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The Ultimate Guide To Retargeting Unconverted Visitors – How Retargeting Works


Retargeting is an untouched gold mine, if you are not retargeting your unconverted visitors you are leaving money on the table. Adding a retargeting campaign into your playbook not only drives more conversions, it also retargets the hard earned visitors you have already paid for via other traffic sources. This means you are effectively hitting two birds with one stone by lowering your cost per acquisition and boosting the ROI on your ad spend across all traffic sources. This article is for anyone who already has a stable stream of traffic, has a clearly defined conversion goal and wants to scale further. You will learn the basics from “What is retargeting” and “How it works” right through to “Pro Tips” which will give you an edge over your competition. 

This image details the growing interest for the keyword "retargeting" in Google Trends.
This image details the growing interest for the keyword “retargeting” in Google Trends.

Exclusive Bonus: Click here for instructions on how to get two weeks of retargeting credit with Adroll valued at $60 and a checklist to launching your first campaign.

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What Is Retargeting & How Retargeting Works

Generally a very small percentage of visitors will convert when they visit your site for the first time. Most websites do not capture any details of their visitors like an email address so they have no way to reach the non-converting traffic, allowing them to bounce and never to be seen again. Retargeting is an online advertising method which allows you to reach out to visitors who have already visited your website by “following” them around the web. This is achieved by displaying banners on other web properties which encourages them revisit your site. To retarget a website visitor you need to install a tracking code/pixel on your site (view instructions here). The code drops a cookie in the user’s browser when they visit your website which adds them to your chosen retargeting list, once the user’s browser has a retargeting cookie stored they can be identified by the retargeting network and attributed to your specific campaign allowing the network to display ads to users in your retargeting list. Display advertising historically meant purchasing advertising on a website and displaying ads to all users within certain segments/targeting, this is a one ad to many users relationship. Retargeting is different to this because ads are displayed on a one to one relationship, one ad on one site targeted to one specific user.

This image details the four step retargeting method.
This image details the four step retargeting method.

  Retargeting is commonly used in the following formats:

  • Web Retargeting: Users are retargeted via display ads on websites.
MVMT Web Retargeting 300x300 Banner
  • Facebook Retargeting: Users are retargeting via display ads within Facebook.
  • Twitter Retargeting: Users are retargeted via display & text ads within Twitter.
SumoMe Twitter Retargeting Ad Example
  • Dynamic Retargeting: Users are retargeted dynamically generated display ads via web retargeting on websites.
  • Video Retargeting: Users are retargeted video ads via web, Youtube or Facebook.

Know Your Critical Metrics

When paying for any form of traffic you need to know and understand your numbers to ensure you are driving a positive ROI. The following  and live by the following numbers when running retargeting campaigns:

  • Impressions
  • Conversions
  • CPM (Cost Per Thousand Impression)
  • CRT (Click Through Rate)
  • VTC (View Through Conversions)
  • CTC (Click Through Conversions)
  • ROI (Return On Investment)
  • eCPM (Effective Cost Per Thousand Impressions)
  • eCPA (Effective Cost Per Acquisition)
  • CPA (Cost Per Acquisition)

Like all performance marketing campaigns, your eCPA should be less than your eCPM to obtain a positive or on your ad spend. Note: this does not fully take into consideration the lifetime value (LTV) of your customer. 

Retargeting Networks

Below is a list of retargeting networks which allow you to dive in and setup your first campaign.

  • Facebook Ads
  • Google Ads
  • Perfect Audience
  • Adroll
  • Chango
  • ReTargeter
  • SiteScout
  • Vizury

Campaign Lifecycle

Each retargeting network has a slightly different layout and process to set up and run campaigns. Below is a generalised 6-step process for setting up, launching and running your first campaign. 

1) Install retargeting code/pixel on your site.

The retargeting code is a few lines of javascript code which allows you to cookie visitors who visit your website. You need to paste this on all pages between the <body> and </body> tags. 

Adroll retargeting tag installation instructions
The image above details how to install your retargeting pixel within AdRoll.

2) Create Lists

Lists segment multiple visitors who complete the same action. You may wish to add everyone who visits you site to one list, to do this you need to create a retargeting list for everyone who visits the URL* (* is a wildcard for anything following), another example would be drilling down to category level;* 

Adroll list segment example
The image above details how to segment visitors within AdRoll.

3) Create Conversions

Specify what your visitor has to do for a conversion to take place. Conversions can be set up and accredited by the following:

  • When a URL is visited, e.g.
  • When a URL Querystring is visited, e.g.
  • When a URL matching Regex rules is visited, Note: this is an advanced option.
  • When a Javascript event is triggered, e.g. when user clicks on activate button.
Adroll setting up conversion example
The image above details how to setup conversions within AdRoll.

4) Create Campaign

A campaign allows you to target specific retargeting lists while applying specific campaign level settings. By dividing visitors into separate campaigns you can change the following settings on the campaign level:

  • Medium (Web, Facebook, Twitter. Dynamic, etc…)
  • Which lists to target or exclude (Make sure you exclude converted visitors)
  • Age or visitors to include
  • Geographic targeting
  • Day parting (Time & day of week)
  • Ad Creatives
  • Bidding Options
  • Campaign Budget
  • Conversion Goal

5) Launch

Click the shiny red button and get some coffee. 

6) Report & Optimise

After you have collected some data you need to determine if the campaign is achieving a positive return on the ad spend. If you are not achieving a positive return you need to optimise your campaign, if you are achieving a positive return on the ad spend can most likely optimise for a better return. Optimisation techniques are detailed below under “Tracking & Optimising”. 

