November 22, 2018

The Art of Retargeting: The Complete Guide

Reading time about 15 min

Learn how to increase your conversion rate and generate more revenue on your website by retargeting visitors with online retargeting ads!

So you’ve already got a solid amount of traffic flowing into your website. The problem? Visitors aren’t converting — you’re not taking advantage of the opportunity that your traffic is bringing.

By implementing a retargeting strategy, you can bring visitors back to your website by serving them display ads as they browse other websites on the internet.

It’s a very interesting tactic because it allows you to keep your brand at the center of attention even after visitors leave, increasing the rate at which you convert normal visitors to your site into paying customers.

How does retargeting work?

Retargeting works using web browser “cookies” that are stored in a visitor’s browser. By installing a little bit of JavaScript code in the footer of your website, you can place one of these cookies that is stored in your web visitors’ browsers that contains uniquely identifying information, allowing you to find them with ads — even when they’re browsing other websites!

steps explaining how retargeting works

Explanation of the different steps of retargeting:

  1. Start by setting up a snippet JavaScript that will place a tracking cookie in your visitors’ browser storage. Although the name is the same, browser cookies (or HTTP cookies) are a bit different than their homonymic baked good counterparts. The “cookies” that I’m talking about are actually small pieces of data that allow websites to “remember” certain information about a user as they browse the web (sorry to disappoint anyone looking for something more in the chocolate chip department).
  2. Once a visitor visits your website, the JavaScript code that you put in your website sends the visitor’s browser a packet of data (i.e. the cookie) containing unique identifying information.
  3. As the visitor browses other websites, this cookie is included in the HTTP requests sent to these sites’ web servers. If the website is using an advertising service (such as Google AdSense), it will be able to use the data from the cookie in order to identify the visitor as someone who has been to your website before.
  4. If you’ve set up retargeting advertisements on platform like AdRoll (which serves ads across many networks, including sites running AdSense), the networks will identify your cookied users as they visit other websites and the platform will serve ads to them according to the logic and frequency that you’ve set up in your ad platform.

What is retargeting used for?

The biggest advantage of retargeting is that it allows you to reach out to people who have already demonstrated an interest in your brand.

Depending on your goal, retargeting can be a super effective way to help you achieve your business goals. For example:

Increase brand recognition

If you want people to remember and recognize your brand, you can launch a retargeting campaign that targets any person who has visited your site before.

People like things that are familiar. That’s why it’s much easier to convince someone to buy something from you if they are already familiar with your brand — even if they don’t remember why or how they found out about you in the first place!

But, people don’t remember every brand or website that they’ve seen before. By re-exposing your brand to people who have already visited your website, you can reinforce this recognition, build trust, and increase the chances that they will convert and become a customer further down the line.

Plus, even if they aren’t trying to make a purchase, your brand will be top-of-mind in discussions that they might be having with other people in their network! Word spreads fast. 😉

Example: ANA uses retargeting to increase brand recognition for people who have visited their site to browse flights to position themselves as the leading provider of flights to Japan.

ana retargeting ad on CNN

Nurture and qualify leads

Retarget people who have seen your content before by inviting them to subscribe to your newsletter or offering them new resources to download in order to get them more interested in your product or service.

If you’re following an inbound marketing strategy, it’s likely that you have downloadable resources and a newsletter opt-in form on your website to obtain contact information from interested contacts and build an engaged email contact list.

With retargeting, you can supercharge the impact that these resources have by following up with people who have visited your blog before and offer them your downloadable content so that you can get their contact information and continue moving them closer to a conversion with your other marketing campaigns and communications.

This strategy of lead nurturing helps you position your business as a resources and leader in the industry because you’re offering relevant and detailed content that educates your leads.

Example: Velostock retargets people who visited their website by inviting them to sign up for their newsletter to stay in the loop about product/company updates.

velostock newsletter retargeting ad

Follow up with qualified leads

Retarget visitors who have spent a certain amount of time on a product page or pricing page to see if they’re ready to convert.

Not every visitor to your website is the same — some people will inevitably be closer to making a purchase than others. So how do you distinguish them and get the most from your marketing strategy?

To get more from the people who have a higher level of interest in your business, you can for example retarget people who visited a specific page that indicates a closer proximity to conversion (e.g. pricing page or contact page).

