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Remarketing: Is it Magic or Murder?

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Many years ago my Mother made the unfortunate discovery that I seem to have an uncanny eye for picking out flattering clothes for her – things that she wouldn’t have picked out herself, but that she loved once she had them on in the change room. Thus began my burden, taking my amazing Mom shopping for clothes a couple times a year. It’s the least I can do, right?

Then about a year ago, I had her in a dress she loved – a colourful A-line with a fitted waist. She loved everything about it except that the waist revealed a “roll” when she moved a certain way. It was a deal-breaker.

By this time, I’d collected more than a few female best friends over the years. I’d heard all about the wonders of Spanx – the anti-corset that doesn’t squeeze your internal organs around, but just smooths out and reshapes all the bits and bobs. I told her this was all she needed, and indeed it was.

I did some googling at her request to find out how Spanx were sized. I looked at a couple blogs but ultimately found the best information on the Spanx website itself. Mom was happy and the dress looked terrific in the end.

Then, the next day I was on the internet, as folks are often wont to do, and discovered something – Spanx was stalking me. On Facebook and Google, in ads while reading the news, and even on Amazon, “Spanx for Men” was inescapable. Some clever cookies stashed under the hood of my browser had figured out that I am a male who had recently been looking for information about Spanx.

It was annoying, and a little creepy I have to admit. Even more annoying than seeing Spanx absolutely everywhere for 6 weeks, was the fact that I’d been mistargeted. They weren’t actually connecting with their audience – otherwise, I would have seen “Spanx for your Mother” ads. Now, I never want to hear about Spanx again.

This has probably happened to you by now too. You visit a site searching for something you don’t often buy. You look at a couple variants of what you searched for, but decide you need to think about it, or you’re simply having a busy day. Suddenly, it feels like that item is everywhere you look online, and it’s like the creepy music video from the 80s: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me and I have no privacy.”

The first time this happened, you might have been a little amazed – but ever since, it feels more creepy and annoying than anything else. Like a first date gone horribly gone, that toaster you looked at last week is following you with stealth and finesse, waiting for the perfect moment to pop up and freak you out a little.

You know now your computer isn’t reading your mind – you’re being stalked by an algorithm using a digital marketing technique called remarketing (or retargeting). So if remarketing is coming across as creepy and even annoying and angering your customers at times, why do so many businesses continue to use this technique?

How it works.

Remarketing is a kind of online advertising that uses ads to target people who have already shown an interest in particular products or services. The goal is to show highly customized ads to people who have already demonstrated an interest in a business by visiting a specific website. According to retargeter.com, most websites have a very low conversion rate of 2% for first-time visitors, meaning just 2% of visitors “convert” from being interested in a product or service to purchasing it (ReTargeter, 2019). The 98% who have shown interest by visiting, but failed to convert to a purchase, represent an audience that is already amenable to messages about a particular product or service, and this has proven to be an all-too-tempting opportunity for businesses to resist. Remarketing allows businesses to specifically market to that remaining 98%, which is already better qualified than the public at large.

After a potential buyer visits a website, cookie-based technology is used to track their activity as they navigate all over the internet. This is accomplished through a small piece of code, sometimes called a pixel, which is inserted into the website’s background operations. It anonymously drops a browser cookie (a tracking extension) into the browser of anyone who visits the site. Then, as those previous visitors browse the internet, the cookie communicates with a remarketing provider – letting them know when to serve ads to people who have previously visited their site.

Anonymity is assured in the process of remarketing, or so we are told. This means that the fact that a site visitor is seeing a specific ad does not mean the advertiser is accessing any personal information about the visitor – your name or address, for instance. In practice, it simply means a remarketed ad appearing on a website has simply recognized, via a cookie, that your browser recently viewed another site. The remarketer doesn’t have access to personal data – they have no idea who you are.

What’s magical about remarketing?

The idea behind remarketing is simple enough – to get a higher percentage of visitors to your website to convert to a sale, having been reminded of the products and services they were recently interested in.

Does it work? Well, the numbers are impressive, though contingent by business model.

Zen Desk’s case study on retargeter.com reflects a 1317% ROI from all conversions combined, a 1160% ROI in view-through conversions, and a 57% ROI from click-through conversions (ReTargeter, 2019). Kimberly-Clark has reported that their conversion rates from remarketed ads are about 50-60% higher than conventional online ads (Abramovich, 2012). A study by Digital Remedy found that remarketed ads produce roughly 400% more click-throughs (Digital Remedy, 2019).

