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Nov 21, 2011 | 7 minute read

Behavioral Targeting: A Guide To Remarketing Strategy

written by Linda Bustos

As discussed on Get Elastic last week, behavioral targeting is the new wave of online advertising. A form of behavioral targeting called "remarketing" is close cousin to paid search and email marketing, with the bonus of only reaching people who have visited your site in recent days.

Also coined “remarketing” (by Google Adwords) or “remessaging” (by Microsoft AdCenter), retargeting gives you an opportunity to re-engage site visitors with targeted messages and offers that appear when site abandoners surf other sites around the Web.

This "get started guide" explores how retargeting works, what you need to know to shape your strategy and some campaign management tips.

How it Works

Top players in this space are Google Remarketing, Microsoft AdCenter, Criteo and Retargeter. For simplicity, we’re going to look at Google Remarketing specifically, though the strategy principles apply to all three.

Tags and Audiences

Retargeting relies on tags and cookies. Create tags for the various customer segments or “audiences” based on where in your site the abandonment occurs, what content was viewed or actions were taken, and place them on the appropriate pages on your site.

For example, create a “customer” tag for visitors who have completed a purchase, or a “subscriber” tag for those who have joined your site (free or paid). Or, tag with category or product names. Of course, tagging shopping cart and checkout abandonders is a no brainer.

The system places cookies on visitors’ machines to identify which audiences they belong to, and serves ads corresponding around the Content Network, matching them to the audiences you configure in Adwords.

Cookie Duration

Cookie length can be set so campaigns expire after a short window (such as with checkout abandonment) or longer, up to 180 days. Long windows are helpful for products that may have new releases or upgrades such as software, or require replenishment after a period, like consumable office supplies.

Here’s the catch – each remarketing list requires 500 cookied visitors before ads can be displayed. This is important, as timing is a big factor with remarketing. Lists can grow stale before the first ad is triggered. Abandoned carts should be retargeted relatively quickly. If it takes 30 days to build a list of 500 abandoned carts, your campaign will already by moldy. You may find your traffic only supports more general behaviors such as site or category visits.

Getting Started

Google Help has a straightforward guide for getting started, so I won’t reinvent the wheel by outlining the technical steps. But before you even think about setting up your campaign, you need to work out your strategy.

Crafting Your Remarketing Strategy

Begin with an understanding of who you want to target, after what actions are taken on your site. Jot down a few scenarios. Here’s a sample format:

SCENARIO A (General Campaign)

Objective: Keep brand top-of-mind for visitors who abandon the site and communicate our value proposition
Site pages (to tag): All
Audience (Positive List): General site visitors
Exclude (Negative List): Visitors who viewed Affiliates or Careers pages
Cookie duration: 180 days (maximum allowed)
Maximum exposures: 11
Creative: TBD, A/B test
Notes: (If any)

SCENARIO B (Flagship Product Campaign)

Objective: Retarget visitors who view our flagship product
Site pages: Amazing Product 1.0 product page, “amazing product 1.0” search results
Audience: Visitors to these pages
Exclude: Completed purchasers
Cookie duration: 14 days
Maximum exposures: 11
Creative: TBD
Notes: (If any)

A good understanding of your own industry and customer behavior is valuable. What is the average days to purchase (or average visits to purchase) for your entire site? For product categories? Do you have many competitors and is comparison shopping common? Are your customers motivated by discounts or value-added features and services? Do your customers shop for merchandise across departments? The answers to these questions will shape your scenarios so you’re not mis-targeting customers with the wrong strategies.

Things to keep in mind:

  • You need enough traffic to get your campaign off the ground, so don’t get too granular. Use your analytics and start with your highest traffic areas.
  • Certain leads “go cold” as time passes. Plan shorter windows for actions like abandoned carts.
  • Don’t be too desperate. Targeting offers immediately after site abandonment may cannibalize your margin for customers who were going to come back to pay full price. Consider A/B testing offers against non-offers, or staggering your creative to kick in offers after X days or X exposures.
  • Consider excluding geographies that typically convert less or that you can’t ship your full product line to.

Remarketing Creative

There are many styles of display ads that can work for you, for example:

  • Branding
  • Last category viewed
  • Last product viewed
  • Abandoned cart reminder
  • Sale and promotional messaging (general)
  • New product awareness
  • Post-purchase events (replenish consumables, submit review for chance to win gift card, etc)

As with all online advertising, it's important that "scent" is maintained. This means your ad creative matches the behavior that triggered the ad, and the landing page delivers on the promise made in the ad. And as with email, make sure your creative has a clear call to action, even if it’s just for “branding” purposes.

You've heard of "banner blindness" but are you familiar with "banner burnout"? After a certain threshold of exposures, seeing your ad everywhere may be more annoying than admired, so you should consider mixing up your creative (showing a different design after X days or X impressions), or use frequency caps in your campaign set up. Experts believe 7-11 exposures is ideal before burnout kicks in, however only experimentation with your own campaigns can tell you what works best for your own context.

Remember also to design for various ad formats for maximum placement (skyscraper, sidebar, etc).


Up high

Along the side

Campaign Management Tips

Once you've nailed your strategy and designed your ads, it's time to set 'em up. Here are some tips to remember:

  • Start fresh. It is recommended to create display advertising Ad Groups in brand new Campaigns. You’re building Ad Groups around customer segments, rather than keywords, which requires a different structure.
  • Block wisely. You may choose not to initially block domains from the Content Network that you find convert poorly with your other text and display ads. Because retargeted ads are more relevant, they may perform much better on these domains. If they prove to still convert poorly, remove them after you’ve collected enough data.
  • Be negative. Leverage “negative audiences" to ensure your ads don’t appear when they shouldn’t. For example, visitors who convert should be placed in a list that is added as a negative to your other targeted campaigns. You may also wish to exclude visitors referred by other ad networks like Bing ads or affiliate campaigns.
  • Bid smart. Naturally, some visitors will be tagged multiple times. For example, a cart abandoner likely has a “general visitor” tag. Bid higher for behaviors further down the conversion trail to ensure they override the other Ad Groups you may have running.
  • Rotate evenly. Like with text ads, you can test a few versions of your creative (great idea, by the way). AdWords has a tendency to default your ad rotation to optimize for clicks (show your winning ad more often). But as you know, for good A/B split testing, your creative should be shown evenly. I recommend you change it to “show ads more evenly.”

If retargeting looks enticing to you, tag your pages as soon as possible to build your audience memberships before you work on strategy, creative and account set up. This makes it much quicker to reach the 500 member mark, take advantage of the holiday traffic surge!


While this post was geared more towards Google's solution, Criteo is another player to investigate if you want harder-core targeting than what's currently available with Adwords. Criteo provides dynamic ads that merchandise with the products a customer last viewed on your site. Customers include Zappos and Overstock.

The Zappos example above also links to an opt-out page that explains the ads and enables the customer to "turn them off" and provide feedback on how the ads made them feel.

Looking for help with ecommerce strategy? Contact the Elastic Path Research & Strategy team at to learn how our ecommerce strategy services can improve your business results.