Remarketing: What it is and why EVERYONE should do it.

The power of remarketing is simple. You become the online memory for your previous visitors, reminding them of what they wanted to do… before they got distracted.

Let’s face it. People are busy. And our online attentions spans get shorter and shorter each year. There is far too much going on in our world to guarantee that we can start and finish a given task during a single online session. We get pinged, and beeped, called, and are, in general, distracted far to easily and – suddenly – the task at hand gets set aside to complete later. Remarketing (also known as retargeting) is a cost-effective way to bring those customers back to your business by targeting specific advertising campaigns at them – purely because they been on your site before.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
― William Edward Hickson

There’s an old saying about trying again if you don’t succeed the first time. Think of remarketing as you chance to “try, try again” because you can put your company back in front of the people who initially showed interest in it.

How remarketing campaigns work

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every visitor will eventually become a customer. Some visited your site only discover that you didn’t offer what they were looking for. Some visited your site and then ended up purchasing that product or service somewhere else. Others (and this is particularly important), visited your site and then purchased from your site.

I’m not going to be giving you a deep-dive tutorial on the various ins and outs, and how-tos of running a successful remarketing campaign. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not ready for that yet. If that’s what you’re looking for, leave now… and come back later when I do tackle that granular level on this subject. Maybe I’ll remarket to you when that happens.

Think of this as a remarketing primer, just setting the overview of what remarketing is and why you should care about it.

In this remarketing article you will learn: 

  1. The importance of list segmentation for remarketing
  2. Key types of remarketing ads
  3. Important measurements in determining remarketing success
  4. Figuring out when to STOP remarketing
  5. The key next step on your route to a successful remarketing campaign

Are you ready? Ok, let’s get started.

Remarketing List Segmentation

To start this discussion, it’s important to understand that in order to remarket to someone, you must have had some kind of interaction with them to begin. Usually, that’s a visit to some part of your online web presence. Beyond that, there are many, many, many ways to break that audience down into unique segments. However, the two key areas of division – in my opinion – are to divide them up by Where They Went and What They Did.

Segmenting remarketing campaigns by traffic patterns

The initial division of your remarketing campaigns is understanding where the customers went on your site. Did they read a really fascinating article about logo design? Did they look at a particular product or service? Did they just hit the homepage and then leave the site immediately?

By targeting previous visitors based on where they went and what they looked at on your site the last time they visited, you can deliver a more relevant reminder message.

I’m sure you’ve seen it before for yourself. You look at a particular product on a particular website, and suddenly you’re seeing ads for that product everywhere you go. That’s the most common example of product remarketing, and it is usually quite effective.

This kind of segmentation lets you narrow your focus down to something very specific to their interests. When you don’t have this kind of segmentation, the only thing you can remarket to them with are generic brand or site ads. Although they will help keep your name in front of your potential customers, they don’t do as good a job at triggering the user’s memory about why they were on your site in the first place.

Segmenting remarketing campaigns by behavior

In some ways, this is similar to the segmentation above, but with one very important difference. This segmentation attempts to look further into the intent of the visit and how far they got down the purchase path before they left.

Did they add a product to their shopping cart? Did they complete the purchase? Did they visit a contact form on the site? Did they fill it out? Did they download a whitepaper?

It is valuable, in any remarketing campaign, to understand where the customer is in their buying cycle to understand what kind of marketing message for deliver. For example:

Views product, does not add to cart Product ads, reminding them of the product they were interested in
Adds product to cart but abandons Discount offer or free shipping in order to tip their purchase decision in your favor
Successful online purchase Remove from product-specific remarketing and use this list for retention and cross-sell messaging
Reads a blog article, case study, or whitepaper Remarket to them with messages promoting your supporting products or services related to that article
Fills out lead form on site Remarket with reinforcing benefit messaging that will help the salesperson close the deal
Visits home page, then leaves One of the lower value segments, but still worth keeping your top-line brand message in front of them for a while.

Those are just a few examples of how you can segment your list by intent and current location in the purchase funnel.

A lot of the companies I’ve worked with have understood the value of pre-conversion remarketing, that being the remarketing ads that go out before the sale is completed or before the lead form is filled out. Very few understand the benefits of continuing the relationship with that customer through remarketing in order to get them to buy something else, buy again… basically buy more.

There is also way to use your existing customer list to remarket to them, but I will tackle that another time.

Types of Remarketing Ads

There is a wide variety of formats and sizes for remarketing ads, but the top five that will likely drive the most business for your company are:

Text Ads These are very basic ads, written similarly to how you would write search marketing ads.
Banners Ads Do I need to explain these? If I do, you need more help than I thought. However, I will say that the two MOST popular sizes 300 pixels × 250 pixels and 728 pixels × 90 pixels. If you only create two ad sizes, create these two.
Product Listing Ads You can connect your remarketing efforts to your product data feed in order to create a dynamic remarketing campaign that shows the exact products that customer was looking at in the remarketing ads.
Responsive Ads These take a combination of a text ad as well as an image uploaded by you and dynamically create the ad to fit the space based on the website the ad is displayed upon as well as the resolution of the user’s device.
RLSA (Remarketing Lists for Search Ads) Remarketing lists can also be used in search ads to specifically target people who are searching for set keywords. If, for example, a previous customer is searching for another product that you offer, you can target these folks in order to get them to come back to you for their next purchase of a completely different product. You probably have these ads already created in your search marketing campaigns — adding the remarketing dimension is fairly easy.

