The Nitty-Gritty Essentials of Ad Retargeting

Volodymyr Bilyk
9 min readFeb 15, 2021



The world of digital advertisement is strange and confusing. All those buzzwords: ad remarketing vs. retargeting, data management platform, fraud detection, data segmentation, and so forth. Sometimes it seems like The Internet was made specifically for it.

  • On the one hand, ads are simply a means of promoting specific products and services — a reasonable solution for exposure.
  • But on the other hand, if you think about the mechanics behind delivering this or that ad to the customer — it gets really-really complicated.

In a way, it is fair to say that digital advertisements had evolved into a legitimate kind of fabric of The Internet over the years. You just can’t imagine a web page without obligatory ad spaces.

The rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram started an ad gold rush of sorts — every advertiser wanted a piece of the cake. This state of things caused the ad tech arms race, which contributed to its rapid evolution.

Over the years, the need to know more fueled the development of specific advertising techniques. Some of them came and went, but some had proved to be a real deal.

  • The thing is — advertisers go to incredible lengths to make the process of delivering ads as smooth and effective as possible.

And that’s where one particular buzzword starts appearing frequently — ad retargeting. It is one of the most effective methods of delivering advertisements on The Internet.

Why? The trick is simple — it offers an utterly different approach.

Instead of trying to shove down the throats of the user’s certain products by strategically littering many ads all over the place — retargeting applies contextual tracking methods and shows users something they are actually interested in and keen to purchase.

What is Retargeting of Ads?

Ad Retargeting (AKA Remarketing) delivers relevant advertising content to the users based on a digital footprint and collected user data such as preferences and on-site behavior.

Why is it important? It might sound a little bit clumsy, but here is an ultimate explanation on the matter.

  • Actual data taken from real people (with values, behaviors, attitudes, and attributes) allows product delivery directed to the target audience accordingly and not approximately. It is a long way of saying, “giving people what they want.”

The most significant advantage of applying ad retargeting is a drastic increase in the efficiency of delivering ad content. Here’s how:

  1. Keeps the campaign costs streamlined and within reasonable scope;
  2. It cuts the dead weight of disinterested users and leaves only those who have expressed (clicked, if being exact) some sort of interest on your website (whether it is product or service or something else).

Retargeted ad content is based on the users’ current interests calculated out of their behavior on the source site.

  • This aspect makes ad content significantly more relevant to users. That peculiar detail ups the chances of getting those sweet conversions, i.e., purchases or downloads.

Driving conversions is a big deal. Just think about it — according to recent studies, around 98% of users leave the website before converting. Retargeting done right can significantly lower that number.

Overall, the purpose of Ad Retargeting summarizes by the following so-called “prime directives”:

  1. Increase brand awareness through the multi-channel presence and personalized ad content;
  2. Convert awareness into the interest that will result in sales or downloads and subsequent revenue;
  3. Expand the market turnaround through a combination of awareness and sales conversion results (thus more marketing opportunities).

Every Ad Retargeting strategy revolves around these three directives in one or another.

Why ad retargeting matter?

Conceptually ad retargeting revolves around a straightforward thing — users are not focused on the product all the time; their attention span is limited and disjointed. They are in a constant process of journeying.

Because of that, they need a reminder of something to persuade them to proceed. Think about retargeted ads as subtle and reasonable nudges.

Based on incoming information, ad retargeting follows the user with the content relevant to him.

This ad content follows users on every site he visits and continually reminds him of either “you might also like” kinds of content or some sort of “unfinished business” in case of some unfinalized actions such as purchases or registrations or anything else.

Ultimately, users can be convinced to perform specific actions (however, it depends on the message itself more than the technology).

  • For example, users don’t always purchase some product right away — they can be distracted or lose interest for some reason. That’s where retargeting flies in and makes the save.
  • Or here’s another example — the user downloads the specific application. In this case, retargeted ads can suggest some apps similar to that he already uses.

On a more fundamental level, ad retargeting applies internally on-site to customize the content according to the user’s on-site behavior.

  • For example, if he’s reading about Conan the Barbarian, he might be interested in checking out Ator The Iron Warrior.

But you might ask, “But what about banner blindness?” Here is how ad retargeting counters banner blindness — the trick is that it plays on the user’s existing engagement to certain kinds of content (product, service, texts, etc.).

Because of that added relevancy, users tend to notice otherwise ignored ads.

Current State of Ad Retargeting / Remarketing Industry

At the moment, Ad Retargeting is one of the premier methods of delivering relevant advertisements to users.

It is easy to see why — unlike straightforward ads that simply hang on the ad space and are promptly ignored — retargeting provides relevant ad content that has more chances to click with an audience and generate conversion.

Aside from advertising itself, retargeting is closely associated with eCommerce.

Just think about how many times you visited some online store and then had saw loads of related ads with some suggestions following you on every site — that’s remarketing in action.

Another significant industry where Retargeting is widely used is news media.

But instead of purely pragmatic intentions of selling something, retargeting is used as means of content customization based on the topics and user preferences.

How does retargeting work?

Ad Retargeting operation revolves around information. Just like The Prisoner’s Number Two — Ad Retargeting needs specific information to proceed with its process successfully.

The primary source of information for Ad Retargeting is the user himself. His contribution is technically straightforward — it consists of merely hanging around on the website and leaving a digital footprint.

