How Do Retargeting Ads Work, Anyway?

Since Google Ads first launched retargeting in 2010, the evolution of this tactic has changed tenfold.

It is no longer a matter of whether you should use retargeting; it’s a How do You must use it.

Whether you are new to the marketing industry or a seasoned professional looking to hone your retargeting skill set, this post will cover the latest ins and outs of creating retargeting campaigns.

The value of retargeting ads

Ecommerce conversion rates range from 0.7% to 4% globally.

Since consumers have a low attention span and are used to endless scrolling, retargeting ads should be an essential part of your marketing strategy.

If you’re struggling to understand why only a small percentage of your site visitors will buy from you, don’t worry (yet). In fact, most people are not in the buying phase when they first visit your site.

For example, if only 3% of users are ready to buy, the other 97% probably won’t be ready to convert.

So, if your goal in retargeting is simply to get people to buy or convert now, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

why is that? Well, telling people to “buy now” when they’re not ready means your messaging is wrong for 96% of your audience.

Where does the retargeting value come from here? Multiple factors make a successful retargeting ad:

  • Audience segmented by behaviour.
  • Determine the appropriate platform for ads.
  • Deliver the right message to the right audience.

Take the retargeting ad you got, for example.

I was looking for places to take a solo health and wellness vacation in Arizona. After landing on this site, I received this retargeting ad within 24 hours of the visit.

The ad itself captured the most important aspects I was looking for in a vacation:

  • Wellness activities.
  • healthy food.
  • Walking tour.
Screenshot from the author’s Facebook feed, July 2022

What does retargeting do?

Simply put, retargeting ads helps direct users to the next step in their buyer’s journey. It’s not just an ad that prompts users to “buy now”.

Your retargeting message should not be a restatement of your original marketing message.

However, smart retargeting is focused on understanding where your customers are in the buyer’s journey and helping them take the next step.

For example, let’s say you’re a SaaS company whose goal is to get users to sign up for a free trial.

Your initial strategy is to bid on terms like “cloud software,” directing users to a page that talks about your software and encouraging them to create an account.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of users will take this action. You may be tempted to retarget all of your unconverted web traffic with more information about your software.

Do you see the problem here? This message didn’t work the first time, so why now?

It’s where you’ll need to switch up your remarketing strategy.

First things first: start with labeling

The key to running retargeting ads starts with proper tagging. If you’re looking to target web or app users of any kind, pixels and tags are essential.

Each platform on which you want to run retargeting ads has its own pixel. Right now, the options seem endless. You can retarget on major platforms, including (but not limited to):

  • Google Ads.
  • Microsoft Ads.
  • Meta (Facebook).
  • Instagram.
  • linkedin.
  • Twitter.
  • snap chat.
  • Tik Tok.
  • pinterest.

If you plan to test all of these platforms, having too many encoded pixels can slow down your website. Try using Google Tag Manager to simplify tag/pixel management for a more straightforward implementation.

How do these signs work?

These tags identify a user based on their website activity (anonymously), which are then collected on platforms where you can target them later.

Now, one major thing to keep in mind is to omit third-party cookies. It has already been announced that Google will remove third-party cookies, and many others will likely follow.

This change in the consumer landscape brings us to the next essential ingredient for retargeting ads: the audience.

Build meaningful audiences

As mentioned above, omitting third-party cookies may affect retargeting in the future. But in what way?

The most important shift will come from securing first-party data on users – at the beginning of their user journey.

First party data means that consumers give you their information directly, such as by submitting an email address on your website.

Once you have the first party data, the possibilities are endless for hashing. For example, you can segment users based on:

  • How they first got to your website (organic, social, referral, etc).
  • How long do they stay on your site.
  • If a user completes (or does not complete) a certain action on your site.
  • What categories or products did they view.
  • If the user is the previous buyer.
  • The length of time they watched one of your videos.
  • What kind of offer are they claiming on your site to give you their data.
  • How they interacted with your social pages.

Again, these are just a few examples of how you can remarket. You can be as creative as you want!

Now, if consumers provide specific user data, you can upload that information to many platforms for retargeting. This data is loaded in a secure and hashed manner to keep the user anonymous.

You can upload data points like:

  • E-mail address.
  • First name and last name.
  • phone number.
  • Tabuk.
  • Other data points are available through the platform.

It works because if your user data matches the cross-reference data from the selected platform, you can retarget it.

Additionally, if you have pixels or tags set up, you can create specific like behavior audiences and use them on those respective platforms.

For example, if you link your YouTube channel to your Google Ads account, you can create remarketing lists of users who viewed a specific video as an ad.

These types of remarketing audiences are powerful at retargeting someone who is likely to be in the awareness stage.

Choose the correct messaging

Now that you’ve defined your audience to retarget, it’s imperative that you get your messaging right.

If your company’s average sales cycle is six to 12 months, do you expect someone to convert to that sale right away?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

This is why segmenting your audience is so important. You shouldn’t give everyone the same retargeting message, nor should you use the same messages that initially reached them.

Let’s go back to the cloud security example.

Selling cloud security software to a company has the potential to be a long sales cycle with many decision makers.

If this is the first page you see as a new user, do you want to take action immediately?

An example of a cloud security landing page.Screenshot from a cloud intelligence platform, July 2022

Mostly not.

What if I land on the same page of the retargeting ad the second time without highlighting the ad copy?

Again, probably not.

The idea is very simple, but many companies get it wrong. Everyone is looking for that final sale without giving the user a reason to trust their brand.

Now, what is the ideal scenario?

  1. Create awareness of your product for your ideal audience → Lead them to an informational page about what he does.
  2. Create a target audience based on the factors that qualify for that page Cheer them up To download an informational white paper.
  3. Segment that audience further if they complete this action Start by introducing them For a stronger offer (such as a demo or beta, if it’s an easy UX).

This very simplified scenario would probably involve more steps to warm up the user to you. But hopefully this gives you an understanding of why your messages or offer are different each time.

Most importantly: don’t expect them to go through the desired final action you want them to take!

Reach your user on the right platform

We’ve discussed tags, audiences, and messages for retargeting ads. Now is the time to choose the right platform.

We’ve already touched on a few platforms you can retarget. So, since there are countless options, does that mean you should use all of the retargeting options?

not nessacary!

The key to identifying your retargeting platforms is to do research on your audience. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What are the key demographics for my audience?
  • Where does my audience spend time?
  • Do I mainly collect business user information or personal information?
  • What message am I sending to my audience?

Dive into your audience’s behavior to help influence your retargeting platform’s decision.

For example, if you’re trying to reach business decision-makers and collect business emails, you might want to try LinkedIn or Quora as a forwarding option.

Personal social platforms like Facebook or Instagram may not be your best choice.

The messages should also influence which retargeting platform to use.

If you’re trying to get someone to sign up for a demo or start a free trial, you may not want to use the platforms most used for outreach, like YouTube.


While retargeting options have changed dramatically since its inception, the premise hasn’t necessarily changed.

Retargeting and brand expectations of users are getting more and more complex.

Keeping abreast of changes in the industry and how they affect your retargeting strategy is a must in today’s age.

Use these tips above to help amplify your retargeting strategy for a better conversion rate and better user experience.

More resources:

  • 7 ways to segment your audience for successful retargeting
  • Cross-Channel Remarketing Campaigns: A Complete Guide
  • Winning at Retargeting: Tips for Reconnecting and Converting

Featured image: eamesBot/Shutterstock

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