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The Retargeting Myth – How Remarketing Could be Sabotaging Your Sales and Conversion Rates

Retargeting. To hear some marketers tell it, it’s the ultimate boomerang promotional effect: You leave my site without buying. I display ads on the sites you do visit, to encourage you to come back. These ads could be anything from special coupons to the item you left in your cart (or the last product you viewed) with a gentle “hey! You forgot this!” note.

From a marketer’s point of view, this is a great method of capturing what would ordinarily be chalked up as “lost sales”. But what about from the customer’s point of view? Do they see remarketing ads as a gentle prod, or a clingy nuisance? One study wanted to find out.

InSkin Media and RAPP Media conducted a study late last year to determine just how pervasive customers find retargeted ads. Do they even notice them? And if they do, at what point does it become annoying?

Reaction to frequency of retargeted online ads

In the study, seeing a retargeted ad five times or more, as the chart above notes, is viewed as “annoying” and “intrusive”, while ten or more times of seeing an ad makes visitors “angry”.

More than half of the visitors polled said that they may be interested in the ad the first time they see it, even though only 10% report making a purchase as a result of seeing a remarketed ad. And even then, when the ad is displayed is far more important than the frequency.

seen ads

Retargeting: When is More Important than How

Four times as many users reported that they felt encouraged to buy during the research phase as opposed to after doing the research. That number jumps to over a third of users who were discouraged when seeing the ad after purchase, and nearly 50% who were discouraged by seeing the ad on an unrelated site, because let’s face it, the last thing you want to see when buying baby clothes is a lawnmower.

Case in point, the study showed a Land Rover ad on The Independent’s website. This garnered a 71% approval rating. A Land Rover ad then appeared on Catster. The results were much less positive. For women, viewing a Clinique ad on Marie Claire achieved a nearly 90% positive rating rather than seeing that same ad on Instructables.



Essentially, when customers are in the product frame of mind and doing their research, seeing a relevant ad on a relevant site just makes sense.

A Fine Line Between Trust and Privacy

Trust is another big factor, with 37% of users saying they were more likely to click on an ad if it’s on a site they trust. The last thing they want is an ad following them around tirelessly. 69% of customers felt uncomfortable with advertisers knowing which sites they’d visited – a slightly lower percentage than those who felt uncomfortable with advertisers knowing their home address (72%) and their current location (71%).

Yet customers also say that they want things like personalized offers, relevant deals and other carrots that require ordinarily private information. It’s a fine line that advertisers have to walk, between building a two-way relationship with their customers and respecting the customer’s desire (and expectation of) privacy.

Is The Platform Really the Problem?

If you were asked to optimize a floundering retargeting campaign, you’d naturally look at all the points that make up the campaign itself:

  • The creative – Is the ad relevant to what the customer was looking at? Does it encourage them to come back?
  • The context – Does the ad display on places the user trusts? Or does it just blanket each and every site they visit?
  • The timeframe – Has they user already purchased this or a similar item? Or are they still in the early stages of researching or comparing products?
  • The target – It’s a common mistake to simply throw your ad at the wall and hope some of it sticks. After all, isn’t it better to cover everyone who might have an interest in buying, rather than cherry picking a select few? Not exactly. Targeting matters – and it’s better to spend your time working with a customer that’s very interested than one that’s tepid about ordering.

But think about going a little deeper. What was it that made the customer leave your site in the first place, to even spring the retargeting plan into action? Common issues are:

  • Lack of mobile responsiveness or mobile-friendly technology
  • Surprise charges sprung on the user at the last minute
  • Lack of free shipping (even after a certain order amount)
  • Product unavailable in the size/color/style the customer wants
  • Product on backorder with no clear re-order or re-stock date

Maximizing Retargeting Success

Even if you’re careful about where and when you place your retargeting triggers, there are still a few points to really make your campaign shine. For example:

  • Watch your windows – It can be very tempting to give your ad a large retargeting window. You don’t want to display ads too frequently or run the same one for too long. Nobody wants to see the winter coat they looked at last fall chasing them down over the summer.
  • Be selective about what you target – The last thing you want to do is ruin a holiday surprise by retargeting an ad for a children’s bike on a popular gaming site or having a remarketed ad show something embarrassing in your browser during that big family get-together!
  • Automation doesn’t mean you get to be lazy – Just because it can be automated, doesn’t mean it should be. Analytics, tracking and remarketing are getting smarter all the time, but they still require that human factor to be successful.
  • Learn from the survey, but do your own homework – What surveyed customers say they do in a survey, and what they actually do when faced with a remarketed opportunity can sometimes be two very different things. Take this advice in stride, but always run your own tests and analyze your own data to see how these results play out in your market.

