The problem with “retargeting”….


Retargeting (some people call it remarketing) you might not know what it is.  Here’s a definition for those of you who haven’t worked in the advertising industry…

The internet knows everything about you. Actually, the internet knows more about you than you know about yourself.  Do you look at the news at 7 PM on a Saturday and then swiftly transition to the ESPN site to check football scores? Guess what?  The Internet already knew that because you’ve been tagged, tracked, and monitored for years.

The Internet knows you so well it can predict what you are going to do. There are several companies selling APIs that advertisers can call out to that predict what sort of website you are going to be looking at in 20 minutes.   Or what your income is?  Or how likely you are to purchase a home in the next six months?   Every time you browse the web, there’s a crazy amount of data flowing back and forth around several advertising exchanges about you, what you are doing, what you are going to be doing, and who you are.     Advertising on the web is about modeling your behavior, predicting it, and then refining those predictions based on history.

“The Internet understands that right after you read this blog entry, you are going to check Facebook on your phone, then you might decide to watch a movie on Netflix. You and the billions of other users on the web right now are predictable, and advertising companies plug your data into these amazingly complex models that pull in awe-inspiring amounts of data at speeds that would seriously freak you out.   All this Big Data stuff we’re talking about – advertising drove that because you leave a crazy data trail everywhere you go.

Back to this retargeting idea, this is how it works… those shoes you just looked at. You know the ones you just dropped in a shopping cart and got so, so close to buying. Close enough that the site even noticed that you entered 10 digits of your 16 digit credit card before you realized that there was absolutely no space in the budget for extras… Well, those shoes are going to follow you around the web for the next few hours reminding you of the potential purchase.   That retailer is hoping that you’ll reconsider the purchase again (and again, you’ll see those shoes 10 times that day, if you pay close attention).  Your recent browsing history will haunt you on the web, and this is retargeting.

Companies pay a real premium for retargeting, and it works.  I’ve seen the results of spending money on retargeting.    There’s something to be said for having the ability to reel people back into a site.     But, there’s a problem…  I keep on seeing retargeting ads targeted at me that make no sense at all.

Here’s a sample of the problems I experience with ads “retargeted” at me:

  • You don’t know me very well, do you?  An advertisement for a Young and Christian singles site haunts my browsing experience because of retargeting.  Every time I see this ad, I wonder what sort of crazy algorithmic edge case I’ve uncovered in AdRoll.  If you know me for longer than 60 minutes, you’ll realize just how badly targeted this advertisement is.   First, I’m married, and second, let’s just say I’d have little use for a site like this.   Someone somewhere is paying some nominal fee for AdRoll to display this ad to me.
  • I’m already a customer, stop retargeting advertisements to me.  I’m confronted with advertisements for companies I’ve already purchased from – this one is the most noticeable.  For example, I’m a customer of SEOmoz – I pay SEOmoz money every single month already.   Yet, the SEOmoz retargeting ad follows me around the web every time I use the site.   The same true for Allstate – I visit the Allstate web site and pay a bill, all of a sudden Allstate is trying to sign me up as a customer.    This strikes me as a massive waste of money for these companies.
  • Political advertisements that understand what news I just read.   This is the creepiest one of them all.  I’ll read a news story about unemployment, and without fail Romney and Obama are retargeting advertisements to me that talk about unemployment.   There’s something strange about the fact that a campaign can now have access (albeit indirect) to this vast amount of data on preferences and browsing history.   It is at the same time both a powerful political outreach tool and the most Orwellian approach to campaigning you could think of.  It reminds me of a picture of a sign I saw on Reddit today.

If I’m seeing problems in the algorithms that target ads to me, I wonder how widespread these issue are.  I know retargeting works, I’m not questioning the value of the practice, but I wonder how good these models really are.   Maybe, just maybe, the internet knows me better than I know myself… I don’t think so.