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Retargeting ads don’t work

This is not a rant about retargeting ads. Actually, the idea for the post was inspired by my questioning the effectiveness of retargeting ads (due to high cost / potential for reputational damage vs. return).

You see, for a while now, because I visit certain media / publishing sites quite regularly, and other sites (typically ecommerce) only when researching products, what I often get is retargeting ads from the ecommerce site on the publisher sites ( news/ media sites etc.).

What is retargeting?

I'm sure you've all experienced retargeting (also called remarketing)  - it's when ads 'follow you around' the web.  People can feel creeped out by it because they don't understand how it works and they may even feel stalked.

The technology behind it is based on Javascript - a cookie is set whenever you visit e.g. an ecommerce site, and this allows the ecommerce brand to follow you as you browse the web and target you with its ads on other sites that you visit. Retargeting ads can even feature the actual product that you looked at on the ecommerce site (but didn't buy).

A detailed explanation of how it works is provided by ReTargeter : place a small, unobtrusive piece of code on your website (this code is sometimes referred to as a pixel). The code, or pixel, is unnoticeable to your site visitors and won’t affect your site’s performance. Every time a new visitor comes to your site, the code drops an anonymous browser cookie. Later, when your cookied visitors browse the Web, the cookie will let your retargeting provider know when to serve ads, ensuring that your ads are served to only to people who have previously visited your site.

They've even got an excellent image that illustrate the technology:

what is retargeting
Image copyright Click for original source.

The point of retargeting, according to the literature,  is that it can 'catch you' and remind you to complete whatever purchase you didn't make when first visiting the site. So for instance, if you've looked at certain products on an ecommerce site, it can show you exactly those products thus keeping it top of mind, and linking straight back (to the product page) in the hope you will complete the purchase.

One of the problems with this idea is that it doesn't take into account the numerous other channels that are typically part of the path to purchase nowadays (both offline and online). I'll show you what I mean with an example - detailing the steps and channels in a recent purchase of a shirt for work, where retargeting ads were an (ineffective) part of the mix.


Example: My journey to purchase a new shirt

(1) Overall goal

Objective: Buy the same white shirt that I've previously bought (from Marks and Spencer). I'm a repeat customer.

Strategy: Order / pay online and pick up in store (click and collect)

Channels: Online, Store

--> Sounds straightforward, doesn't it.

(2) Purchase journey starts

Step 1

Objective:  Purchase / Conversion


  • Pinterest: I had pinned the previously bought shirt to a board as an easy bookmark for future purchase, and clicked on the product link.
  • M&S website: When clicking on the link to the M&S website, I got an error message [they launched their new site back in February and my initial thoughts were that they'd simply failed to put the right redirects in place]

Result: Objective not achieved. Despite brief search unable to conclusively verify whether or not shirt still available.

Step 2

Objective: Information / Research: find out if M&S still sell the shirt.


  • Store (Aberdeen). Both physically searched store and used digital 'browse and order hub' in store.

Result: Objective achieved. Shirt no longer for sale.

At this stage I took a break and no longer considered buying a new work shirt.

(3) 2 weeks later: Purchase journey continues

Step 3

Objective: Information/ Consideration: find out if M&S sell shirts similar to the one I wanted originally, to consider alternatives

Channels: Website

Result:  decided on two shirts and browsed a number of similar ones

Step 4

Objective: Purchase

Channels: Store (Edinburgh)

Result: purchased 2x shirts in the Edinburgh store (offline - no click & collect)

(4) Purchase completed

I had successfully completed my purchase (offline). But then....

(5) Retargeting Ads start appearing (after purchase)

It looks like in step 3, when I revisited the M&S website to do more in-depth research on shirts, the cookie was set, and since then the ad below has been following me around in one way or other (it's been going on for over a week now). If the idea is to bring me back to the site and complete the purchase, that's obviously not going to happen, since I already have, offline. And that's why it's bordering on the annoying and feels like being nagged by M&S, or at least misunderstood.

Retargeting ads - MS example

You could of course argue that continuing to show the ad for the same shirts (that I've already bought) will burn them into my mind, so that I'll be loyal and only ever buy those or similar shirts from M&S in the future.

That decision however wouldn't be down to retargeting ads - it would be down to the quality of the product, and my happiness with it.

I hope my recent purchase journey has illustrated why retargeting ads don't work for me. I would be interested in seeing some data that supports or contradicts what is admittedly a highly personal view. Are there any good studies on the effectiveness of remarketing? How well does it work to its stated goal of coaxing visitors back to your site to complete a conversion / purchase? Does this happen, and if so, what's the ROI?

Perhaps the answer isn't that simple. But I still think it's a worthwhile question to ask!







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