How does retargeting work?

Cookie-based retargeting places an invisible browser cookie that shows optimal ads based on visitor behavior after they leave your site
Updated on June 10, 2024

What is retargeting exactly?

Retargeting is a form of advertising that helps brands re-engage users who’ve left their websites before making a purchase. There are several types of retargeting but in this post, we’ll focus on cookie-based retargeting, or the one retail marketers are most likely to be involved in on a day-to-day basis.

Unlike banner ads, retargeting ads are served to people who’ve already stopped by your website. As a pixel-based technology, retargeting ads anonymously follow your audience throughout their online journey to later target them with personalized product offers.

Ultimate Guide to Retargeting

Learn Everything You Need to Know About Retargeting.

What’s the technology that powers retargeting?

In this type of retargeting, a tiny piece of code (or “pixel”) drops an anonymous, undetectable browser cookie on every visitor that stops by your site. When those same visitors leave your site or browse the web at a later time, your retargeting provider’s technology decides which ads to show those shoppers based on their previous behavior.

Ideally, these ads are more personalized than traditional banner ads, geared towards addressing the last place people dropped off in the conversion funnel.

Learn More: Static vs. Dynamic Retargeting: Which is Right for Your Business?

Let’s say you’re sitting on your sofa on Saturday at 10am, sipping coffee and using your tablet to shop online for black sneakers. You find a pair you like and put them in your online shopping cart. (Or maybe you don’t, but even so, it’s pretty clear by your e-behavior that you’re interested in those kicks.)

In any case, you get distracted by the sound of a parade passing by, get up to see what the ruckus is about, and never actually complete your purchase. A few hours later, you’re enjoying a picnic at the park with friends and decide to check out the news on your phone.

While you’re scrolling through the latest articles, you see an ad displaying a pair of black sneakers. Those stylish black sneakers magically appear to be from the same site you were looking at over your morning joe.

That’s retargeting. And brands are doing it all day every day, across all kinds of devices. We even made video about it:

Is retargeting the key to my digital marketing strategy?

Not entirely. Retargeting is effective at converting users because it focuses on people who’ve recently shown interest in particular products, but retargeting alone isn’t enough. It works best as part of a comprehensive digital strategy.

Why? Retargeting is great at conversion optimization, but it doesn’t actually drive traffic to your site. Most retail marketers see a high ROI with retargeting since it focuses your advertising spend on your most engaged consumers, but to increase brand awareness and drive website traffic, you need to be implementing other strategies too for a full funnel approach.

Michelle Pruett

As Global Head of Content at Criteo, Michelle leads a high-performing, multi-disciplinary team of marketers packaging insights, copy, design, and video into integrated campaigns. Her own writing has been featured in Entrepreneur, Business Insider, AdWeek, eMarketer, and more. Before joining the ...

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