Retargeting Techniques That Work

Online Advertising Article
20 mins

For people arriving in the ecommerce industry after working in bricks-and-mortar retail, online conversion rates must come as quite a shock. If your online shop is doing relatively well, somewhere around 2% of visitors to your site will convert – the rest navigate away without spending a penny.

Retargeting exists to bring some of these bouncing leads back into the fold; it wins over a share of the lost 98% by delivering display ads to them via third party sites and apps.

The process is made possible through the automated addition of a JavaScript cookie to the user’s browser when they visit your site. The cookie – a tiny piece of code that won’t negatively affect the user’s experience of your site – stays in their browser as they continue to surf the web. Positioned within the browser, it instructs your retargeting provider to deliver ads to the user, based on your retargeting campaign settings. All being well, the ads will attract a percentage of users back to your site, where some of them will hopefully make a purchase.


Retargeting is one of the most powerful digital marketing tools in existence – if you know how to use it. Follow these four retargeting strategies and you’ll be well on your way to making the most of one of the web’s best marketing opportunities:

Frequency cap – how many exposures per month?

Even the most zealous of digital marketing enthusiasts could surely recognise the fact that there’s something slightly Orwellian about retargeting. Quietly shuddering at the internet’s deep knowledge of oneself must be a near-ubiquitous aspect of being a web user in 2016.

At its best, retargeting reconnects online shoppers with products they wanted to buy at some point down the line, but which they may have forgotten about, without the help of a gentle reminder. At its worse, however, retargeting can make web users feel pursued; harassed by adverts for products they have decided not to buy. No wonder so many people now are using ad-blocking software.

It isn’t hard to do the right thing in this situation – simply set a frequency cap on your retargeting campaign, to limit the amount of times an advert can appear in any one user’s browser and app windows in the space of a month.

Delivering the same ads to the same people incessantly doesn’t just leave you with irritated, alienated leads – it also provides a relatively low return on your investment. Far better to focus your budget on customers who are so interested in your product that they’ll click-through to it at one of the first times of asking.

Expert opinion currently pins the optimum frequency cap figure at somewhere between 15-20 ad appearances per month. We would advise considering that range to be your absolute upper limit.

It’s also important to ensure your ads are targeted towards customers in the correct regions. There’s little or no point in advertising to people who live in places where you don’t deliver.

Segmentation by URL

There are so many ways to segment your audience, each one with its own merits. But in our view, there’s no technique more effective than grouping users based on the sections or pages of your site they have visited. Doing this in Google AdWords is a breeze – simply create a new remarketing list using the default selection: by URL.

  • If you opt to use this technique, you will probably end up creating several different audience lists based by URL as you progress from campaign-to-campaign – for example: – targeting you entire audience in a retargeting campaign can be surprisingly useful. Try doing this on a small budget, to create a benchmark by which you can measure the success of your more focused retargeting campaigns.
  • /women/ – if your products are gendered and this is reflected in your sitemap, you should definitely consider creating separate lists for the male and female sections of your online store. Remember that each user will be added to either or both of these lists depending on which pages they have visited in the past, so people shopping across the genders will be included.
  • /product-category/ – targeting by product category is highly effective, and especially so if you can catch a user shortly after they first visit the site. By pushing your best-selling or best-rated products to the fore in a category campaign, there’s a good chance you’ll show a good number of customers an attractive alternative to the product that caught their eye in the first place.
  • /product-category/specific-product/ – this option is particularly effective if you have just applied a promotion or mark down to the product in question. Can also be used to highlight an alternative to the product which did not convert at the first attempt.
  • /cart/checkout/ – these are the customers who very nearly converted, but backed out at the last minute – certainly worth targeting.

Sequential ads

If you consume any kind of media whatsoever, you will undoubtedly be familiar with sequential ads. Whether in newspapers, TV ad breaks or in the context of an online retargeting campaign, sequential ads follow the same blueprint: they deliver a linked series of adverts, through a single platform, typically over a short period of time. The advertiser gets the opportunity to play around with the content of their advert in creative and compelling ways to fit the new format; whilst the customer gets the time to digest the advertiser’s message, bit-by-bit.

