The Ultimate Guide to Retargeting Ads

by Aden Andrus June 22, 2017

What is retargeting? How can you use retargeting (aka, remarketing) to get more out of your advertising budget? Don’t worry, you’ve come to the right place.

In this in-depth article, we’ll answer all of those questions (and many, many more). We’ll cover the rationale behind retargeting, which remarketing platforms you should consider using and how to best use retargeting to grow your business.

Bookmark this article, you’ll want to refer back to it a lot in the coming months.

Now, we’ve got a lot of content to cover, so without any further ado, let’s jump in!

What is Retargeting?

Ever look at all those visitors to your site and think, Imagine if just 5% more of them had converted?

Unfortunately, no matter how targeted your ads are or how good your landing page is, some people just don’t convert the first time they visit your site. And, to be honest, it isn’t really even your fault.

As it turns out, on average, only about 4% of the visitors to your site are ready to buy right now.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Only 4% of your web traffic is ready to convert right now. @adenandrus @disruptiveads” quote=”Only 4% of your traffic is ready to convert right now.”]

That’s a problem…especially if you’re paying for every click. But, just because someone doesn’t convert the first time they visit your page, that doesn’t mean that they won’t ever convert.

People are funny. They’ll click on your ad because they’re really, really interested…and then get distracted by a meme on Facebook. A couple of months later, they’ll remember that they were interested when they happen upon a blog article you wrote. If they like your content, they might decide to submit a form on your site…but they don’t respond to your sales team.

Then, four months down the road, they realize that they really need what you’re selling, reach back out and within a few weeks, they’re a new paying customer.

And, you know what? If that’s what it takes to get a new paying customer in through the door, that’s okay.

The problem is, during that wandering path to conversion, your potential customers have a lot of opportunities to get lost. Maybe they never see your blog post and come back to your site. Maybe they see an ad from a competitor and go with them instead…

The moral of the story is, if you want to get those potential customers to come back and actually convert, you have to stay in front of them. That’s where retargeting comes into play.

How Retargeting Works

Imagine you walk into a store at the mall and find a shirt you really like. In fact, you like it so much that you put into your cart and are on your way to checkout when your 3-year-old daughter suddenly tears out of the store and out of sight (believe me, I’ve experienced this firsthand).

As a good parent, you obviously abandon your cart and chase after your daughter (hollering at the top of your lungs for her to come back, if you’re anything like me). Fed up with your daughter, you leave the mall. Your shirt, which you really would have liked to buy, gets left in your abandoned shopping cart.

In the real world, that’s where the story ends.

But what if the store had a way to track you and that shirt you liked so much? What if, a few days later, you got an ad in the mail featuring that shirt with a 15% off coupon?

Would you buy it?

Odds are, even if you didn’t hop in the car right away to go buy the shirt, you’d be a lot more likely to remember that shirt and eventually make your way back in to the store to get it. Why? Because the store found a way to stay on your radar.

Obviously, a brick-and-mortar store can’t pull of these sorts of tactics, but online, you can. In a nutshell, retargeting is all about using what you know about your potential customers (when they visited your site, how long they stayed, what they looked at, how many times they’ve come back, whether they put something in their cart, etc) to stay on their radar until they make a purchase.

As you might imagine, this sort of hyper-focused, hyper-relevant advertising strategy delivers great results.

Here are some of the ways remarketing can improve your marketing performance:

  • Cheaper cost-per-impression
  • Lower cost-per-click
  • Improved conversion rates
  • Increased return-on-investment (ROI)
  • Low-cost branding

If you’ve ever visited a site and then had ads from that site follow you around for days, weeks or months, you’ve experienced remarketing firsthand. Once you know what you’re doing, setting up an effective remarketing campaign for your company is both straightforward and incredibly effective.

Retargeting Pixels vs Retargeting Lists

Retargeting campaigns target people in one of two ways: 1) using a pixel and 2) using a list.

Pixel-Based Retargeting

Most retargeting is pixel-based. Essentially, a “pixel” is a small string of code that you put on your website. When someone arrives on your site, the pixel drops a cookie onto their browser that tracks them wherever they go online.

