Retargeting: What is It and How Does it Work?

Jun 12, 2019

In a perfect world, everyone that visits your website would follow a straight pattern to conversion all in one session. What could be easier? Visitors go to your website, browse, and make a purchase - one and done. But we all know that a very small percentage of website visitors convert on their first visit. Whether they run out of time or get distracted, often times consumers take the path of most resistance. This is where retargeting can help businesses get more of those distracted customers from point A to Z; ultimately ending with a conversion or purchase. So what is retargeting and how does it all work?

What is retargeting?

Retargeting is an advertising strategy that strategically serves digital ads across the web to former visitors of a company’s website or app, helping to convert these “lost” customers at different points in time. Ever notice after you visit a website, that website’s ad tends to show across your social media and other sites? That’s retargeting at work.

This advertising tool provides a way to keep your brand in front of potential customers who have previously interacted with your website; hopefully persuading them to reconsider your product or service when they need it. And better yet, since that customer has already interacted with your brand, there’s a higher likelihood they will convert when compared with an average customer.

The benefits of retargeting are numerous and include:

  • Effective timing: Retargeting offers a prompt reach and allows you to get your ads in front of website visitors when they are actively looking.

  • Concentrated content: Once of the best features of retargeting is having the ability to tailor content for specific products, offers, and cases.

  • Wide reach: The internet and world of mobile apps is vast; and retargeting gives you the ability to reach people over millions of venues.

  • Budget constrained: On platforms like Google Ads and Facebook, you can use various forms of automated bidding to ensure you aren’t going over your budget.

  • Ad design: You don’t need to be a graphic designer to create successful ad creatives as most platforms use layout and gallery services to make your ad creation easy and seamless.

How retargeting works

Retargeting is a bit different compared to other forms of advertising such as traditional search and display campaigns. Not prompted by queries, retargeting is behavior-based and helps to ensure the exact audience is seeing your advertising. In order to run retargeting, businesses need to have a way to collect their visitor data; either through a list-based collection or pixel-based collection. Each type varies slightly and will work successfully based on different campaign goals.

Pixel-based targeting

Pixel-based campaigns are most commonly used and allow advertisers to re-display content to a previous site visitor. By placing an invisible piece of JavaScript known as a “pixel” on visitor’s browser, each individual is marked. When visitors then leave your site to browse elsewhere online, the retargeting platform is notified to display ads to these same users. Ads can even then be customized based on the specific pages these people have explored on your site.

The benefits of pixel-based retargeting are numerous: timely (you know these customers are likely interested in your product now), defined (specific to a particular page on your site), and behavior-based. However, one downside is that retargeting audiences generally include a lower volume of people, given that the audience is based on how often people are visiting your website. This isn’t so much of an issue if you have high website/app traffic, however.

List-based targeting

This type of retargeting works if you already have the contact information of potential customers. To begin, you’ll need to upload your email contact list to whatever ad platform you’re using for your campaign. Although it’s not as widely used as pixel-based retargeting, list-based retargeting also allows you to narrow down your audience to specific individuals.

HubSpot notes that it's possible that a person in a list could provide your business with one email, but provide a different email to the ad platform -- in this case, the individual won't see your ads. This unfortunately happens quite frequently: according to MediaMath, match rates can vary from 70-80 percent down to as low as 20-30 percent for some platforms, so you'll need a fairly large list to ensure effectiveness. And because you’re responsible for maintaining your contacts, list-based retargeting is more work and less timely than pixel-based retargeting.

Retargeting Campaign Goals

Before beginning a retargeting campaign, you must have an established goal in mind. You will need to choose from two main options: awareness and conversion.


A less targeted goal, awareness is more of a general goal to educate visitors about your product, service or offer. Since this is aimed at users who haven’t had quite as much interaction with your brand, and can be a good starting goal to use before running a conversion campaign.


When selecting conversion for your campaign goal, you are targeting individuals who have spent more time on your site and are more familiar with your brand and products. Since they have yet to make a purchase or pursue an offer, you are targeting to click and convert.