Visitors who are truly interested and close to converting will also generally spend more time on page because they are reading the information more carefully. With this in mind, you can also add a condition to target only visitors who visited a specific page and spent a certain amount of time on that page if you want to be even more sure that they’re a qualified visitor.

Example: DataCamp uses retargeting in Gmail to showcase new projects that are related to users who have worked on similar products in the past.

datacamp gmail inbox retargeting

Reduce lost revenue from cart abandonment

Retarget people who have abandoned their carts to try and win them back.

Even if they didn’t end up completing their purchase, visitors who abandoned their eCommerce cart after adding items to it are highly qualified leads that were just one click away from conversion. All they need is a little encouragement!

By serving ads to these users, you can reduce the negative impact of abandoned carts on your site and win back some of this revenue. To make them even more effective, you can include images of the actual products that the shopper left in their cart before abandoning it.

Example: Here you can see an ad from Best Buy that sends users who left items in their cart directly back to the checkout page.

Encourage repeat purchases

Retargeting people who have already made a purchase on your site is a very effective strategy for getting more sales and increasing the lifetime value of your customers while simultaneously boosting retention by making your brand more sticky.

Building relationships with customers doesn’t stop the moment they make a purchase on your site. In fact, that’s just the beginning! Products don’t last forever, and businesses often sell more than just one thing. Retargeting can be an effective tool for following up with customers who may be looking to upgrade or replace an item they purchased from you before, as well as for cross-selling customers on your other offerings!

An essential pillar of your marketing strategy

Of course, retargeting isn’t only useful for eCommerce sellers:

  • For nonprofits, you can convince website visitors to subscribe to your emails or make a donation to keep your mission alive!
  • If you’re a SaaS company like us, you can use retargeting to attract leads back into your conversion funnel depending on where they lie in the purchase process.
  • Bloggers can bring visitors back to their blog in order to consume new content.

You can adapt your retargeting strategy however you want to find the best fit with your global marketing needs and objectives.

Different retargeting channels

There are several different platforms that provide brands with retargeting, each with unique benefits and characteristics.

When trying to choose the right platform for your retargeting campaign, there are a few criteria you should keep in mind:

  • Budget
  • Objectives
  • Typical customer behavior (e.g. Do they use Facebook? Where are they most likely to click on your ads?)

1. Display banner retargeting ads

Display retargeting refers to the banner advertisements that are displayed on websites allowing external advertisements (e.g. Google Display Network). Users are identified using cookie data from websites they have visited in the past. It’s the most common channel used for serving retargeting ads.

For this type of retargeting, you have to go through a company like AdRoll, which allows you to set up ads and serve them on sites that make up different display networks.

Your advertising software works with the different display networks to identify the most relevant audience for your ads according to the cookies stored in their browsers. You then pay according to a formula based on the number of impressions you get or the clicks you receive on your ads.

You’ve probably seen these types of ads before on some of your favorite websites. For example, here are two display banners on the BBC homepage:

retargeting ad examples on bbc

2. Retargeting on Facebook and other social networks

Almost everyone is on Facebook, so you can be sure that you’ll find your customers here.

Retargeting on social networks lets you show sponsored social media posts to people who have visited your website while they’re browsing through feeds on their favorite social sites.

Facebook is probably the most common platform used for retargeting because it’s the most general in terms of content and it has the broadest audience. But, that may not always be the case — you should always think about adapting your methods of retargeting based on the specifics of your business and customers:

  • LinkedIn for B2B companies and companies targeting a specific industry or professional segment
  • Instagram or Pinterest for fashion and eCommerce
  • Snapchat for brands looking to target a younger demographic

However, Facebook is the platform with most options for setting up your retargeting campaigns. For example, you can choose to target your visitors using a tracking pixel explicitly created for this purpose by Facebook, or you can target only leads for whom you have contact information. If you have an email address that Facebook can tie to a specific user, they will be included in this audience.

On Facebook, you can show ads on the right side of the screen or directly in the newsfeed like a normal post:

facebook retargeting ad examples and placement

On mobile, ads are displayed only in the newsfeed:

facebook mobile ad

3. Email retargeting

Track your leads all the way to the inbox!

