Retargeting ads aren't always retargeting the right people

Personalised retargeting or remarketing. Ads that seem to follow you around the internet, tailored to the online retail sites you’ve already visited and even the specific products you’ve browsed there. However you want to describe them, such ads seem to be on the rise.

Some find the phenomenon sinister: like being constantly watched or stalked; an intrusion of privacy. Others click on the link purporting to explain “Why are you being shown this banner?” then, apparently reassured (or resigned), don’t bother to opt out. As for retailers; more and more seem to be signing up to services like Criteo, while the likes of Google and Microsoft are now running their own behaviour tracking ads too.

So ran the gist of this New York Times article, from a couple of months ago.

Not long after reading it, I booked a short break in London, using a couple of online booking sites, and began to notice the recurring ads for myself. The question that came to mind, after just a few days, was: can this kind of advertising become counter-productive? Might it sometimes harm the brand?

Criteo’s website claims its retargeting services offer “phenomenal campaign ROI”, and I’m sure they do attract back plenty of visitors who originally left without purchasing, but what impression do the ads create on those of us who did actually purchase before leaving?

Having already booked my hotel with [COMPANY X], every time I visited certain popular sites I was greeted with ads for [COMPANY X], listing hotels in the area of London I’d already booked in – top of each list being the exact hotel I’d booked, and for the exact same nights. On other occasions the train ticket booking service I used was being advertised to me, over and over. Both of these companies I’ve used consistently over the last few years. And at present, I find a particular florist advertising at me everywhere I go (this time by Google). Again, on the few occasions I need a florist, it’s the one I already use.

In short: all three companies had my trade already; when I made the visits to their sites that prompted the tracking ads I purchased the product or service I was there for; the resultant barrage of ads was utterly pointless. If anything, being frequently nagged to buy what I’ve already bought has made me marginally less inclined to visit the sites again – especially as the ads in question often untidily break the page layouts of the sites that carry them.

Clearly, the kind of technology that would track the fact that a visitor had actually purchased before leaving the sites, and/or had a long purchasing history with each of them, would be even more worrying to privacy campaigners than the present retargeting services (in fact, advertisers themselves are now looking to make it easier to opt out of behaviour tracking ad systems), so I have no idea what a genuine solution might be.

Maybe, though, the retrieval of lost custom more than makes up for whatever irritation is caused, so none is needed? Maybe more and more of us will opt out? And maybe we’ll just grow increasingly accustomed to such ads anyway?

Whatever the case, it’ll be interesting to see how this sector of the industry progresses; it has at least one small flaw that might eventually need addressing.

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