This digital footprint feeds ad targeting mechanisms with some sweet data spice. They construct user-profiles and calculate which kind of content might be relevant to them. That results in increasing the efficiency of delivered ad content.

User data used in ad retargeting breaks down to these elements:

  • Referring sites — from where the user came from;
  • Overall journey (user experience) on-site;
  • Events (scrolling, clicks, highlights, media views, other stuff);
  • Search queries;
  • Time of session;
  • Behavior on site:
  • Contextual and thematic preferences to specific topics and pages;
  • Various interactions with the page’s content (downloads, etc.);
  • Transitions to another place through links and ads;
  • Demographics (if not blocked or obscured);
  • Consumer’s gear (browser, language, location, use of AdBlock, etc.);
  • Interaction with ad content;

Basic ad retargeting operation can be described like this:

  • You visit a site, look at some products. In the meantime — a functional cookie cuts.
  • Then you go to another site, cookie connects the dots, and because of that, you can see a reminder or suggestion related to your previous stop in the ad spaces.

The trick is in connecting the link between the source site and subsequent sites. To increase the effectiveness and efficiency of delivered ad content, the technology of cookie syncing is applied.

  • What is cookie syncing? This thing identifies users over the initial point of entry and subsequent visits on the other websites.
  • How does it work? There is a cookie assigned to a particular user. It is stored in the retargeting service domain. When the user visits another site, the ad request is made with the assigned cookie included. That is how the same user is identified, and relevant ads are delivered.

Challenges of Ad Retargeting

However, no matter how good ad retargeting might be in theory, there is more than one bump on how to use the technology for your company’s benefit effectively.

The thing is — ad retargeting is not as much dependent on the technology itself as to how it is used. Marketing strategy takes front and center when it comes to making the process of retargeting effective.

  • Without it in place — there is no point in the whole affair. You might as well go and crash into a burning table while covered in gasoline.

Here are some significant challenges that often occur with ad retargeting.

1 Improper ad frequency

One of the reasons why regular users have such disdain towards ads is their overbearing nature.

Ads stick out like a sore thumb, annoy, distract, and irritate.

  • And when users see an advertisement for some product or service repeatedly, their associations with it are increasingly negative, which is the opposite of what an ad is trying to do.

Thus, it is reasonable to keep ad frequency limited to somewhere around “once in a while but not too much,” i.e., it must be visible but not everpresent.

2 Lacking variety of ad content

Another big problem that often happens with retargeting is the lack of variety in the ad content.

Even if you have the most beautiful, tailor-made ad in the world, the user will get weary of it after a while.

And you just can’t allow that to happen. If an advertisement is rolling over and over again — it starts being annoying to the user. And that means it will be ignored.

  • How to avoid that? To retain user attention, you need to develop an ad content pool for the campaign. Every piece of the content must have some variation or progression of the message.

For example, you can’t send the same ads for users who just viewed some products and are halfway through the purchase.

The same goes for users looking for something in the specific category and users who just stumbled upon a link. You need a different message to hook the user and get him back on-site can operate, in every case.

The variety will keep the user’s interest throbbing and, hopefully, lead to a conversion.

3 Vague Data Segmentation

Here’s an obvious thing to boot: to be precise in ad retargeting operation, you need to know who you are targeting. Right? Otherwise, ads will miss the point, and all your efforts will go for a long walk over the Cursed Earth.

The reason why that might happen is in the way the target audience is defined.

User data segmentation needs clearly defined parameters to set the ground for ad retargeting. The information itself comes from the tracking tools, but it is how it is processed that is critical. And there might be some problems.

One of the most common mistakes is assuming that every user is alike. No, it is not.

You need to consider various factors that differentiate the users to make an ad relevant to them. On-site behavior is the critical element. It gives you the direction.

  • For example, if it is an online store and you have users who viewed the different types of products, you can send ads to showcase new products for relevant kinds. Or if the user just stumbled upon a site, you can send an ad with a call to action and convincing argument — some discount or else.

Multi-faceted segmentation of an audience is the key to precise and useful ad retargeting.

4 The trouble with Cookies (Can Retargeting Pixel help?)

Cookies are one of the primary weapons of retargeting. But here’s the thing — sometimes you just can’t use them.

  • For example, suppose the session is happening from a browser in anonymous mode. In that case, cookies will be deleted by the end of the session, which is unfortunate since you will be unable to retarget that particular user.

Also, third-party cookies can be easily blocked in browser settings. Sadly, that is almost always the case.

  • What does it mean? Lack of third-party cookies disables the option of gathering personalized user information, which is a catastrophe if you are going for relevant ad content.

That means you need to have another option up the sleeve. The tracking pixels can solve the problem. It is possible to construct profiles for retargeting with its help.


At the current moment, Ad Retargeting is the most potent form of online marketing. It is the most balanced and flexible method of delivering ad content available out there.

Its primary advantage over the other methods is avoiding the biggest user concerns about ads — privacy and inappropriateness.

  • On the one hand, Ad Retargeting can operate without harnessing too much personal data; thus, it keeps the intact ethical side of things (think of GDPR).
  • On the other hand, Ad Retargeting can deliver users what they are interested in instead of shoving product of choice down their throats by overbearing ads. Win-win!

All this makes Ad Retargeting — whether you go for email retargeting, Facebook retargeting, or Google retargeting — a perfect solution for building an effective Marketing Strategy.



Volodymyr Bilyk