Then, whenever that person arrives on a site where your ads are eligible to display, your ads are entered into a bidding war against other eligible ads and the top bidding ad gets shown!

The great thing about pixel-based retargeting is that it’s instantaneous. As soon as someone visits your site, they get “cookied” and can start seeing your ads. You can also set up specific cookies for specific pages on your site (your checkout page, perhaps?) or create segments of your retargeting lists based on specific behaviors (time on site, # of pages visited, etc).

List-Based Retargeting

List-based retargeting, on the other hand, uses your existing customer lists. To run a list-based remarketing campaign, you upload your email list to a retargeting platform. The platform will then identify all of its users with matching emails and target them with ads.

The big advantage of list-based remarketing is the fact that you know who you’re targeting. Most of your pixel-based list is anonymous, so all you know is that they visited your site and maybe did something interesting. They could be an interested customer…or a competitor trolling your site. You have no idea.

With list-based retargeting, however, you can pick exactly who you want to remarket to.

The disadvantage of list-based remarketing, however, is that you don’t know whether or not your email will match. People often use very different emails for things like their social media accounts than they use when they submit a form on a website. So, you might have a list of golden leads, upload them to Facebook and only have a 20% match rate.

Both list-based and pixel-based retargeting lists have their purposes (which we’ll get into later), so it’s usually a good idea to use both. But, it’s important to understand both types and how to effectively use them to really get the most out of your retargeting campaigns.

Setting Goals

As with any good online advertising campaign, your retargeting is only as good as your goals. Most remarketing campaigns are focused on one of two goals: 1) driving conversions and 2) building awareness.

Driving Conversions

In a perfect world, every marketing campaign would lead directly to sales. After all, the ultimate goal of marketing is to produce profitable new revenue for your business.

With retargeting, you can do a lot to help potential customers become actual customers. With a pixel-based campaign, you can get people to submit lead forms. With a list-based campaign, you can get people who have submitted lead forms to download your whitepaper or attend your webinar…or even upsell existing customers.

Depending on how your business works, retargeting can be a great way to drive conversions—those little actions that move people toward making a purchase—and ultimately increase sales.

Building Awareness

Unfortunately, while it would be great if every marketing campaign led directly to sales, sometimes you have to set your sights a little higher in the funnel.

After all, if your customers don’t even remember your business, they’re not very likely to buy, right?

Remember, only about 4% of the traffic on your landing pages is ready to buy today. If you’re not asking them to buy, they might convert, but even then, only portion of your visitors are ready to convert.

However, that doesn’t mean those same people won’t convert or make a purchase in a few days, weeks or months.

With awareness campaigns, the goal is to stay on the radar until a potential customer is ready to take the next step. When they’re ready to commit, you want to be the first business they think of.

Awareness campaigns might not be directly profitable themselves, but a good awareness retargeting campaign can significantly improve the performance of your other campaigns, so they are usually well worth the investment.

Retargeting Platforms

Now that we’ve talked about what retargeting is, let’s take a look at some of the different retargeting platforms you can use to reach potential customers:

Retargeting on the Google Display Network

I’ll make this simple: if you have an AdWords account, you should be running remarketing ads on the Google Display Network.

The Google Display Network covers more than 1,000,000 websites and apps. In addition, you can also run retargeting video ads on YouTube. Put all that together and you’ve got the ability to advertise to over 10% of the internet.

To set up a retargeting campaign on the GDN, all you have to do is add the Google remarketing tag (aka, pixel) to your site, create some ads and set up your campaign.

If you’ve never done this sort of thing before, this video will walk you through the process:

If you’re also running text ads on AdWords, you can also use remarketing lists for search ads (RLSAs) to customize your keywords, bids and ad copy for people who have already visited your site.

RLSAs fall a bit outside of the scope of this article, but we’ve used RLSA campaigns to increase sales by 129%, so if you’re running paid search ads, they’re well worth looking into. For more information on how to get the most out of RLSAs, check out this article.

Setting up a retargeting campaign on AdWords is so simple and straightforward that it would be a shame not to run remarketing ads on the GDN. It might not provide the maximum possible reach, but it will certainly drive good results.