Consistently, numbers show remarketing provides an excellent ROI and can drive sales more efficiently than conventional ads. But is this the whole story?

What’s scary about remarketing.

But what if you’re playing a ‘long game’? Could short-term sales be coming at a long-term expense? Is the ‘hard sell’ of remarketing damaging your brand? Is remarketing changing how people perceive your business?

You have reason to be concerned. A substantial 2014 study by Inskin Media and RAPP Media still resonates today, with detailed data on affective (emotional) consumer associations with remarketing drawn from 1600 respondents. Their results should be alarming to businesses and marketers alike in an age where customer experience is paramount.

Looking at even a low frequency and seeing a retargeted ad just 1 – 3 times, very few described their reactions positively, using words such as “motivating” (2%), “surprising” (5%), “clever” (5%), “relevant” (9%), or “helpful” (9%). More people used words such as “annoying” (24%), “intrusive” (18%), “distracting” (13%), and even “angry” (8%).

Inskin Media has a powerful infographic on its website that compares these disparities, which you can view here.

The strongest reactions were all irrefutably negative. Seeing remarketed ads reappear at higher frequencies of 4 – 5 times was “annoying” to 35% of respondents, while 31% said seeing an ad 10 or more times made them “angry.”

Photo by Joanjo Pavon on Unsplash

Minimizing negative affective associations, the data suggests, relies on showing a single individual an ad 3 times or less. At this frequency, positive associations are maximized at 9%, while negative associations top out at 24%. Controlling the exposure makes the ad resonate at its most positive, while reducing the chance customers will have an experience like I did with “Spanx for Men.”

So let’s look at a typical case using these reactions. Given a remarketed campaign with ad frequencies showing only 1 to 3 times, with a 0.8% average click-through rate, and a 4% conversion rate, what do you get? Per 100,000 people who saw your ads, 72 people would click-through to the website and 3 would make a purchase. Meanwhile, 24,000 people thought your ad was “annoying,” 18,000 thought you’d been “intrusive,” 13,000 thought the ad was “distracting,” and 8,000 people were made “angry” just seeing your ad appear. So while gaining just 3 sales, a potential 63 000 negative impressions were created!

In fairness, this study looked at affective (emotional) responses to remarketed ads in general. The study also revealed that people are twice as likely to like an ad if it’s on a website they think is reputable and of good quality. If they’ve seen an ad 3 to 5 times on a relevant site, they’re 33% less likely to get angry, and 66% more likely to think the ad is clever. For instance, they found a Clinique ad on Marie Claire’s website was 88% more likely to be rated positively than if it was encountered on a lesser-known or thematically unrelated site.

Depending on your business model and the products or services you offer, remarketing might murder your brand strategy if you’re not careful.

The verdict.

If you’re experimenting with remarketing, be aware that you’re playing with a loaded weapon – with a little research, strategy, and careful execution you’ll hit your target, but if you pull the trigger without aiming properly you might just shoot your brand in the face.

If you’re considering using remarketing:

  • make certain it’s part of a larger marketing strategy;
  • that it isn’t going to be seen so many times that it annoys and angers potential customers; and
  • that it’s carefully targeted to appear on relevant sites.

This way you can maximize remarketing benefits while minimizing the negative responses to your ads that might blow back and damage your long-term brand strategy.


Abramovich, G., Monllos, K., Peterson, T., Kustomer, Joseph, S., & Seb Joseph. (2012, April 23). Why Retargeting is the Hottest Area of Ad Tech. Retrieved August 4, 2019, from https://digiday.com/marketing/why-retargeting-is-the-hottest-area-of-ad-tech/

Digital Remedy. (2019). Digital Remedy. Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://www.digitalremedy.com/

Inskin Media. (2014, October 23). INFOGRAPHIC – Familiarity, Frequency and Fine Lines. Retrieved August 4, 2019, from http://www.inskinmedia.com/blog/infographic-environment-matters-improving-online-brand-experiences/

ReTargeter. (2019). Programmatic Ads: ReTargeting Prospecting Solutions. Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://retargeter.com/

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Geoffrey Korfman
About the Author - Geoffrey Korfman
Geoffrey Korfman has a Master of Arts degree in Canadian & Native Studies with Doctoral-level studies in History, and has been working in digital marketing as a freelancer for the past six years. Prior to this, he worked extensively in television and film production, and has a very creative eye for art direction.