While it’s not quite the same as retargeting ads, email retargeting is the process of following up with known contacts in order to get them to convert on your website. The most common example of this would be abandoned cart emails. Because they’re known contacts, it requires you to know who they are, but the goal is still to drive visitors back to your website and get the to convert.

For more information, check out our article on email retargeting best practices.

Retargeting best practices

No matter what platform you’re using, there are a few universal tips that you should always keep in mind:

  • Create different audiences
  • Set up a targeted landing page that is optimized for conversion
  • Manage ad fatigue by setting rules and changing things up

Categorically segment your contact list

Create different audiences according to various types of users you want to target.

Not all of your visitors are going to be searching for the same thing from you. So, if you try just using a generic message that is served to all of your leads, your retargeting messages are going to be a flop.

Instead, you should use the information you have about contacts to create custom audiences based on interests or behavior (previous visitors, people who visited a specific product page, people who added a product to their cart, previous customer, etc.).

Creating custom audiences also allows you to exclude visitors who have little chance of ultimately becoming a client, such as people who visited your website but left the page within 3 seconds.

Direct visitors to pages adapted to their interests

Boost the likelihood of conversion by providing a more targeted experience with landing pages that address their particular situation.

When setting up your advertisements for retargeting, you have to think about more than just the ad copy and creative. Make sure the destination you’re sending them to from the ad is also optimized for your goals.

Your goal should be to reduce the level of friction to conversion on your website as much as you possibly can.

My advice:

  • Create a specific landing page for each segment that you’re targeting.
  • For visitors who looked at specific product pages, send them back to those same products (or suggest similar products).
  • Bring customers who abandoned carts directly back to the checkout page so all they have to do is finalize the order.

Regularly change up your offers to avoid ad fatigue

People get tired of seeing the same ads over and over again (I’m about 2 Geico ads away from upgrading my Hulu plan), so it’s important to change things up and keep your ads feeling fresh.

Although you can have tracking pixels last for months or even years, it might not be the best idea to continue targeting your visitors over such a long period of time like this.
Ad fatigue is real, and it can really hurt your brand in the eyes of potential customers. If you keep showing the same ad to the same targets, you’ll quickly lose their attention and they could even be tired of your brand before ever making a purchase!

That’s why it’s a good idea to change up your ads and offer so you can capture the attention of your targets with new added value or a different type of offer each time you make a change. For example, you can promote a sale on certain products or propose a limited-time offer discount.

Limitations and drawbacks of retargeting

The biggest concern and criticism with retargeting is the question of privacy. Because of that, there are a few issues that you should keep in mind:

Online privacy

Although much of the discussion around the GDPR centered around the shake-up of the email marketing industry, the new regulation also has a big effect on the use of tracking cookies for retargeting.

Essentially, websites with visitors who reside in the European Union must get consent from visitors to use cookies for advertising and analytics. This consent must be given in the form of a positive action from the user (so no more “By using this site, you agree to…”). You need to give users a real choice and make it easy for them to opt out at a later time if they change their mind.

Ad blocking software: a marketer’s worst nightmare

Ad blockers are software tools that allow users to block ads from showing up on websites as they browse the web.

As online advertising becomes more and more ubiquitous, many internet users have made the choice to install ad blocking software to eliminate (or at least reduce) the ads they see while they browse the web. The tools usually work both in desktop browsers and mobile devices — but while it may be good for creating a more fluid user experience, it’s not ideal for achieving your goals with retargeting!

However, tools like AdBlock have programs and guidelines for creating “acceptable” ads that won’t be blocked by the software. The idea is this: ad blocking software is meant to provide a more fluid user experience, so acceptable ads would be ads that do not disrupt the user experience (no pop-ups, properly placed, non-spammy content, etc.). Check out the guidelines to learn more so you won’t get filtered out like your competitors!


Retargeting is one of the most powerful levers for customer acquisition in digital marketing — but only if done correctly. To be really effective, you have to have a deep understanding of your overall marketing strategy and customer journey. This will give you a clearer idea of where you can fit retargeting into the mix and have the most impact.

If you want to learn more about retargeting and other aspects of digital marketing strategy, sign up for our monthly blog newsletter or follow us on social! 🙂

Ready to grow with Brevo?

Get the tools you need to reach your customers and grow your business.

Sign up free