PPC Remarketing: What Not To Do

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By now, we’re all accustomed to being followed around by remarketing ads. Those of us in PPC are particularly attuned to remarketing ads. We know what they are, first of all. Most of us can probably spot a remarketing ad on the first impression. Second, we visit a lot of different websites as we research competitors, read news, and check display campaign placements. It always makes me chuckle to see our clients’ competitors as I move about the web.

I don’t blame the competitors for following me; after all, they don’t know why I was on their site and didn’t convert. As long as they don’t show me hundreds of impressions per day, it’s not a problem. Then again, there are some remarketing ads that seem nearly ubiquitous, almost to the point of harassment.

Here’s an example of an ad that most PPC pros probably see at least 20 times per day:

remarketing ad

Now, I think WordStream has good products – I’ve praised several of them in posts I’ve written. And I have nothing but respect for Larry Kim, their CEO. But I gotta be honest – I’m tired of seeing their ads all day long, everywhere I go.

How to avoid harassment: Use frequency caps! I usually start with 5 impressions per user per day. And even that might be high – I’ve gone as low as 1 per day.

Now, I’m sure the fine folks at WordStream have probably tested the frequency threshold and likely are serving the right number of impressions to drive the results they’re looking for. But gosh, these ads are everywhere. I’ve even tried to get them to stop showing by going to different pages & sites – I gave up after about 50 impressions.

This week, I got to thinking about another, bigger problem: showing salesy remarketing ads to people who already use your product. I credit my co-worker, Ben Nusekabel, with pointing this out. Here’s the ad he sent me – for the project management software we all use every day!

remarketing ad

Now, I love so many things about this ad: the copy, the art, the call to action… If I’d seen it, I probably would have downloaded the ebook! But here’s the thing: they’re wasting money on me, because I work for a company that already uses them.

The solution? Don’t remarket to people who log in to your site. Create an exclusion list for them.

Here’s another one, for the videoconferencing program we use:

remarketing ad

Great – I started seeing this ad AFTER a video meeting in which I gave a presentation from my home office in Michigan to our main office in Cincinnati, while I was logged in, of course. At least this ad wasn’t interesting enough for me to click on it. So maybe the key is to use boring creative? (I keed, I keed.)

And finally, the icing on the cake:

remarketing ad

Yes, our friends over at Adwords want me to check them out. “Try Google AdWords,” they say. As if I’m not logged in to their interface from dawn till dusk. This one made me laugh out loud. Yet another example of Adwords not using their own best practices.

I’d have been ok with seeing all of these ads if I weren’t logged in to their sites at the time I saw them. Makes me wonder if their PPC department or agency doesn’t understand how to use remarketing. At least it’s good for a few laughs.

What about you? What are the craziest (or best, or creepiest) remarketing ads you’ve seen lately? Share in the comments!

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  1. I am often surprised at how few clients understand remarketing until you call them “the ads that follow you around”c- then they know exactly what you are talking about.

    Done well remarketing can be very effective, but it’s a thin line between good remarketing and stalking. I try to use a few different creatives and put each in it’s own ad group. Then I run a frequency cap for one ad per day per ad group ensuring that, whilst a target might see three or four ads on a given day, they will see three or four different versions.

    I also use time windows – the best I ever saw was for a hairdresser that used timed lists to create a window 4 weeks from the first visit – that’s clever!

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Good strategy on the unique creative per ad group – I hadn’t thought of that. We do a lot of time-based remarketing. Set it up to follow the buyer journey, hit people at key points throughout. Works great.

      • I’m interested in implementing time windows. Does that mean visitors get shown ads on month later after they visit the site? I think this would be a great method, a good way to refresh people’s memory, instead of shoving the ad in their face right away.

        I can’t find the method online, can you tell me how its done?

        • Melissa Mackey says

          Hi Alex, short answer is you set up an audience for day 1-30, and another for day 1 to whatever (60, 90, whatever). Create a remarketing segment that includes the longer segment and excludes the 1-30 day segment. And so on. Takes time to set up but worth it in performance.

  2. Those Wordstream ads annoy me to the point where I won’t knowingly click on any blog posts from Wordstream that are tweeted, because I know the ads will stalk me everywhere for several weeks.

    I understand why this happens because Google unleashed this weapon in the PPC arsenal without properly telling people how to use it first. End users. But industry folk should know better.