Regardless of the goal you choose, identifying what you would like to achieve before beginning a campaign is an important consideration and a key aspect of a successful retargeting campaign.

Best Practices

As with most forms of digital marketing today, there is a handful of widely agreed upon best practices for retargeting. We have outlined a few below, but it’s important to stay on top of the latest trends as this type of marketing continues to evolve. A few best practices include:

  1. Don’t bombard your potential customers with ads. You need to find a happy medium between too few and too many ad views. Some experts suggest setting a frequency cap to limit impressions to each user every month.

  2. Keep your ads fresh and well branded. Ensure your company is represented well with clearly identified ads that showcase your logo and identifying information.

  3. Target the right audience. As a general rule, you should place your segment pixel on your homepage and landing pages to ensure that you are retargeting individuals who have some knowledge of your brand. On the flip side, if you are using a large amount of paid advertising for traffic, it’s a good practice to use your retargeting pixel on pages such as pricing, products, etc. You need to focus on an actionable audience in the right places.

  4. Segment your active audience. In retargeting, you can also use a burn pixel to segment your audiences. It’s important to place your burn pixel in the right location to ensure you are not retargeting people who have already converted. And in turn, if you would like to run a different campaign to previous conversions, your burn audience is a good source for resell opportunities.

Google Ads Remarketing

We have touched on the most important aspects of retargeting, including what it is, how it works, goals, and best practices. So where can you begin to use this information and start running successful retargeting campaigns? One of the most widely used platforms for retargeting is Google Ads; where it is known as remarketing. There are various methods to remarket on this platform, including:

  • Standard remarketing: Past visitors will see your ad as they browse sites and apps on the Google Display Network of websites.
  • Dynamic remarketing: Use ads that include your specific products or services a visitor previously viewed.
  • Remarketing lists for search ads: Show ads during follow-up searches.
  • Video remarketing: Show ads to people who have viewed your YouTube videos.
  • Customer list remarketing: Upload your customer contact information. When those people are signed into Google, you can show them ads across different Google products.

To use remarketing for a Google Ads campaign, follow the steps below:

  1. Sign-in to your Google Ads account. If you don’t have one, they are simple to open.
  2. Click on “Shared Library” option.
  3. Next, click on “Audiences”.
  4. Click on “Set-up Remarketing”.
  5. Pull up your website remarketing tag.
  6. Select and copy the Google provided remarketing tag code; which will work for both mobile and desktop websites.
  7. Place the tag code in the footer of the website pages you have identified for your campaign.
  8. Save and publish your page.
  9. Use the Google Tag Assist tool to make sure everything is working properly.
  10. Click “Continue”.
  11. Click “Return to Audiences”.

After some time has passed, your tags will collect the cookies of website visitors, and your audience list will begin to grow. You can create brand new campaigns or add remarketing to any campaigns you are currently running. If one audience is too small to run a campaign, it’s a common practice to combine several lists together. Once your audience starts growing, you can split up your lists into different ad groups to send people to the best possible pages based on what they are viewing.

Lastly, you can use remarketing on Google for both Display and Search Campaigns. The requirement to serve your remarketing list ads varies based on the target network. 

  • Google Display Network must have a minimum of 100 active visitors or users within the last 30 days.
  • Google Search Network must have a minimum of 1,000 active visitors or users within the last 30 days.
  • YouTube must have a minimum of 1,000 active visitors or users within the last 30 days. Gmail must have a minimum of 100 active visitors or users within the last 30 days in the Display Network.
  • As with any ad campaign, it is important to test different types of campaigns over time to determine which option is working best for your business.