Some remarketing platforms are better suited for remarketing sequencing than others – and in our book Facebook is best of all.

They’ve certainly tried to sell themselves as such – take a look at this compelling document from 2015, ‘The Power of Storytelling’. Facebook aren’t offering you a special sequencing tool here, but they are telling you in clear terms how to put together an effective sequence on Facebook, using simple steps that will lie comfortably within the capabilities of any experienced Facebook marketer. They propose two routes to increased conversions through sequencing:

Funnel-based storytelling, when an advertiser uses a series of messages to “walk” a potential consumer down the purchase funnel


Priming-and-reminding storytelling, when an advertiser uses multiple Facebook ad formats to both “prime” people with the brand’s story via video ads and “remind” people of the video narrative with display ads”
Creating a narrative within your retargeting campaign (whether that’s a simple sales narrative or an artistic interpretation and exploration of the brand) is a colourful alternative to serving your leads the same static adverts, time after time. Facebook’s point about using multiple ad formats is interesting too – perhaps different digital advert formats will now start to converse, just as print and TV ads have conversed for decades.

You may need to go through some trial and error before you hit on a winning formula for your remarketing ad sequence. Here are a few pointers to help you on your way:

  • The key point here is that you go in gently. Set out your stall before you hit the customer with a hard sales pitch.
  • Take inspiration from traditional media. TV and print advertisers have got sequential advertising down to a fine art. Identify some of the features that make your favourite sequential ads successful, and try applying them to your sequential retargeting plan.
  • Remember, you’re remarketing. Don’t urge the customer to check out the brand as if they’ve never heard of it – instead, present the positives you want to reinforce.

CRO before you remarket

This may seem like elementary advice, but in our book, it’s too important to omit.

The net impact of your retargeting work is based upon both your remarketing work itself, and how well conversion-rate-optimised your website is. Channelling customers to a page which cannot convince them to make a purchase is self-defeating.

Conversion-rate-optimisation (CRO) can take different forms, depending on your industry, audience profile and various other factors. There are, however, a few points which almost always seem to provide a boost to conversions:

  • Quality content – very few online shops can get away with poor content. You’re going to want plenty of relevant, well-written copy on each product’s page, a detailed specification and some professionally shot photographs. These can be acquired by arrangement with your suppliers, or commissioned at your expense. It’s important to ensure consistency across your product or service listings, in terms of: title format, copy format, word count; image sizing, background, display and resolution.
  • Urgency – creating a sense of urgency is a widely used CRO device across a huge range of ecommerce applications, from ‘Sale Ends in X Hours’ countdowns to concert ticket allocations which expire within a certain time period if un-purchased. If there’s a time sensitive aspect to an offer, product or process within your customer’s route to conversion, try to draw attention to it (without going over the top).
  • Address your customers personally – many CRO experts prescribe to the view that addressing the reader in the second person encourages them to convert. Direct, active, personal and emotive language certainly can be powerful, which is why you’ll see phrases like ‘Start Your Free Trial Today’ featured heavily on successful ecommerce sites.
  • Remove unnecessary obstacles – the smoother your customer’s journey from landing on your website to checking out can be, the more conversions you’re going to earn. Identify any non-essential steps on your customer’s path to conversion and do your best to eradicate them. An interesting way to investigate which parts of your site are turning customers off is to compare exit rates throughout your site’s pages using Google Analytics – if a page has a particularly high exit rate, you should consider giving it a redesign, rethinking your sales funnel, or at the very least, adding some new internal links to the offending page.


Retargeting FAQs

What if my customers don’t accept cookies?

Mainstream expert opinion currently estimates the percentage of web users who disable cookies at around 10%. Whilst that figure does seem to be creeping up post-Edward Snowden, cookies are currently one of the most important cogs in the machinery of the online marketplace – they may not be perfect but they’re the best thing we’ve got. It’s worth remembering that you only pay for the ads that do get seen and clicked.

Who are the main ad retargeting companies?

There are plenty out there, notably including:

What do retargeting adverts look like?

Retargeting providers generally use display ads, which come in the form of a banner or a rich media item (such as a video, or audio). You should always seek to match the form and content of your retargeting ads to your brand and its audience.

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