Text and banner ads are the easiest to implement, and usually where I recommend people start out. It’s a nice, easy, “dip your toes into the water” starting point for remarketing.

Responsive ads are the next logical add-on, as they take the text and images you used for the first two, but you simply upload them individually so that the platform can display them in the appropriate configuration for the person who is viewing them.

RLSA and Product Listing Ads are the more complicated cousins in the remarketing family. They’re like the ones at the family reunion with the really thick accent that are hard to understand at first, but – once you get used to how they speak – you realize they have some very interesting stories to share.

Measuring for Remarketing Success

When running a successful remarketing campaign, it’s important to look at all of the metrics, but understand which are more valuable than the others.

Key Measurement Value
Ad Impressions Even if they don’t come back and buy right away, remarketing impressions have a lot of value because they help reinforce your brand among an audience that already has a connection with your company. Plus, often your customer will return to you after seeing your remarketing ad, even if they don’t click on it directly. (I talk about that a bit more a few rows below)
Clicks Clicks tell you how engaged potential customers are with your company because they are willing to visit again. However, just getting another click is of limited value if they don’t go further down the purchase funnel on subsequent visits.
Post-Click Conversions The ultimate goal of a remarketing campaign is to get customers to buy, so this would be considered the BIG WIN. However, not to deflate anyone’s happiness balloon, it’s always important to remember that a portion of these customers would likely have come back and bought anyway. Therefore, post-click conversions should be seen as an assist to the conversion and not the sole driver of that sale. Also, if you hadn’t had the original marketing campaign that brought them to the site in the first place, you wouldn’t have the visitor to remarket. It’s a team effort, so keep that in mind when allocating budgets.
Impression Only Conversions  This one is tricky. Impression only conversions (otherwise known as View-Through Conversions) occur when a previous visitor SEES your ad, but then comes back to your site on their own and completes their purchase. These are also valuable, but one of the challenges is understanding exactly how much the remarketing ad influenced their decision to return to your site and purchase.

A great illustration of this is a test I ran a few years ago where I used remarketing campaigns, but two different pieces of creative. One was standard remarketing, one was a non-branded Public Service Announcement for a national charity (you’re welcome!). Because the second ad had NOTHING to do with the company, or product, we could tell that it had zero influence on the view-through conversions.

What we found is that the PSA still had view through conversions, but not nearly as many as the branded ad. Because of this test (and others like it), I have always estimated that 35% of view-through conversions are – indeed – incremental. This may be different for your industry, product, campaign depth, etc. But all of my tests so far have always ended up around the same number, so that’s what I’m sticking with (for now).

Cost Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to understand the cost of your remarketing campaign, because it helps when applied to the metrics above.

  • Are the CPMs and CPCs on remarketing better than you could achieve through other programs?
  • What is your cost per conversion? How does that compare to your other programs?
  • What is your cost for view through conversion? Does it still make sense if you apply the 35% factor to it?

I can tell you that – in my career – I have very, very, VERY rarely found a remarketing campaign that did not deliver better metrics than almost any other paid demand generation channel. But, again, keep in mind that you need the other channels, both paid and organic, to deliver the potential customer in the first place, so it is usually a mistake to shift your entire budget into remarketing for more than very short bursts.

Over time, you’ll find new and interesting ways to measure the success of your remarketing campaigns, but the above are a pretty good place to start.

When to STOP remarketing

There’s an old saying about trying again if you don’t succeed the first time. There’s another old saying, but the irreverent W.C. Fields, about how – eventually – you need to give up before you look like an idiot.


“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
– W. C. Fields

There’s a certain point when you have to accept that – no matter how many more impressions you through at them – that visitor is NOT coming back to your site anytime soon. This could be measured in days. It could be measured in number of impressions. It could also be based on how many impressions PER day make the most sense.

You will know your business and product purchase cycles better than I possibly could, so you can use that as a guiding principle when you start. If you know that most people buy within 7 days of visiting your site, stop the remarketing program at day 8. If, however, the purchase cycle is much longer, you can extend that.

Once you’ve had your program up and running long enough, you’ll be able to see details on the impressions, clicks, and sales that happen on each day, and be able to judge the dwindling returns in order to figure out where you are just spending money like a fool.

Your next steps?

  1. If you’re new to remarketing (and I’m assuming that you are since you made it all the way to the bottom of this article), the Google platform is an excellent place to start. Read more from Google on their remarketing campaign program here:  About Remarketing >> Google Adwords Help
  2. While you continue to learn and explore, add the remarketing pixels to your site now. Depending on the amount of site traffic you get, it can take up to 30 days to build an audience size that’s big enough to run a decent remarketing campaign. If you add the pixels now, you can start building the cookie pool right away while you figure out the rest of the how-tos on remarketing. That way, it’s ready when you are.

Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.  – Babe Ruth

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