Remarketing: How Online Ads Follow Your Every Move

28 Jun

Over the last decade, online display advertising has gradually become a little too relevant. It’s not uncommon to see ads for items that you have recently shopped for or sites that you have recently visited. Sometimes, these ads seem to stalk you, following you from website to website across the web as you browse, taunting you with images of specific items that you recently considered or decided to not to buy.

A few months ago, I came very close to purchasing a new desk from the web store of a national furniture chain. I placed the desk in my cart but after seeing tax and shipping decided not to complete the purchase. That’s when the marketers took over: ads for the item started appearing all over the web. I started receiving email reminders of my unfinished purchase. Two days later, I received a 15% off coupon that I could use on any item at their nearest store. I bought the desk and some other things that weren’t part of my original plan. Somehow, the marketers won.

These techniques aren’t exclusive to consumer marketing. Salesforce.com, for example, uses similar tactics to show ads to targeted enterprise prospects.

The key technique is “remarketing” — the process of showing targeted ads across multiple sites based on a prospect’s browsing or buying patterns.

How does remarketing work?

1. It starts with a cookie: When a sales prospect visits your site or clicks on an email, a single line of code drops a cookie to trigger the remarketing process. The marketer doesn’t need to know who you are or even have you in their database, they just need to drop a cookie and learn from your online behavior.

2. Consumers are segmented based on value: The cookie contains data to identify the type of prospect. If you add an item to your cart and abandon the purchase process, get ready to see lots of remarketing ads. Typically, marketers focus on categories of users and create remarketing paths that apply to thousands of users.

3. Marketers buy remarketing ads, clicks, or leads: Once the cookie is dropped, the advertiser can purchase ads on networks that span multiple sites. Either through a remarketing service or directly through the major ad networks themselves, the advertiser displays ads that are designed to lure the buyer back. The most sophisticated advertisers will feature the high-margin product that a prospect considered but abandoned. Ads can be purchased on Google or Bing or a number of remarketing-focused services.

4. Remarketing campaigns are typically rules-based: Typically, remarketing campaigns target ads to segments using basic rules. A typical campaign will link the creative to the segment (show the “Bicycle” ad to users with the “Bicycle Cookie” from my site who are ages 25-40) and than set rules for frequency and duration (show my ad up to ten times to each user for up to 30 days after the cookie visit date).

5. Remarketing is just part of a broader customer relationship nurture strategy: Smart companies create detailed profiles of users and their preferences and then target messages, advertising, and offers based on this data. For high value segments, marketers will structure multi-faceted campaigns that include email, remarketing display ads, and other vehicles such as direct mail or even customer support calls in certain industries.

6. Remarketing can quickly become creepy: While increasingly popular, remarketing techniques can easily cross the line. The same traits that make it a useful tool – having relevant messages follow users across the web – can quickly seem invasive and creepy.

While remarketing techniques have been around for at least a decade, they have never been easier to implement than they are today. But ease of use often leads to ease of abuse. Just as email quickly crosses the line from useful to abusive, remarketing may face similar threats. As social graph information gets directly integrated into marketing databases, remarketing ads have the potential to become even more creepy.

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