  3. Great post, Melissa! I can’t believe how many post-conversion retarketing ads I see! Geesh, people, I just *bought* that! It’s especially true on FBX and I have learned to NEVER log into Facebook while I’m browsing anything else. Else I might see pictures of that sexy refrigerator filter for the next 30-60 days.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Yes, my friend – FBX is a whole post in itself. Heaven forbid you even go to a page by mistake while logged in to FB. You’ll regret it for weeks. 🙂

  4. hey mel — thanks for the shout-out! funny thing is that the data from reach and frequency report suggests otherwise. we’ve done studies on a ton of data regarding where to set impression caps and audience membership duration. The quick takeaway:

    1) as #of image impressions increases per person, the conversion rate increases dramatically (it doubles). meaning, if you saw the ad 20 times, yes, you’re much less likely to click on the ad, but those that actually do, are much more likely to convert — which is great because you only pay for clicks!
    2) yes Ad CTR decreases over time — but the CTR of a remarketing targeted ad that someone sees 10 times is still higher than the average non -remarketing targeted display ad (eg: managed placements or whatever).

    for this reason i recommend that advertisers be aggressive with impression caps (set to unlimited) and set an audience membership duration to 3x the average sale cycle duration.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Hi Larry, I’m glad you replied to this. I knew you must have data behind your remarketing strategy, or you wouldn’t do what you’re doing.

      Curious your take on being remarketed by products/services you already use. Why would advertisers continue to target people with obvious acquisition ads when they’re already customers? Is there any logic to that strategy that you’ve seen in your data?

    • Maybe, Larry, but you will never know how many people like me will deliberately never visit your site, retweet your tweets, share your FB posts or in fact use or recommend any of your services because of your overly aggressive remarketing. This is not the first conversation I’ve seen about this, and I know I’m not the only one. Just sayin.

  5. I and my clients agree, this is one case where you have to be careful to avoid just going by the numbers alone. One report you’ll never read is the one for how much precious goodwill you may be silently burning up through remarketing.

    “Conversions” is an actionable statistic. But a latent statistic is: “enemies.” What’s your “CPE”?

    For some aggressive advertisers, the data-driven approach will work. If I’m in lead gen for a financial company, I want to write more incremental deals this week, for an extra $100,000. I am not too concerned about complaints as long as they don’t get to the point of people writing bad things and telling their friends… which they are unlikely to do, given that it’s a narrow niche, someone gets their loan or insurance, and everyone goes about their way.

    But if you’re a retailer building a brand for the long term, you have to be sensitive to caps.

    Ironically, if you’re a GIANT company like McDonald’s or Gillette that is already seen in every nook and cranny of one’s day, you probably get a pass, because what’s one more brand impression? It certainly doesn’t become a deal-breaker like it might for a niche “who the hell is that bothering me again!?!” company.

    I think many of us in the industry spend less time honing our own material than we should. We should get a mulligan or two. 🙂

    I’m said to say I have had to pull one of my favorite image ads completely, because it might be perceived to be offensive when shown against the tragedy, death, & dismemberment news we’re all treated to on a daily basis. You can try to tick the boxes to avoid those impressions, but as we know, the systems aren’t perfect. 🙁

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Very well said as always, Andrew. Some things can’t be measured. Love the “CPE” metric!

      I know we’ve all been guilty of the “do as I say, not as I do” syndrome. I know I have. Thanks for your comment!

    • A proxy for annoyed people is click through rate and ad fatigue. if people are tired of your ads, they won’t click on them. we’re finding that the CTR of re-targeted display ads that get seen a lot of times do better than generically targeted display ads. take a look — https://twitter.com/larrykim/status/535834673906450433

      yes we do get some complaints but we do also get quite a few compliments, too. like this one: https://twitter.com/domjbs/status/358650410153680897

      That’s why i’d suggest making the decision on frequency caps and audience membership duration on data like CTR and Conversion Rates and how those numbers vary over time in the reach & frequency report, rather than relying on anecdotal stuff or making generalized statements about not being creepy. Just my $0.02 — It’s worth testing being creepy and seeing what happens.

  6. Great post as always! I love reading your posts every Friday to get my day rolling.

    Such an interesting topic too, especially heading into the holiday buying season. Remember all those post holiday articles last year about how remarketing ruined Christmas with people seeing ads on shared devices for gifts their family members might have shopped for?

    I find the whole concept really interesting too, because it kind of makes the assumption that a decent percentage of people who visited the site and did not convert will convert at some future point. I wonder sometimes if we aren’t using our fantasy numbers for this thinking rather than numbers more based in reality?

    I know it can be a really effective technique, when executed properly, so I’m in no way not saying it should not be used. Rather, I always encourage clients to both think about their own behaviors online when making decisions about how to market to their customers, current and potential, and also to put themselves into the mindset of those target audiences. As with all tools at our disposal, sometimes we get caught up in what we *can* do and don’t stop to spend enough time thinking about what we *should* do.

    The human factor definitely matters here.

    I’ve tweeted apologies to Wordstream and a couple of other aggressively retargeting web marketing firms because my 2 year old clicks on their ads all the time in her toddler game apps!

