The Next New Thing: “Remarketing”

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. That is the old-fashioned premise behind a relatively new web marketing strategy known as remarketing or retargeting. And if you have had the experience of seeing ads for a specific company or product popping up over and over again as you surf the web, chances are you have already experienced it firsthand.

We are all familiar with the abandoned shopping cart – going partway through the process of selecting and configuring that perfect something [insert your own shopping proclivity here] on a retailer’s website before bailing out just before finalizing your purchase. At first blush this sequence looks like failure for the retailer – you came, you looked, you didn’t buy. However, remarketing treats that abandoned shopping cart as an opportunity.

Remarketing is web advertising targeted at a specific group of prospective customers/clients who have demonstrated interest in your products or services (by visiting your website), but who did not purchase them.

Let’s say you are a business owner selling computers and televisions. I come to your website and browse computers, but do not make a purchase. However, as I continue to browse other websites over the next few weeks, I repeatedly come across your ads for computer sales – on major newspaper sites, on sports websites, on blogs, you name it. Suddenly it feels like you are the dominant player in this category. When I am finally ready to make a purchase, it is to your site that I return. That abandoned shopping cart has been reclaimed and I am now your customer.

So how does it work?

I as the customer didn’t do what you wanted the first time I visited your website (buy a widget), but I did leave behind some useful information along the way – namely that I am aware of your company, that I have an interest in your products/services, and that I am specifically interested in widget A (computers) as opposed to widgets B or C that you also sell (televisions, etc.) This is a distinction that is particularly important to larger organizations that sell a wide variety of products or services. This proven pattern of behavior on my part makes me a much more likely candidate to buy widget A from you than a member of the general public. The premise of remarketing is that by focusing your advertising dollars on this group of “almost buyers”, you are likely to see better sales results.

Google is very much at the center of this strategy, as they are uniquely placed to help marketers execute it. The process is as follows. You as the retailer first add a piece of code called a “tag” to various parts of your website – say a “computers” tag for your computer products, and a “televisions” tag for your TVs. You next create website ads that correspond to your different tags – one set of ads for your computer products and a second set of ads for your televisions for example. Then you purchase ad space on the Google Display Network – a huge array of websites of all stripes and sizes that sell ad space you can purchase through Google’s Adwords system. When I visit your site and activate a tag by browsing computers, Google then knows to add me to the list of people who should see your advertisements, and more specifically your Widget A ads for computers. Google only shows your ads to those people who have triggered your website tags.

While remarketing has obvious application to consumer goods, it can also apply to professional services. Substitute “computers” and “televisions” in the above example with “family law” and “wills and estates” and you can envision how the system works in a legal context. Or perhaps the abandoned shopping cart in the context of your firm website is an intake form on your contact page that is not fully completed. By delivering targeted advertising to those “almost clients”, you can convert some percentage of them into real ones.

A note of caution, however – remarketing requires careful setup of the program parameters – show your ads too often to the same person in a short period of time and it can quickly feel to the prospective customer that you are stalking them and drive them away from instead of towards you. You will also want to think carefully about what kind of ads to run (general firm ads, practice group specific, promoting a relevant white paper?) and how to identify what makes a website visitor a good candidate for remarketing – a more challenging issue in the law firm example where there normally isn’t a binary purchased/didn’t purchase sort of logic to the site.

It’s early days for this new marketing tactic, but I have already encountered at least one Canadian law firm that appears to be employing a remarketing campaign, and given its proven success in other sectors I anticipate we will see more of it in the legal context as more firms and their marketing teams come to understand it.


  1. Presumably the web tags mentioned in this article fall into the class of devices or applets that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is talking about in her new Guidelines on Privacy and Online Behavioural Advertising that would require consent of the person whose behaviour is being tracked, before the tag is placed.