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Retargeting 101:
Best Practices to Maximize Your Results

Try your hand at retargeting here


As retargeting continues to deliver strong results, marketers are increasing their investments not only to meet lower-funnel conversion objectives but also to strengthen upper-funnel awareness campaigns, lead nurturing, customer engagement, and loyalty and retention.

Advertisers are retargeting on a wider network of platforms and devices, and use cases for mobile and social are expanding. As marketers strive to compete with more brands vying for customers’ attention, a comprehensive retargeting strategy is necessary to deliver results and pave the way for a deeper understanding of customer intent.

Whether you’re a retargeting newcomer or a paragon of programmatic personalization, we’re here to help you get more out of your campaigns with the latest tactics that drive results.

Retargeting 101

What is programmatic advertising?

Before we dive into retargeting, let’s take a step back and start from the very beginning.

Retargeting is one marketing strategy within a larger practice called programmatic advertising. Programmatic advertising refers to buying and selling available ad spaces, or inventory, online. Today, programmatic advertising is typically bought through real-time bidding (RTB).

In programmatic advertising, an algorithm automatically makes the purchasing decisions for marketers. With RTB, most publishers offer available ad space to ad exchanges. These ad exchanges allow demand-side platforms (DSPs) to bid on ad space for their clients. DSPs bid based on the likelihood that a client’s customers will purchase a product. A winner is instantly chosen, and their ad is shown on the page. The process allows marketers to track how their budgets are being spent in real time, eliminating unnecessary contracts and helping them quickly determine which channels perform best.

Want to learn more about how AdRoll approaches RTB and advertising AI? Take a look at the latest changes with BidIQ™.

What is retargeting?

In the most basic sense, retargeting enables marketers to deliver personalized content to users who have previously visited their sites. This includes content that relates to sites they’ve visited and products they’ve viewed.

How does retargeting work?

First, a snippet of code—also known as a retargeting pixel—is placed on your website. The pixel collects essential visitor data, including which pages a user has visited, how long they have spent on your site, and where they are in the world.

When a user visits your website, the pixel also drops a retargeting cookie in their browser. This cookie leaves a trail of crumbs as the potential customer surfs online, so you can retarget them with display ads across the web even after they’ve left your site.

How retargeting works

Someone visits your site but leaves without completing your desired action (purchase, signup, etc.).

Later, while on any device, they get targeted with your ad.

Their interest is recaptured, and they return to your site to complete your desired action.

The logic behind retargeting

While it’s good to know how retargeting works, many marketers are still not sure why they should consider running campaigns that utilize this tactic. The simple answer is that it gives marketers unparalleled audience targeting—at scale.

Before retargeting, many marketers would purchase ad space on sites that they thought their readers frequently visited. From there, marketers would use demographic data to target ads based on who they thought their audience was. This data focused on things like a prospect’s age, gender, location, occupation, and interests. While this could be effective for some campaigns, it still relied on a marketer’s inherent assumptions about their ideal customer. So what was the solution?

The importance of first-party data

Retargeting has been so popular because it is very effective at harnessing the power of first-party data to inform the logic behind how digital media campaigns bid for remnant ad space online. First-party data simply refers to the data that a marketer collects from its website. This includes things like collected email addresses, survey results, and website behavior. Unlike previous efforts that relied on assumptions, first-party data focuses on a person’s actual online behavior. For example, say a prospect visits your site and puts one of your products in their cart but leaves without completing the purchase. Retargeting enables you to serve that visitor ads for the product they left behind as they travel across the web and social media. This bundles up into something called buyer intent.

Taking advantage of buyer intent

In the programmatic era, buyer intent data is your most valuable marketing asset, but most businesses don’t leverage its full potential. Retargeting tools takes full advantage of buyer intent data, letting you customize the ads served to prospects based on the way they’ve interacted with your website.

Potential customers will see ads selected specifically for their interests, remaining engaged with your brand even as they navigate away to their favorite blog, news site, or social network.

Learn more about how data can help you optimize your campaigns for marketing success.

When should I start retargeting?

Before we get started, let’s make sure it’s the right time to kick off your retargeting campaign. Make sure you have:

Your own website

AdRoll works by tracking the behavior of every user on your site. If you don’t have a site or only have a social page, AdRoll is not the best fit for your business.

