Does Remarketing Make You a Creepy Stalker?


remarketing ethicsRemarketing is an interesting online advertising technique that involves tracking and displaying ads to users after they have left your site.

This can be an effective way to get more conversions out of your web visitors – but if you go too far, it can also be incredibly creepy.

Part of why remarketing is successful is that many people don’t really know what it is. The average internet user is completely unaware that they are being digitally stalked across the web-a-verse.

Did They Forget About You or Do They Just Not Like You?

In a video advocating remarketing and explaining how it works, Google claims that remarketing is useful because people get distracted easily (what do you expect with twenty open tabs?) and when something unexpected comes up, they might leave your site and forget to return later.

And yes, that is possible ... but it’s also possible (and probably more likely) that they left your site because they just didn’t like or want what you were offering. In which case continuing to shove your ads in front of them seems obnoxious. As Stephanie Tanner from Full House would say, “How Rude!”

Remarketing thrives off the general idea that the more present a brand is across different parts of the web, the more trustworthy that brand must be. As a brand, you certainly gain street cred as more people see your ad. However, people are under the assumption that they just happen to be seeing your ad across the web, not knowing that you are, in reality, digitally stalking them like the stealthy cougar that you are.

Most users don’t realize you are actually paying to extend your engagement with them; they simply see your ads everywhere and assume you must be a popular and therefore trusted brand, which is a bit misleading.

People are hardwired with the idea that the more they see your advertisement, the more your value or worth must be. In the physical, off-line world, seeing a company’s ad plastered everywhere really just means they have heaps of money, and they probably wouldn’t have such endless piles of the green stuff if they weren’t doing something right, so that connection between brand exposure and reliability makes sense.

Web users are still thinking with that mindset, so seeing your ads all over the web leads them to believe that your company is well known and successful. The problem is that with remarketing, that link between number of ads and trust is no longer valid—you don’t have advertisements all over the internet, you’re just a creepy stalker!

Related: All About AdChoices

Let's Remarket Role-Play for a Moment

The absurdity of remarketing is hilarious when you apply ad retargeting to a real-life scenario:

Imagine that you walk down to the local bakery in town for a donut, but you never end up purchasing it...

1. In one scenario, you get a phone call and rush outside to take the call and not disrupt other pastry-eaters (you are very considerate). Finished with your call, you start to walk away when the store owner pops his head out of the shop. “Hey friend, didn’t you want a donut?” asks the hefty baker with a jolly smile. “Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me!” you say, and then enter the bakery, get your snack, and everyone is happy thanks to remarketing.

2. In the other scenario, you leave the bakery because the donuts look old and nasty, or you remember that you’re trying to go on a diet for your upcoming college reunion. Except now when you leave the bakery and the baker is peeping around corners and following you down the street, you are getting panicky. You walk quicker, and just when you turn the corner, there he is, shoving bread in your face. “Buy it! You know you want to!” screams the maniacal baker. That’s harassment. And in a way, that’s remarketing.

The kind of behavior that you’d wind up in jail for in the off-line world translates to a successful marketing tactic in the online world.

Before We Gang Up on Remarketing…

In defense of remarketing, most forms of advertising are a bit creepy to begin with. Remember the whole lets-equate-everything-to-sex advertising phase? As consumers we’ve become too meta to fall victim to that tactic quite so easily, but it still occurs.

remarketing is a strange

There’s also the strategy of playing refreshing liquids-pouring-over-ice sounds as you sit in a cramped, humid, and sweat-filled Ryanair plane, offering desperate flyers mini cans of Coke at $6 a pop (experienced firsthand naturally). In a way, the ethical obstacle course is something advertisers must always struggle to maneuver through. It’s all part of the advertising game.

Remarketing Works! And When it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it

The truth is, when it comes down to it, remarketing works. Loads of advertisers have discovered that people respond positively to remarketing. Honestly, we use remarketing and it’s performed pretty well for us.

Remarketing also gives you a chance to better match a visitor’s specific need. Once you know someone has visited your bikini swimwear page, you can present them with an ad tailored to this need, coupled with some additional incentive that might change their mind, like a “20% off” offer. And that does seem like a reasonable use, because your visitor might reconsider buying from you once they see an offer like that or for free shipping, etc.

What do you guys think? Is remarketing a valid web advertising technique or just plain creepy? Any words in defense or against remarketing?

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May 08, 2012

I'd say that as with the Force in Star Wars, there is the good and the bad side.  Ultimately those who are going to be a little more aggressive and remarket would mostly want to do so to see a good return or their simply wasting the time.Generally I'd see it as a good technique that should if implemented correctly show a fairly good return.

Megan Marrs
May 08, 2012

Wise words Robert. Yoda would be proud.

May 08, 2012

of the display advertising targeting options available - Contextual site/page targeting via keywords, specifying desired audiences, specifying interests, picking specific websites and remarketing - most advertisers believe that Remarketing provides the strongest relevancy signal! - if used correctly, you can market to the right audience at the right time!

Nick Stamoulis
May 09, 2012

I think that it depends on your audience.  Remarketing seems to work better in the B2C environment where decisions are typically made quicker.  For B2B, the decison process takes longer and decision makers don't want to be "stalked" over a long period of time.

Elisa Gabbert
May 09, 2012

Good distinction!

Maria Peagler
May 17, 2012

Brands that remarket to me NEVER get my business. It's beyond creepy, and I didn't choose their products because they weren't right for me. They are wasting their money thinking their strategy will work on this consumer.

Megan Marrs
May 22, 2012

I agree that remarketing can be a bit off-putting Maria. I think remarketing probably works best on people who are not aware they are being remarketed too.Regardless, even if you recognize remarketing ads and feel frustrated by them, they are still serving their purpose by making you more familiar with the brand. I think ultimately that brand recognition can be very powerful. Months down the line you probably wouldn't feel quite so offended by the past exposure to remarketing, but that familiarity remains, and you're likely to feel some kind of trust with a brand you have seen before vs. a stranger.

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