Campaign Examples

Below are real life examples of retargeting campaigns that were up and running at the time of writing this post. 

Example 1)

Goal: Book a hotel room in BaliNotes: I visited and looked at hotels in Bali, Indonesia. Because I did not finalise a booking I was displayed the following ads. 

Expedia Hotel Dynamic Retargeting Banner 2
Expedia Hotel Dynamic Retargeting Banner 4

Example 2)

Goal: Sign up for free trial of their support ticket software.Notes: I visited and viewed their service. Because I did not sign up for a free trial I was displayed the following ads.

FreshDesk Banner Ad Example 2
FreshDesk Banner Ad Example 1
FreshDesk Banner Ad Example 3
FreshDesk Banner Ad Example 4

Example 3)

Goal: Buy health insurance.Notes: I visited and researched their health insurance offerings, I did not go ahead and purchase any. Due to not completing a purchase I was displayed the following ads. 

FreshDesk Banner Ad Example 1
FreshDesk Banner Ad Example 2

Campaign Strategies

To ensure you get the most of your retargeting budget, you need to come up with a compelling strategy based on your end goal. The first step for your strategy is defining your goal. The five main types of goals for direct marketers are the following:

  • Sale (Physical product, digital product or service)
  • Lead (Contact information)
  • Optin (Email address)
  • Call (Call to trackable phone number)
  • Sign Up (Software or service)

Once you have defined your goal you need to reduce friction and increase desire to convert your visitors. Below are two examples detailing how a retargeting campaign could work in your overall funnel for a Ecommerce business and a Saas company. 

Example 1) Retargeting Funnel – Women Fashion Ecommerce Store.

Example 2) Retargeting Funnel – Saas Cloud Accounting Software

The examples above details how specific targeting is partnered with specific banners, for a congruent message at each step throughout the funnel.For example, only customers who have viewed the cart are retargeted with banners saying “We have saved your order, come back to collect your shoes and get 5% off” or “Your trial finishes tomorrow”.

Tracking & Optimising

Once you campaign is up and running you want to continually optimise with the goal of a higher ROI and more conversions. Below are areas you can tweak and test to optimise your campaign.

  • A/B Test Ads (images and text)
  • Ad Sizes
  • Day Parting
  • Placements (URL’s)
  • Demographic
  • Geographic
  • Demographic
  • Landing Page
  • Device (Mobile vs Desktop vs Tablet)
  • Frequency Cap (How many times a user sees an ad)
  • Visitor Age (How long the user has been on the retargeting list)

 Segmenting For The Win

Segmenting users based on data points means you can better direct your message to each user. The better the message is delivered the more successful the campaign will be. Once you have segments you can then create a congruent message throughout the whole campaign.Some basic segments available for an Ecommerce business are generated from the following data points:

  • Sex
  • Country
  • Language
  • Has viewed product category
  • Has viewed product page
  • Has clicked add to cart
  • Has viewed shopping cart
  • Has completed purchase

From the data above we could target the following: An English speaking female who visited the women shoes section, viewed product X, clicked add to cart then left the website.

Adroll segment example
The image above details how to setup campaign level segment targeting within AdRoll.

 Tip: know the difference between excluding and ignoring retargeting lists. On the examples above I haven’t excluded the targets “category_clothing” and “category_accessories” as the user may have also visited these pages. 

Pro Tips

The following pro tips will help you take your campaigns to the next level and leave your competitors paying 3x to acquire a customer.

  • If you are utilising Facebook Retargeting as part of your marketing you are required to add a specific segment code to each page. If you want to target people who visited page X and not page Y you need to take the time to create a new tag and insert the code each time a new page goes live.
  • Ensure you have a burn/conversion code correctly setup. Once a user converts you need to be able to exclude them from your campaign, there is no point spending your hard earned marketing dollars on a converted customer. You would be suppressed how many companies are retargeting visitors for a free trial when they have already upgraded to a paid version.
  • Know your customers sales cycle and times/visits to purchase. This can be looked up in Google Analytics if you have it correctly setup. You may have a high end product where customers visit your site an average of 10 times before making a purchase, if this is the case you don’t want to stop the campaign prematurely due to no sales.
  • Utilise negative filters to exclude users you can not service. If you don’t ship large items internationally don’t retarget users overseas who you don’t service.
  • Test campaigns on multiple retargeting networks as one may outperform another. Note: Don’t run the same campaign simultaneously on multiple networks as you will be bidding against yourself driving up the cost.
  • To achieve greater scale look for partners who service a similar audience and place your retargeting code on their site so you can retarget their websites visitors.
  • Drop a retargeting pixel into your emails so you can target users who open and or click a link in the email.
  • Try, or to get some retargeting banners designed on the cheap.
  • Use Google’s URL builder to add customs campaign parameters to your ads for deeper tracking. This allows you to segment ads via Source, Medium, Term, Content and Name.
  • Install the Chrome plugin for BuiltWith as it allows you to see if a site is retargeting, if so which network(s) they are using.
  • Install the Chrome plugin for Follow, it’s a fantastic competitor intelligence tool allowing you to look up things like the banners they are running.


Retargeting can provide insane ROI’s and prove to be a vital part of your marketing strategy for 2015. If your business model is “evergreen” there is no reason your retargeting campaign can’t be too. You can get your first retargeting campaign up and running with a very small budget, there is no need to spend thousands of dollars to see if it works for your business. To ensure you have the best chance at success you need to ensure you invest the necessary time upfront to set up tracking, segment data and plan your campaign. Set aside some time this week to set up a campaign. Did you find this useful? I would be thrilled if you’d take a microsecond to share with someone who might like it too! Updated October 2016

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