Retargeting on Facebook

Similar to Google, Facebook is another massive retargeting platform you should strongly consider using. With around 1.3 billion active daily users, advertising on Facebook can be an incredible way to get in front of almost any audience.

To make things even better, Facebook owns Instagram, so you can also use Facebook’s platform to run ads on Instagram as well.

As with the GDN, setting up a retargeting campaign on Facebook is as simple as adding a pixel to your site, building a few ads and creating a campaign.

Here’s what you need to do:

Unfortunately, in our experience, retargeting on Facebook isn’t always quite as effective as the GDN. On Facebook, your ads are competing with a lot of distractions. And, let’s face it, people are a lot more likely to watch a cat video than click on your remarketing ad.

That being said, if you’re trying to build brand awareness and simply stay on someone’s radar (rather than trying to get them to “buy now”), Facebook is a great retargeting tool. Just don’t expect your clicks (and even conversions) to be quite as relevant as the clicks you get from other platforms.

Retargeting on Twitter

Twitter also offers a retargeting platform that functions much like Facebook’s retargeting platform. Here’s a quick guide to installing Twitter’s retargeting pixel:

Unfortunately, retargeting ads on Twitter are typically much less effective than retargeting ads on either Google or Facebook. Facebook’s feed might be distracting, but Twitter’s feed is much worse.

In general, it’s a good idea to add the Twitter pixel to your site and start building your audience, but I would limit your retargeting efforts on Twitter to really important campaigns where you need to maximize exposure, not ROI.

There are other sites that offer retargeting, but these three sites are the main players to worry about for the time being.

Retargeting Services

You can go ahead and set up retargeting directly on any of these “big three” platforms fairly easily, but if you want to get even more out of your remarketing efforts, you may want to consider using an actual retargeting service. These services can give you access to more sites and allow you to streamline your retargeting campaigns inside of a single system.


AdRoll is one of the biggest names in the retargeting space. They might not be the cheapest option, but they’re used by some of the biggest names in the business.

Between all their partners (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc), AdRoll gives you access to 98% of the sites on the Internet. They also give you a lot of segmentation and targeting options you can use to focus your targeting (and ads) on specific potential customers.

AdRoll can a bit pricey, but their service is pretty easy to use and (according to their site) their clients typically make $10 for every $1 they spend on AdRoll, so it’s no wonder that they are one of the biggest players in display advertising.

Perfect Audience

If you want to keep things simple, Perfect Audience is a great retargeting service to consider. All you have to do is add one piece of code to your site, create a few lists of visitor types you want to target, add some ads and Perfect Audience will take care of the rest.

With no setup or maintenance fees, Perfect Audience is great for small businesses (their main target market).

Unfortunately, if you actually want more than basic control over where and how your ads are displayed, Perfect Audience may not be the service for you. However, if you want to try retargeting without investing too much time or money, Perfect Audience is a good way to go.


ReTargeter is a fairly new remarketing service, but it offers a ton of options ranging from Facebook retargeting to search retargeting and beyond. However, if your site doesn’t get a ton of traffic, ReTargeter may not be the best solution for you. The service is primarily designed for sites with 30,000+ unique users per month.

But, if you’ve got the site volume (and can afford the minimum $1,500/month fee), ReTargeter can be a great way to go. ReTargeter gives you access to a huge number of sites and customization options, especially if you want to retarget people on search or using their email address.

As with the remarketing platforms we discussed, there are several other retargeting services available as well, but one of these three companies should be a good fit for your business. With remarketing services, you typically get what you pay for, so choosing a service is mostly a question of balancing what you can afford with getting the options you need.

Retargeting Best Practices

Once you’ve picked the platforms you want to advertise on or the services you want to use, you need to set up your campaigns. As you do, keep the following principles in mind:

1. Segment Your Audiences

People visit your site for very different reasons. You might have visitors who want to make a purchase, simply like your blog or even ended up on your site by complete accident (believe me, it happens more than you might think).

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to remarket the same message to all of these different people, does it?

By setting up different criteria (time on site, pages visited, demographics, geographic location, etc) or using different pixels on different pages of your site, you can segment your audience and create specific messaging that addresses the specific needs and interests of that particular segment.