More than 500 monthly site visitors

Retargeting works best when you have at least 500 monthly site visitors. If you are unsure of how many monthly site visitors you have, you can find out by using the AdRoll pixel to monitor your web traffic.

A site with structure and navigation

AdRoll can help you run top-performing retargeting campaigns, but if your site has no clear way for visitors to take actions (e.g., completing purchases or filling out forms), it will be difficult to see positive results.

How to Use Retargeting: Best Practices For Mobile, Web, Social, CRM

The good thing about retargeting campaigns, and programmatic advertising in general, is that they can run across multiple websites, platforms, and social media channels—effectively ensuring that you can reach your target audience wherever they might go online.

Leveraging intent

In the programmatic era, buyer intent data is your most valuable marketing asset, but most businesses don’t leverage it to its full potential. Retargeting takes full advantage of this buyer intent data, letting you customize the ads served to prospects based on the way they’ve interacted with your website.

Potential customers will see ads specifically selected for their interests, remaining engaged with your brand even as they navigate away to their favorite blog, news site, or social network.

Retargeting on the web

Web retargeting is the combination of tailored messaging and targeted ad placement. Targeted display ads are bought via ad exchanges and served on news sites, blogs, and other locations online—wherever your customer might be browsing.

Web retargeting works well for ecommerce, tech B2B, media and entertainment, and generally any brand interested in engaging current or prospective customers online. It’s a strong foundation for any retargeting program.

Retargeting on social

Social networks give brands a direct line to extremely engaged consumers. Retargeting on social gives you access to some of the largest audiences online and lets you take advantage of native tools—such as shares, likes, and comments—to further expand your reach.

Users on social are already more engaged while they’re browsing, so be ready to interact with prospects who come across your retargeting ads. This is a good opportunity to highlight your brand's personality and connect with users by building out your Facebook page or tweeting about new products and content offers.

With AdRoll, you can also run retargeting ads across Instagram. Now that it has over 500 million users and 500 thousand advertisers, it's definitely time to give the platform the attention it deserves. Instagram is a true mobile-first platform. Since the majority of online activity is spent on mobile devices, adding Instagram to your publisher mix is an essential part of a cross-device strategy that aims to reach users on any channel, at any time.

You can learn more about how to successfully retarget across Facebook here, and how to create successful Instagram campaigns here.

Retargeting on mobile

Omnipresent and multipurpose, mobile has become an integral part of the shopping experience at every stage of the purchase funnel—from researching new products and comparing reviews to completing purchases and sharing with friends.

With mobile retargeting, advertisers can retarget desktop visitors as they browse across social networks on their mobile devices, or retarget mobile site visitors as they move to desktop computers to research larger purchases. This is important because we’ve noticed that advertisers who add mobile platforms to their online marketing campaigns experience a 120% higher click-through rate (CTR) and serve 32% more impressions.*

It’s also a can’t-miss opportunity for brands with mobile apps to promote app-install ads. You can target consumers directly with personalized ads on their favorite apps. Mobile ads and mobile app-install ads on Facebook and Twitter are a great way to get started.

Click here to get a list of our most successful mobile marketing tactics.

*According to an average of data pulled from all spending AdRoll customers during 2016.

CRM retargeting

How does retargeting work with email? When a marketer opts in to AdRoll emails, their site’s AdRoll Pixel will automatically recognize when an email address is submitted on any website page and collect it. By associating each cookie the pixel drops with a unique email, the vendor can match email subscribers to the actions they take on a site. What’s the major key? Collecting those email addresses.

Whenever a visitor is prompted to submit their email address, it is an opportunity for the marketer to add a potential customer to their email audience.

AdRoll emails is not just another email provider—it sits in a unique place in the market by offering value that works with or without your existing email provider. AdRoll emails are distinctive in that they act as a first-party email provider, enabling marketers to directly target customers who visit their sites.

We can also work directly with marketers’ existing email campaigns and apply frequency caps to protect brand image—this helps ensure users won’t get bombarded with emails.

Take advantage of these opportunities to serve emails:

  1. Subscribing to your blog or newsletter
  2. Logging in to their account (with an email address)
  3. Checking out
  4. Signing up for a promotion or coupon

Learn more about email retargeting best practices here.

