Retargeting – Mostly a Waste of Money

Even though I live and breathe the internet, I only recently learnt what “retargeter” or “retargeting” companies are, and what it actually is that they do.

You’ll know it even if you hadn’t heard the term either.

You know that thing you were thinking of buying? Well perhaps you looked at on Amazon/John Lewis/Asos/wherever. But you didn’t complete a purchase. You looked at the specifications, perhaps read a few customer reviews. But for whatever reason, you failed to buy it.

Well retargeting companies use the fact that you nearly bought something, or at least had a look at it, to sell display ads that appear on other pages of the internet that you subsequently visit. So when it appears that you’re being trailed around the internet by a camera or duvet you browsed for earlier? Well you are. They know you were interested, and you’re theoretically the easiest conversion to make. You just need to be pushed over the line, complete the purchase and everyone’s a winner.

In case you didn’t know, when you visit the average ad-funded page, a real-time auction is taking place based upon what the ad networks know about you, to deliver appropriate advertising. This all happens in milli-seconds as the page loads, and it explains why you seem to be followed around the web so much.

So much for the theory. In practice, it seems broken in many ways. In a world of big data, it’s remarkable how many companies don’t do it right.

On many occasions, something in the system completely and utterly breaks, and I’ll find a company with who I completed an actual purchase, still retargeting me with the same item that they’ve already shipped to me. This isn’t a one-off occurrence, it happens multiple times.

Waste of money.

Not only that, of all things in the world that you can sell me, very probably the last thing I want to buy right now, is the very thing I’ve just bought. Even amongst FMCG brands that I regularly purchase, an immediate need for additional items is unlikely. Seriously, you’re better off trying to flog me a Ferrari that I will never ever buy, than the door-hooks I actually just bought.

Then there is the fact that retargeting seems to take surprisingly little account of price. I was recently shopping for a £2.99 bike-light mount. This is a low value item, and basically I just wanted a retailer who stocked it. I didn’t really care where it came from. I find it amazing that it’s worth even a fraction of a penny to advertise that item to me. This isn’t a considered purchase – a laptop or a television, for example. This is a no questions asked item that I just need.

Waste of money.

Much worse than any of this is the fact that the retargeting companies don’t take account of the fact that most of us do our own price comparisons if the item is of any significant value. I research the model blender I want. I search a few retailers and check the prices. Then I buy from one of them. Except, the other retailers don’t know that I bought it from a competitor. So I’m followed around by blender ads for days afterwards.

Waste of money.

It gets really odd when a big company should know better. Real case in point. I searched YouTube for a new song by an artist I liked. The song appears on a new album, and I get a pre-roll for that album. Fine. That makes sense.

Then I go to Google Play and buy that very album. Back on YouTube, any video I watch is now deluged with pre-rolls for that very same album. Google knows I own it.

It’s a complete waste of money for the client. They should be trying to sell me anything else in the world apart from the album I just bought.

Perhaps in that instance there is some kind of Chinese wall between Google Play transactions and YouTube, but I’d bet that some kind of terms and conditions that I’ve accepted – without reading – allows that data to be shared.

Personally I think while I get a bit annoyed about it, and it feels a bit creepy that companies and ad networks know so much about me, it’s actually the client companies that are losing out. They are flushing their marketing budgets down the toilet in the belief that this is some of the best marketing cash they could spend.

No wonder Dominic Mills in an opinion piece at Mediatel earlier this week described retargeting as “a grubby business.”

I wrote this piece because I was seeing adverts for something that is currently in my Amazon basket on other websites.

I will be buying it.

I just wanted to get something else at the same time, and I don’t need either item for a couple of days. No rush.

In the meantime, some agency somewhere is wasting a client’s money spending cash advertising something directly to me that I’m in the process of buying. Brilliant.


  1. I read this post nodding my head all the way through it.

    It got me thinking about Spam. You know the age old story that we get spammed all day long because every 1000 odd emails someone somewhere makes a purchase. But I don’t believe that. If spam was anything other a waste of time why wouldn’t major advertisers and retailers be using it? Maybe because we don’t see targeted emails from retailers we’ve used previously as spammers in the same way as those pushing genuine replica Ronex watches?

  2. It’s probably one in every 10,000 or 100,000 spam emails that “work” – and the reason they do it is because it’s essentially free. So that level of hit rate is acceptable.

    I think emails from retailers are different because although they don’t make it easy, you can opt out. If you’re bothered by the email they’re sending you, then the retailer is doing something wrong. Yes – I get multiple emails a week from some retailers – daily even. But I know I can stop near enough all of them should I choose to. And if I can’t, then it can safely be considered spam.

    Spam is usually from someone you didn’t ask to email you. They got your details through fair means or foul. They’re selling you more dubious things.

    If I was a major retailer, I’d be more worried about how little control I have over my digital advertising on the web. Not just retargeting, but the copy that appears via ad networks and exchanges. There was a piece recently in the FT that suggested that views of at least half of a recent Mercedes campaign were fraudulent. What’s more, the use of these exchanges means most businesses have no idea what kind of sites their copy is appearing on.

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