With audience segmentation, you can target people who leave items in their shopping cart with one set of ads and people who read your blog with a completely different set of ads. That way, both segments get ads that help move them a little closer to making a purchase.

2. Decide Your Frequency

There are two basic schools of thought when it comes to frequency caps. To avoid irritating your potential customers, some people recommend capping ad impressions at 17-20 ads per person per month.

On the other hand, some advertisers take a very different approach to retargeting. If someone just visited your site, they’re probably very interested in what you’re selling, so these advertisers recommend getting as many ads as possible in front of these visitors.

Personally, I recommend something of a hybrid approach between these two schools of thought.

With most retargeting platforms and services, you can set up campaigns based on how long it has been since someone visited your site. Using this feature, you can inundate potential customers with retargeting ads for the first 1-2 weeks after they visit your site.

As time goes on, the likelihood that they will click and convert starts to go down, so you can decrease the frequency of your ads. This hybrid strategy allows you to strike while the iron is hot…without irritating people in the long run.

Regardless of how you choose to approach frequency caps, however, it’s almost always a good idea to keep running retargeting ads for as long as possible. You never know when someone will be ready to buy and—at the very least—it’s a cheap way to build brand recognition.

3. Use a Burn Code

Nothing is quite so annoying as seeing a remarketing ad…right after you just purchased what the company is advertising.

Fortunately, you can easily avoid this problem in your own campaigns by using a burn pixel. By adding a pixel to your thank you page (or whatever page users arrive on after converting), you can exclude them from your normal retargeting campaigns.

Setting up a burn pixel sets you up to do some pretty cool additional things, too, but we’ll get into those in the next section.

4. Set View-Through Conversion Windows

Remember when we were talking about the different types of goals you can set for your retargeting campaigns? Building awareness is a great goal, but it can be hard to measure the impact of brand awareness.

One way to help track the impact of your brand awareness campaigns is to set view-through conversion windows. Essentially, by setting these windows, you can link someone seeing your ad to their conversion—even if they never click on a retargeting ad!

Depending on your platform or service, you can set view-through conversion windows for a variety of durations. In general, however, I recommend keeping your window to 1 week or less. A good retargeting ad will make an impression, but it’s still a display ad.

Can you remember any of the display ads you’ve seen this week? (if you can, surprise me and let me know in the comments).

While a good retargeting ad can generate the billboard effect, attributing a sale to a retargeting ad impression from 6 weeks ago doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, if someone sees a retargeting ad in the morning and converts in the afternoon, there’s a decent chance that the ad influenced their decision to some degree.

5. Rotate Your Ads

Let’s be honest, banner blindness is real. Even when you’re running retargeting ads, where your audience has already expressed an interest in your business and is more likely to notice your ads, banner blindness will eventually set in if you don’t regularly rotate your ads.

In fact, according to a study by ReTargeter, clickthrough rates typically fall by 50% over the first 5 months of a campaign.

So, if you don’t change things up every few months, you could be missing out on a ton of conversions.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to run regular A/B tests on your retargeting ads. By testing new imagery and copy on a regular basis, you can keep things fresh and figure out what sort of messaging really works best for your audience. It’s a double win!

Taking Retargeting to the Next Level

Getting your retargeting set up correctly is great, but if you really want your campaigns to deliver awesome results, you have to get inside the head of your target audiences.

Every potential customer is on a buyer journey, and every buyer journey is different. If you want to use retargeting to lead potential customers to the point where they are ready to buy, you need to craft marketing messages that match where your customers currently are—not just where you think they are.

Here are four ways to do that:

1. Resolve Their Concerns

Often, people aren’t ready to convert because they still have unanswered questions or concerns about converting.

They might not be ready to spend what you’re asking. They might not be ready because they feel nervous about giving you their personal information. They might not be ready to make the time commitment that comes with signing up.

Whatever the reason, if you know that most of your audience isn’t ready to convert because of a specific concern, retargeting can be a great way to address that concern.

Wix does an excellent job of this with one of their retargeting videos. Wix provides website design services, but most people believe that creating a website will take a ton of time and energy. Since they aren’t ready to commit that time and energy, they don’t convert.