Facebook Retargeting

While not as far reaching as Google, Facebook is another strong retargeting platform. In order to begin, you will need to have a Facebook page/account that qualifies for business ads. There are quite a few ad formats that can be utilized on Facebook and in retargeting; but much depends on your advertising goals; which we covered earlier. Facebook and Instagram ad formats include:

  • Image Ads: Select a single image or use multiple options.
  • Video Ads: These can run on both Facebook and Instagram.
  • Slideshow Ads: This format is useful for any advertising goal and combines multiple images to tell a story.
  • Carousel Ads: You can showcase up to 10 images or videos in a single ad and can be useful for both awareness and conversions.
  • Collections Ads: This format allows you to combine video, slideshow or image with product images from a catalog without leaving Facebook.
  • Instant Experience: Can be utilized with all Facebook ad formats; but is mobile only service for iOS and Android.

When you have established your account, identified your goal, and have an idea of what ad format you would like to use, you will need create a retargeting campaign by visiting the Audiences section under Facebook Ads Manager; then follow the steps below:

  1. Select “Custom Audience” option for retargeting.
  2. From list of “Custom Audiences”, select “Website Traffic”, which will allow you to create a list of people who have visited your website or viewed pages.
  3. Next, you will choose the audience you want to target from a menu; options include:
  • Anyone who visits your website
  • People who visit specific pages
  • People visiting specific web pages but not others
  • People who haven’t visited in a certain amount of time
  • Custom combination
  1. Once you have selected your audience option, Facebook will provide you with a pixel tracking code (Facebook Pixel). This will be placed on the website to track website visitors.

Like Google Ads, being successful at retargeting on Facebook will require testing and optimization to determine what ads are working best for your brand. You won’t attract visitors back to your website as often without an optimized ad.

Optimizing Retargeting Ads

You will not see much return on your time and investment in retargeting if you are not effectively optimizing your ads. You need to engage with your customer; capturing their attention with relevant imagery and copy. To determine what will work best, you should create various types of ads in various ad formats for each audience segment. This will highlight which ads are the highest performing for you and your brand.

There are several key elements that should be included in your retargeting ad:

  • Strong headline: A strong, engaging headline should highlight the subject relevance to your targets. It should grab their attention and encourage them to take action.
  • Good imagery: Whatever imagery you choose to include in your ad (video, image, animation, etc.); it should be directly relevant to the products and/or services you are advertising.
  • Short and sweet copy: Due to the nature of retargeting advertising, you have a limited amount of copy and space to get your message across. You need to make sure your copy highlights your offer quickly and effectively.
  • Call-to-action: And probably the most important is a good call-to-action (CTA). Platforms usually offer several different CTA button options to include in your ad; with the ability to personalize the button copy to make it applicable to your message.

Finding new customers based on your retargeting lists

While retargeting is geared towards people who have already visited your website, you can also use those pixels and corresponding data to increase your customer base with new prospects.

Facebook’s lookalike audience identifies other Facebook users similar to those in your retargeting lists, and subsequently builds a similar customer audience based on 1 percent lookalikes. A Lookalike Audience is a great way to reach new people who are likely to be interested in your business, and expand your overall targeted ad audience size. 

If you look at it from both standpoints, running retargeting advertising campaigns as part of your overall marketing strategy is a no-brainer. Increasing your awareness and conversion activity, while also likely achieving greater ad ROI is a solid strategy.

AI retargeting with ByteGain

Given how powerful retargeting is as an advertising tool, little has been done to further optimize it’s capabilities. ByteGain AI helps any company optimize campaigns and harness retargeting's full capabilities.

Traditional retargeting, while useful, cannot distinguish between website visitors actually interested in buying your prodcut versus those just browsing. ByteGain AI operates quietly in the background of your website, capturing billions of data points automatically without interruption to a website or apps. Our AI engine then analyzes this data in real-time, identifying the highest quality website visitors to retarget. This hyper retargeting leads to incredible gains in engagement, click through rate, clicks, and ultimately ROI. Think about if you could only market to those actually in market to buy - that's the future of retargeting with ByteGain.

ByteGain clients have seen triple digit increases in efficiency across their retargeting campaigns; Apartment List, for instance, saw a 108% increase in revenue after implementing ByteGain AI.

To experience the capabilities of ByteGain, request a personalized demo here.

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