There was a really interesting article on digiday this week about retargeting and how the industry enthusiasm for it is risking the health of retargeting, and increasing resentment for online advertising as a whole.
To give some background, the display ad industry has suffered from a reduction in the perceived value of their ad inventory ever since the industry’s inception. Many cost models now exist (CPC – cost per click, CPA – cost per action) but the original pricing model for online inventory was the CPM (cost per mille, yes I know it’s french but it means cost per thousand to the ordinary person). By cost per thousand they mean cost per thousand impressions, and an impression is counted each time one ad is served (each ad may have multiple images within a loop, a drop down or other engagement and run multiple times, but until the ad itself is clicked, or another link on the page, that still counts as only one impression).
When I first started in online at MSN in *cough* 1999, we asked for, and (sometimes) received, £26 CPMs for untargeted Hotmail inventory, and £29 for targeted inventory which then was only available based on content, not user demographics or any other criteria. Due to limited availability the MSN business channel was always sold out at a rate card of £29 CPM, while we’d do deals for, say £15 for Run of Hotmail, and run a LOT of house and charity ads.
That was during the dotcom boom, however, and things had to change, if only because all the 19 year olds with random website ideas (and funding) either became gazillionnaires or failed miserably. What remained after the chaos was real businesses doing real things and having to use a proper calculation of profitability to justify their share value. That coincided with added trackability of online, past the point of click and all the way to sales or leads that could be attributed back to a media campaign.
Trackability allowed a realistic value assessment (which became a stick with which to beat the display sector), and the huge growth of consumer usage of the internet meant that billions of available impressions were being added to the inventory of websites each month. Within a couple of years we also had networks brokering deals for massive volumes of blind remnant inventory that the publishers just wanted to make *something* from, and the CPMs kept tumbling.
From a few pounds in the mid 2000s, CPMs kept tumbling to sub £1 levels for large buys, meaning display publishers were constantly struggling to make money from their users, and the “pile it high, sell it cheap” approach was a self fulfilling disaster for advertisers as the vast majority of the inventory was wasted.
As users gradually became blind to the banner (the dominant 468×60 pixel image that held sway for a while), click through rates also fell from single figure %s to less than 0.25% meaning every advertiser and publisher was scrabbling to buy as cheap as possible as this was the only way to make the performance figures add up.
It didn’t help that all this was happening at the same time as the growth of search advertising, which with a CPC (cost per click) pricing model was a lot less risky than display, and also fits into the user journey much closer to the final sale, the death knell of display seemed almost palpable.
and then along came retargeting….
Retargeting hinges on cookies. Basically once you have interacted with an ad (clicked on it) or visited an advertisers’ website – anything that can result in a cookie on your PC, you are potentially identifiable (not personally but as a string of text/numbers) as someone who has done this action. This means that advertisers can either a) serve you a specific ad or b) in some instances decide not to advertise to you at all depending on the actions you’ve taken.
Here’s an example:
Yesterday I went on the BHS website to look at lighting in their sale.
Today when I visit the Huffington Post website, this is the ad I see – featuring the exact products I looked at yesterday:
This is a retargeting ad, and is possible because the cookie on my PC captured data of what I was looking at, and BHS have bought a retargeting campaign, probably from a large provider like Criteo or Struq, stating that they want to target people who’ve been to their site and abandoned items in their shopping baskets, to persuade them to come back and complete the purchase.
Brilliant stuff. This works like a DREAM compared to standard display ads.
Target market – BOOM.
In purchase mode – BOOM.
Relevant products – BOOM.
Happy users – BOOM.
No ad wastage – BOOM.
Inventory gains value – BOOM.
Comparative click through and purchase rates went through the roof, ads are capped to only show 4 times per user to avoid annoying them, suddenly display gets back on the media plan, and everyone’s happy, right?
In theory yes, except like pop ups in the mid 2000s, the most successful ad type gets used to the point of saturation. Many advertisers will now only use display for retargeting, and in their enthusiasm for it, they use multiple providers to serve the same campaign. The result of this is that the frequency capping becomes 4 per network or exchange (and many advertisers use several) so the user can see the ad 20 times+. Plus the complexity of managing this many campaigns means that it’s also unlikely they’re pulling client 1st party data through to show whether the sale was actually made or not – so, as in my case I’VE ALREADY BOUGHT THE DAMNED THING!
How likely is it that customers enjoy this experience and are encouraged to return another time?
Easy answer. It’s not.
Given the amount of times that I see an ad after I’ve bought the product, or an insane number of times you’d think that it was difficult to prevent this happening, but it isn’t at all.
Any agency or advertiser using retargeting who doesn’t manage cross campaign frequency is risking not just their own customers, but increasing resentment for the whole online ad sector. And for crying out loud, drop a cookie when people buy so they don’t keep seeing it ad infinitum.