To address this point of concern, Wix runs a remarketing video that walks viewers through the process of designing a site on their platform in just one minute and seven seconds.

It’s a slick video, but even more important than the video itself is its message: designing a website with Wix is a quick process.

2. Cut Your Prices

Often, one of the biggest reasons why people aren’t ready to buy is because they aren’t comfortable with the price.

94% of people invest time into comparison shopping, so the odds are that most of your potential customers are hoping they can get what you’re selling for a cheaper price.

Is it any wonder that discounts are one of the most widely used sales tactics?

Discounts get directly at the heart of your potential customers’ pricing concerns. Throw in a little sense of urgency (“Offer Valid Until August 31st”) or exclusivity (“Like Our Page and Get 15% Off”) and you stand a good chance of nudging a potential customer into the “ready to buy” arena.

Cabela’s does an excellent job of this with their remarketing ads. For example, check out this ad:

Retargeting Discount Offers | Disruptive Advertising

If pricing on their products is a concern, Cabela’s just made it clear that they are willing to sell a lot of stuff for up to 40% off—as long as you buy soon. So, if price really is important to you, you need to buy now!

3. Make Things Simple

Another big reason why people aren’t ready to buy is because what you’re selling is just part of a bigger problem they need resolved.

If you buy a new phone…you also buy a cover. You can’t just get your oil changed…you also need your brakes checked (and the tires….and the lights…and the…ad infinitum). If you sign up for cable, you need someone to set it up.

So, if they buy what you’re selling, they have to figure all of the rest of it out, too. That’s a headache—one that can keep them from converting.

Fortunately, retargeting is a great way to address these concerns, especially if you happen to sell the solution(s)!

For example, Maurices’s retargeting ads take a product you showed interest in and show it in combination with a variety of accessories:

Retargeting Complimentary Products | Disruptive Advertising

Now, instead of having to figure out all the coordinating pieces you need to buy, you can buy a great looking outfit all at once. It makes things easier for you (and it makes more money for Maurices).

This tactic works great for eCommerce businesses, but can work just as well for almost any business. All you have to do is identify the “extras” your customers will probably have to buy and make it clear to your customers that if they buy from you, it’s a one-stop experience.

Throw in a combo discount and you’re well on your way to getting people from “thinking about buying” to “ready to buy!”

4. Bring Them Back for More

Remember how I said that your burn pixel was good for more than just getting people out of your retargeting campaigns?

Well, good retargeting convinces people who are ready to convert—but didn’t actually act during their first visit to your site—to convert. Better retargeting convinces people who aren’t ready to convert to convert.

The best retargeting convinces people who have converted to convert again.

Marketing doesn’t end with a sale. Sales may be the ultimate goal of marketing, but the best marketing gets people to buy again and again.

To pull this off, you really need to understand your buying cycle. If someone just made a purchase, they probably aren’t ready to buy again the next day. Give it a few weeks or months, though, and new needs or challenges can easily get someone ready to buy once again.

And, if your ads happen to be there when they are ready to buy, you’ve got a much better chance of up-selling or cross-selling your customers.

For example, if you are marketing a SaaS product and most of your customers upgrade after 3 months, it might be a good idea to run retargeting ads at about 2 months after someone signs up. That way, you can highlight the benefits of upgrading just as they start to realize that they need to upgrade.

Now that’s awesome retargeting in action!


That’s it, you made it! In this article, we’ve covered everything you need to know about retargeting: platforms, services, best practices and ways to really get the most out of your remarketing efforts.

Hopefully, you should be well on your way to creating truly effective retargeting campaigns, but if you want some extra help, let me know here or in the comments! I’d be happy to take a look at things and give you some specific recommendations.

How do you use retargeting to build your business? Any tips you’d like to share?

  • AdWords

  • PPC

Aden Andrus

Aden Andrus

Over his career, Aden has developed and marketed millions of dollars of successful products. He lays awake at nights figuring out new marketing tactics and is constantly upping Disruptive's internal marketing game. He loves to write, dance and destroy computer monitors in full medieval armor.

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