Secret weapons for retargeting success

Dynamic Ads

Take ad personalization to the next level by showcasing products that are tailored to each individual’s browsing behavior. Easily leverage these beautifully customized ads to drive better performance across devices on the web, Facebook, Instagram, and email.

Learn more about how to use dynamic ads here.


Prospecting (or display prospecting) helps attract new audiences who are likely to convert and become customers. By targeting digital profiles similar to those of your existing customers, prospecting automates new customer acquisition.

Also called look-alike audiences, similar audiences, or audience modeling, prospecting is the first step in a full-funnel marketing strategy.

Learn more about prospecting with AdRoll Attract here.

Cross-device retargeting

Cross-device simply means reaching prospects across different devices, like desktop computers, mobile phones, and tablets. Cross-device campaigns are particularly helpful when creating effective full-funnel campaigns—something we’ll touch on later—as they allow you to expand your reach to multiple different devices that your prospects use on a daily basis. Think about it: How often do you switch between a desktop, a phone, and even a tablet? Employing this strategy will help ensure you reach your customers wherever they go online.

Learn more about cross-device here.

How do I create ads?

Ads are one of the most important aspects of digital campaigns, in terms of ensuring your marketing stays top of mind and convinces prospects to convert. If you’d like to learn more, check out our tips and tricks for creating successful online ads here.

Getting started: Strategies for retargeting success

You’ve defined your success metrics and decided on an initial budget. Before you get started, it’s important to identify what matters most to you. Is it spending your entire budget or getting the best performance possible?

Why shouldn’t I prioritize both?

  • The simple reason is that they’re inversely related. Optimizing for performance is a great way to make sure that every ad dollar you spend is returning the highest yield possible. However, in order to get the best performance, you might end up limiting your audience to the people most likely to convert and avoid spending to reach anyone else. It’s great for return on investment (ROI) but can often limit your audience size and budget fulfillment.
  • On the other hand, optimizing for spend is a great way to reach the widest audience possible. Since you’re not strictly focused on performance, your campaigns have more flexibility to reach different segments of visitors you might otherwise have missed. By widening your audience, you’re better able to spend your intended budget and achieve greater reach.

Which should I focus on?

It’s a balance. Once you understand how much each customer action is worth to you, you can seek to drive as much reach as possible while staying below your specific targets. Here are a few questions that might help unlock what matters most to you:

  • Would you prefer to spend your total budget or hit a specific KPI in the first month?
  • How would your performance expectations change if you could double your budget?
  • Would you trade hitting your KPI goal for getting a higher volume of conversions?

Based on your answers, you’ll have a good idea of whether you should focus on spend or performance. If you run Automated Campaigns, our intelligent platform optimizes 24/7 to help you achieve whichever goal you choose.

The full-funnel approach

The full-funnel approach is important because it helps marketers better personalize their content to their customers—while also ensuring that this content reaches their audience across platforms and devices.

A full-funnel approach might seem vague, but it simply refers to the process of optimizing campaign strategies so that they are able to appropriately speak to your prospective customers wherever they fall within the sales cycle. This means that instead of using one strategy to mass-blast one message to your entire audience, you’ll now be able to serve ads across devices to any user, based on things like their intent to buy and their knowledge of your product.

This is the most important facet of the full-funnel strategy because it shows that retargeting can enable any marketer to expand their campaigns’ reach to different websites, apps, and social channels. Implementing a full-funnel strategy also helps marketers personalize their ads to speak to customers one-on-one.

The funnel explained

The full-funnel perspective gives marketers the opportunity to adjust their approach to, and measurement of, their campaigns according to where a prospect is in the buying cycle. Since customers require a different approach at every stage of the funnel, it’s important to adjust your marketing strategy accordingly.

Attract at the top of the funnel

The top of funnel is also known as the awareness stage—where prospects are either unaware of your product or just beginning their research. Retargeting at this stage should aim to educate potential customers on your brand and convince them to become a little more acquainted with your offerings.