What are your thoughts on retargeting? Have you been hit with remarketing ads that seemingly follow you everywhere? Or have you purchased something as a result of a well-planned retargeting campaign? Share your stories and successes with us in the comments below.

About the Author: Sherice Jacob helps business owners improve website design and increase conversion rates through compelling copywriting, user-friendly design and smart analytics analysis. Learn more at and download your free web copy tune-up and conversion checklist today!

  1. Jeff Harrison May 22, 2015 at 6:32 am

    Re targeting was placed on a site we were researching information on a new commercial level drone for our company. The ads were compelling and we do have that new drone in our media arsenal as a result.

  2. Seeing retargeting ads when you have already made the purchase are not just pointless but are also annoying. As a marketer you should use what you know wisely and target your marketing accordingly.

    • That should also be avoidable, assuming the user made the purchase on your site. You should exclude people that have converted (purchased your product) from your remarketing efforts.

  3. Really good to read this research. About time that we get some input on the effect of re targeting on the client end.

  4. Great insights. Retargeting does work, but as with all other methods, what you really need is someone show specializes in remarketing so they can invest most of their time figuring out what is working and what crosses the line into “creepy”.

    As a freelance writer, I research a lot of topics to write about them in more depth. I also find information for people who ask because they aren’t as good at search as I am. Once I found information about bed bugs and for a REALLY long time after that, bed bug products followed me wherever I went. (Too much – too long.)

    Remarketers really have their work cut out for them. They have no way of knowing how much time someone spends online or what sites they visit. The system they use must be able to limit how often their ads display. They have to stay on top of what they’re showing me.

    That said, I love that favorite places I actually buy from are retargeting me with specials and items that weren’t in stock, but are again now. (And THAT would be a great challenge – to make sure you’re not remarketing out of stock items – which likely are out of stock because you’re remarketing)!

    Yes, I get their emails and have a list for them in Facebook, but I don’t always see what they’re offering in a timely manner. I don’t mind seeing ads for my favorite small brands wherever they appear. But many brands reallly need to be able to only appear on RELEVANT sites. And some sensitive products would be better not remarketed at all.

  5. Sherice,

    Not that I have completed research like you have done here to back up these claims, the main benefit of Retargeting in a lot of niches is about branding moreso, even if it seems annoying to the user.

    What television, radio, and direct mail moguls know from their own research is that along with the benefits of followup in the traditional marketing/sales process is the establishment of authority for the ‘ad stalker’ when the zero point of purchase decision is made, especially when all product/service choices are displayed side by side during zero-point.

    You hear the same messages repeated at nausea through jingles, vanity numbers, and ridiculously funny messages in traditional media advertising because corporate think-tanks know they work. Psychologists furthermore know how human memory works and repetition is an important factor in this.

    Where multiple product/service options exist, annoying retargeting will consequentially be the cheapest way to create faux authority for usually newer small-medium sized companies. Thou who annoys and bids most wins (abeit there are limits).

    This annoyance strategy works for the post part through subliminal messaging as the audience targeted does not comprehend the advertisements (usually banner display ads) but still internalize the logo/brand through visual periphery. Not bad when impressions don’t typically cost money.

    In summary, I don’t believe in frequency capping on retargeting ads, and keep wide cookie windows open, especially in B2B where sales cycles are extended because it can take the place of branding where traditional brand authority or branding campaigns do not exist.

  6. Yes, retargeting can be annoying if it’s not done correctly. But if you make a proper audience segmentation, use A/B testing and a decent algorithm for not harassing people with your personalized message, I think retargeting can be a very powerful tool to retract those lost visitors and help hem convert into happy customers.

  7. Seeing retargeting advertisements if you have already made the acquisition are not only pointless but they are also annoying


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