shared computers

This may not be the biggest danger in the world but its something you need to be aware of. Retargeting cookies are attached to web browsers, not individual users. What this means is that where computers, tablets and other devices you might be retargeting are being used by more than one person, your “highly targeted” retargeting ads might actually not be at all targeted for the person who is seeing them. For example my wife constantly gets retargeted by Adroll in her Facebook account because she’s using my laptop and I visit the Adroll site regularly. Incidentally she also see’s ads for hotels I’m looking to book on and Expedia – not very helpful when you’re trying to plan a surprise weekend break!

Although it could be argued that the internet is full of irrelevant, badly targeted advertising which never gets clicked on (and it is), because retargeting ads will almost always outbid regular display ads on an exchange, retargeting ads are highly prominent and will continue to stalk a user across different sites unlike a traditional banner. This increases the likelihood of irrelevant clicks where a person sees an advert so repeatedly they can’t help but click through to see what its about.


The biggest problem I have with the retargeting/ remarketing sales pitch is that it invariably quotes some impossibly large improvements in CPA costs or conversion rates from the retargeting campaign. I definitely don’t dismiss these claims, I like many have seen retargeting work and work well when used correctly but often the headline stats aren’t painting the full picture. Of course a retargeting ad will have a high conversion rate – its closing a sale which was started in some cases much earlier via another channel or medium or as Dax Hamman puts it in this post;

“Site retargeting is the staffer at the door. It is meant to bring you in, it is meant to guide you a little during the consideration phase. And if it does those things right, it is meant to have the last touch for many of your conversions. And even though your ad server gives it the credit for the conversion, it did not primarily cause to the sale.”

Or to put it another way, if you’re reliant on last click attribution (aka Google Analytics) you’re likely to find yourself championing retargeting above and beyond other channels which may have had as much or more of a role in the sale. If you’re thinking of using retargeting and aren’t already familiar with multi channel attribution I suggest you stop reading this immediately and check out Avinash’s excellent primer on the subject.

Cross device issues

Has the visitor you’re retargeting actually already converted? While most sensible advertisers will build their retargeting lists to exclude visitors who converted already (for example if the visitor hit the payment confirmation page at the end of checkout you wouldn’t add them to the list) there’s no good solution for de-duplicating retargeting lists across devices so if that visitor ended up purchasing on another device, in another browser or sent a link to someone else to complete the checkout (which happens a lot in B2B if you think about it) then you’ll be aggressively retargeting a new customer. That’s pretty frustrating for the user and doesn’t create a great first impression of the brand.

Privacy concerns

I think the online advertising industry needs to be careful to use retargeting responsibly and in moderation and this needs to be led by the networks and exchanges who serve the ads. To clarify, I don’t believe there are any particular privacy concerns with retargeting, however given there are already stirrings in the mainstream media and among regulators around privacy and third-party cookies we as advertisers need to be careful not to fan the flames of the privacy debate by using tactics like retargeting aggressively to the point normal web users are going to be concerned about the data which advertisers are collecting on their browsing habits. In short – don’t be creepy!

Some people don’t want to buy from you, and that’s fine.

Not everybody who comes onto your site is going to buy something from you. As online marketers we need to accept that fact and move on. In the same way as a store on the highstreet welcomes window shoppers, a website will always have a percentage, and usually a high percentage of visitors who arrive, leave and never convert. Holistically you have to question whether money spent bringing those visitors back to the website, in the hope they will convert the second, or third time around, could be better spent in improving the site so a higher percentage convert the first time. Because retargeting does invariably increase the site wide conversion rate performance of online advertising its tempting to use it paper over the cracks that are causing a site to convert badly in the first instance.

Again this is not a reason to not use retargeting, its just another potential hazard to be aware of. Ultimately anything that lifts conversion rates one way or another should be embraced provided its done in an ROI positive way.

Best practice?

One of the dangers of retargeting is that there is no one size fits all best practice you can refer to when setting up your campaign. The best piece of best practice advice which can be applied to every retargeting campaign is that you have to establish the optimal length of your retargeting campaigns and not indefinitely retarget to a visitor just because they came to your website once. At some point you have to say if the visitor hasn’t brought yet, they probably never will. Be responsible and think about the integrity of your brand and not just the performance of your campaign.

Despite these criticisms I by and large remain an advocate of retargeting. We’re using Adwords remarketing successfully in a number of campaigns and retargeting visitors on Facebook remains an attractive proposition for many advertisers and has definitely helped us improve the performance of our Facebook ads offering. We look at retargeting on a case-by-case basis in the same way we do any other ad medium and I’d suggest you do the same – weigh up the risks and potential rewards for your brand and if you decide to dive in, do it with a cautious, controlled test first.