At this stage, AdRoll Attract can analyze your existing customer data and help you find new, high-quality audiences when they’re in the market for your products. AdRoll Attract is powered by the AdRoll IntentMap™, the world’s largest advertiser data co-op with over 1.2 billion digital profiles. Once these users are driven to your site, they’ll automatically be added to your retargeting campaigns.

Convert at the middle of the funnel

The middle of the funnel is where prospects start to become more serious by showing a lot of interest in your product. Perhaps they've signed up for your email list, downloaded a whitepaper, or requested a demo—whatever your conversion point, this is the moment where retargeting can really shine.

The goal at this stage is to increase the total number of conversions. Once a prospect leaves your site, retargeting steps in to remind them of their intent to learn more about your products—eventually driving them to convert.

At this stage, you’ll want to make sure you’re firing on all cylinders. Marketers should be running retargeting across the web, mobile, social, and email to extend online presence and ensure ads get in front of customers.

Grow at the bottom of the funnel

The final stage of the funnel is where the deals start closing and upsell opportunities start coming into play. Now that prospects are well aware of your brand, seal the deal with a discount or demo opportunity.

This stage of the funnel is also where marketers have the opportunity to grow their current customer base. Marketers at this stage should use retargeting to show appreciation to loyal customers with exclusive deals, or grow current accounts by serving them ads that show off other products.

Overall, marketers looking to grow their bottom line and retain their customers should look to create a seamless retargeting flow from the top of the funnel to the bottom.

Segmenting your audience across the funnel

This is the moment when buyer intent starts to take the center stage. When you set up your retargeting campaign, you’ll automatically start collecting valuable information about your customers. This is because visitors leave a history of intent data while browsing your site that reveals a wealth of information about their interests and buying behaviors. As previously mentioned, this is the data that retargeting captures and acts on.

You can organize your buyer intent data by creating basic audience segments—essentially, groups of people who have taken the same actions online—for your retargeting campaigns. Once you start collecting data to populate these segments, you can serve these targeted groups personalized ads based on demonstrated interests.

This is why audience segmentation is so important—it lets advertisers group users based on where they fall in the funnel. A user who visited your homepage but bounced without clicking anything can be grouped in an upper-funnel campaign, while a user who made it all the way to the cart page before leaving can be targeted with lower-funnel strategies.

Use these segments to reach your audience, and you’ll be well on your way to attracting, converting, and growing your customer base.

Interested in finding out more? Learn how to create full-funnel campaigns that drive tangible ROI for your business.

Measuring full-funnel success

How do you measure these cross-device efforts that target users at every stage of the sales funnel? The answer can be found when you look at your attribution models.

It's long been thought that the best way to measure the success of your ads is to account for how many people click on them. However, this simply isn't the case. AdRoll’s 2017 State of Performance Marketing report found that almost 75% of marketers believe attribution is critical or very important to marketing success. Over 40% said that they spend the lion’s share of their yearly budgets on campaign measurement.

Despite this influx of interest, many marketers continue to exclusively track ad clicks to measure their campaigns. Tracking ad clicks alone completely misses a large portion of your audience—those who don’t click on ads but may still be influenced to convert later.

At AdRoll, we measure success through conversions. A conversion occurs when a visitor completes an action that is valuable to your business after they interact with an ad. Depending on your business, that might be a purchase, a lead form submission, a phone call, or any valuable action that helps your business grow.

By defining which conversions matter most to your business and how much each conversion is worth to you, we can help create campaigns that are best suited to your specific business needs.

AdRoll measures the following KPIs for retargeting campaigns:

  • Spend: The amount spent on delivering ads
  • Impressions: The number of times an ad has been displayed
  • Clicks: The number of times an ad has been clicked
  • Click-through rate (CTR): The percentage of impressions that resulted in a click
  • Cost per thousand impressions (CPM): Total spend divided by the number of clicks
  • Cost per acquisition (CPA): Total spend divided by the number of conversions
  • View-through conversion (VTC): Number of conversions completed after someone saw an ad but did not click on it
  • Click-through conversion (CTC): Number of conversions completed after someone clicked on an ad
  • Return on investment (ROI): Attributed revenue divided by spend

The simple answer: Multi-touch attribution

In an ideal world, marketers would measure the success of their campaigns by taking into account every touchpoint that contributes to a sale. The multi-touch attribution model is generally viewed as the gold standard for marketing attribution. It aims to incorporate all touchpoints, including display advertising, search, and even offline marketing, like events. The idea is that by accurately distributing credit across channels, multi-touch attribution helps marketers better optimize their entire marketing strategy. However, an all-inclusive multi-touch attribution model isn’t always possible. The setup process can be expensive and involved—requiring a deep dive into data, deduping of multiple systems, and more. For that reason, we recommend against taking an “all or nothing” approach by waiting for the perfect attribution solution.

