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The Dangers Of Over-Aggressive Retargeting

Published: August 16, 2012

Author: Sean Nowlin

What is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.

Sun Tzu

In previous posts (here & here), I have talked about optimal frequency and cookie tracking. Those topics have never been more relevant to me than during the past few weeks. While surfing the web one morning, I visited NBCnews.com, and my attention was immediately drawn to the banner smack dab in the middle of the homepage. The banner was enticing me to reach back out to a certain vendor and possibly start up a campaign. While that might seem like your run-of-the-mill site retargeting, the fact that the banner specifically mentioned the name of my rep is what made my jaw drop.
Let me repeat. The banner’s call to action was to contact the rep who had been assigned to me. Doesn’t get more targeted and specific than that, folks. This banner has now been following me around for weeks. I’m beginning to feel like a mall cart vendor  is set up next to my office desk, the clerk begging me to try this brand-new skin softener. The vendor and rep in question are good folks, but this tactic has gone over the line. Being a member of the online advertising industry, I am used to all kinds of things that some consumers would consider to be creepy. So it takes a lot to unnerve me.
Where to draw the line? It got me thinking about all of the retargeting messages I have received over the years and how specific they were. In the past, the two most effective I can remember were from Williams-Sonoma and Zappos. The Williams-Sonoma ad showcased a set of kitchen knives I viewed after clicking on an email ad. The Zappos banner showed four different shoes, including one that I had viewed but not purchased. Both of these examples are subtle enough and results of such clear intent that I did not mind seeing them. In fact, I openly embrace dynamic retargeting. I know that I will be viewing hundreds of ads a day; why not make them relevant to me?
In the wake of the creepy retargeting tactic that is still stalking me, I set out on an experiment. Exactly what could I drum up after abandoning carts or viewing different products?
Creepy Factor Varies By Industry
In my previous job, I dealt with advertising in the easy-to-cross-the-creepy-line auto insurance industry. It’s much more difficult to serve up dynamic retargeting ads there. But the travel industry? Fair game to me. Here’s a Hotels.com banner that found me after a search:
hotels.com retargeting
This banner highlights rates that were relevant to my search. No problems here. After trying for a while with other sites, I couldn’t replicate this type of dynamic targeting. But I got plenty of general site-retargeted banners. Here are some examples:
American Express
am ex retargeting ad
Budget Rent A Car

zipcar retargeting ad
Good Retargeting Works
I visited all of these sites and didn’t convert on their calls-to-actions. All of the banners contained good, relevant, and simple messaging. So the first step is to not be too creepy. Second step is to not follow the cookie around, repetitively, for weeks. In the case of my stalker banner, I was not in a purchase funnel. In fact, I’m not sure exactly how my cookie was tied to the vendor in this way (I’m guessing an email pixel).
Regardless, the tactic, in this specific case, was repetitive and annoying. As Sun Tzu says, the point is victory (conversion), not prolonged operations (frequency overkill and length of retargeting window). Let’s play nice.
– Sean Nowlin, Sr. Display Media Manager

1 S Wacker Drive
Suite 2250

Chicago, IL 60606(650) 539-4124


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