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Thanks for your comment, Julie! We definitely need to be careful with all of our marketing efforts to think about the qualitative side of marketing – the stuff we can’t measure. Impression annoyance, ruining Christmas, souring people on your brand – these things don’t show up in your analytics reports, but they definitely matter.

      For the record, I use my work computer to buy all my Christmas gifts. 😀

  7. Retargeted ads is one of those things on which my position as a marketer is 180 degrees apart from that as consumer. For a long time, I’ve been daydreaming of finding a via media between these antipodal positions by way of an alternative that would be smart enough to allow viewers to interact with it and gather insight instead of dumbly redirecting them to the brand website. With so much angst on this topic, looks like this is an idea whose time has come and I should really do something more than daydream about it. While on the subject, I recently noticed a novel type of retargeted ad from Amazon India: It has a panel that gets progressively incremented with the picture of each new item I view on its website. As a marketer, this is interesting and, as a consumer, less creepy and fatigue-inducing than the conventional retargeted ad that displays the same thing on each impression. I haven’t seen anyone else use this type of ad unit and am not sure if it’s proprietary to Amazon (India?).

  8. I know your video conferencing company quite well – its software is a SaaS. So is AdWords. For reasons I’ve highlighted in my blog post “SaaS Will Change The Outcome Of The Bloatware Versus Light Apps Debate” (http://gtm360.com/blog/2012/01/22/saas-will-change-the-outcome-of-the-bloatware-versus-light-apps-debate/), they’re both *right* in showing you retargeted ads even though you’re their existing customer! Ditto about your project management software if it’s a SaaS software.

  9. Great post Mel. My three biggest gripes with remarketing campaigns are things you’ve touched on – 1. Not frequency capping 2. Not excluding enough or any negative placements/audiences and 3. Too generic and static ads.

    If I’ve been followed by the exact same ad creative for days even weeks/months and still not converted, why is someone still wasting their time on me?! Show me another message and new creative to give me another angel to convert. This is something that companies are getting better at through YouTube skipable ads – by showing a series of ads aimed at giving you more of a reason to click each time you see the ad. But don’t think it’s quite conquered on the GDN.

  10. We’re currently rethinking our remarketing strategy so I was very happy to run across this blog post – thanks Melissa! Also, I had to laugh at the WordStream ad as well. We use their software to manage our PPC campaigns and I have wondered why they would show ads to us.

    After reading through this post and everyone’s comments, I had a thought about our own strategy. We’re using frequency capping and only targeting “home & garden” websites (we’re an hvac & plumbing company), as well as excluding people that converted. However, people that visit our website and leave are probably getting annoyed by our desperate “come back!” strategy, thus defeating the purpose of our remarketing ads. What if we added targeting that would only show our ads to people who have not visited our site but are similar to those that have converted?

    I would love to know your thoughts!

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Hi Brittany and thanks for your comment! I think that’s a great idea. You could test it alongside your other remarketing campaign to see which performs better. You might also want to try different creative for non-site visitors than you do for site visitors – use more “introductory” language for non-site visitors.

      Finally, if you think site visitors are getting annoyed, you could always shorten the duration of your remarketing list. This would take some research and testing too, but it’s worth looking into.

      • I want to add that we are happy with WordStream’s products and how they’ve helped us with our PPC strategies! I did laugh when I saw the WordStream ad in the article, but that was once I realized it a picture of a remarketing ad being used as an example, not an actual remarketing ad.

        We’re going to try out these strategies, and I’ll be sure to come back and post an update. Keep up the good work Melissa!

  11. Oh man, I’m so happy you called out Wordstream! Two thumbs up.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Hi Colleen, thanks for your comment! My goal wasn’t to call out advertisers and badmouth them; my goal was to point out what I felt was remarketing overkill, or remarketing done poorly (in the case of the other two advertisers). Larry Kim from Wordstream responded here that they’ve studied the data to determine the best remarketing frequency. I totally respect that. I also know that many of us in the search industry are hyper-aware of remarketing ads; and we’re all online all day, so we probably see more than our share.

      I’m still a fan of using frequency caps, personally – but to each his own. Just wanted to say that I wasn’t trying to point fingers, but rather use an example of what I thought was the lack of frequency caps (which it is, but it’s intentional).

  12. When I read your post firstly I laughed inside of me. But then – when I thought about it little longer – sth came to my mind. My remarketing strategy is disaster!

    Time for some changes 😀


  1. […] Let’s say a user clicks on your advertisements and drops off your website for an unrelated reason – the phone rings, the baby cries, their boss catches them shopping for shoes during work hours. Well, if you have a display remarketing advertisement set-up, a beautiful piece of creative can follow this user around for the next 30-days to remind them about your product or messaging. Display remarketing advertisements have an amazing return on investment and are a key component for online advertising that all marketers should be thankful for – just make sure to avoid remarketing mistakes.  […]

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