Learn more about how to implement the multi-touch attribution model that fits your business.

How other marketers have found success

Retargeting on the web

With aggressive lead targets and limited program dollars, AlienVault hoped that retargeting would help them further leverage the investments they were already making, both organically and from a paid perspective.

AdRoll’s easy implementation, real-time testing capabilities, and customer service enabled AlienVault to experiment with various strategies while also building out their brand. They used Retargeting for web and Facebook.

After their successful testing, AlienVault sought to expand their audience further and personalize their paid social reach through AdRoll’s CRM integration with Marketo.

Pursuing these unsubscribed users proved to be extremely successful; without being able to reach them by email, AlienVault effectively re-engaged unsubscribed users with a CTR of 0.14%.

At this point, the team was convinced: AdRoll’s full-funnel marketing platform was the best way to drive results and increase revenue. “You’re losing money if you don’t do some form of retargeting in this day and age. Especially if you’re already dedicating budget to paid programs,” says Brooke Leslie, senior marketing manager at AlienVault.

Retargeting on social media

Digital advertising wasn’t a priority for Los Angeles Marathon: past initiatives had provided minimal returns. Yet, while exploring more sophisticated registration solutions, they saw that digital advertising deserved another go. They came to AdRoll with the weighty challenge of increasing the number of registrants—and selling out sooner. To reach their entire sales funnel, they began retargeting across all inventory, including Facebook, Instagram, and the web.

Above all, AdRoll for Instagram has been their most creative and valuable tool for brand awareness. Los Angeles Marathon’s retargeting campaigns broke all the records: they drove thousands of conversions and earned over half a million dollars in attributed revenue. Not surprisingly, the marketing team is keeping Instagram in their ongoing promotional strategy for a growing lineup of events. “For 2016, we’ll be focusing on Instagram-specific content,” confirms Ryan Cavinder, marketing manager for Los Angeles Marathon.

Retargeting on mobile

While potential Preferred Hotels & Resorts customers spent time researching various destinations and running price comparisons, the marketing team wanted to promote special offers for the locations these customers were interested in visiting. The company noticed that prospective vacationers were using smartphones, tablets, and the web interchangeably, so its team worked with AdRoll to promote highly targeted ads across all devices.

With AdRoll’s reporting, Preferred Hotels & Resorts could reallocate budget toward the highest-performing websites, devices, and operating systems. CMO Casey Ueberroth explains, “We know our customers are engaging with us across multiple devices. With AdRoll, we had visibility into which platforms and devices were driving more conversions.”

Retargeting through email

Sam’s Furniture needed a straightforward solution to quickly send personalized emails to customers who were interested in their products. “As a local retailer, I’m always looking for ways to compete with big-box vendors and cut through the number of different resources a customer uses to shop,” says Seth Weisblatt, chief marketing officer of Sam's Furniture & Appliances. AdRoll emails gave Sam’s the ability to promptly send customized emails, delivering reminders of relevant and specific products customers were looking at.

While there were initial concerns that customers would not respond to being sent multiple emails, the end results put them to rest. By using AdRoll emails, the Sam’s Furniture team saw a 47% email open rate and a 16% CTR. “Using AdRoll Convert for the web and Facebook, along with AdRoll emails, was essential to our marketing strategy. They have proven to be a great way to remind our customers of our products and build on the success we’ve seen with our email marketing efforts,” says Weisblatt.


For many marketers, retargeting has introduced a new form of data-driven personalization to convert casual browsers into loyal buyers. By simply placing a short snippet of code, marketers can turn valuable customer data into actionable advertising strategies—in real time. Collecting anonymous information on user behavior and intent helps to ensure that brands can convert more prospects by engaging them with the right creative and messaging.