Two days ago we clicked on a New York Times review for Crazy Heart, the Jeff Bridges film gaining huge Oscar buzz. Soon banner ads for Crazy Heart started following us everywhere. It’s possible that Fox Searchlight Pictures has launched a massive online media buy, so everyone is seeing lots of banners, but far more likely we’re being retargeted.
Retargeting is a simple online trick in which banner ads are served to users who are previously identified as interested in a product. You can launch them in several ways: (1) if someone visits a web site, you cookie their computer; (2) or, more interesting, if someone only sees a banner ad — and doesn’t even click on it — the banner can still tag that user’s computer so that he or she gets served additional banners elsewhere. The second approach is called “media retargeting” and is a bit surreal for the user experience; after all, you don’t even have to touch the original banner ad to be tagged and chased with followup messaging. So in this case, we suspect:
– Fox Searchlight bought banners to be placed next to the online New York Times’ film review.
– Fox Searchlight then included an invisible pixel in the animated banner that tagged our computer when we read the review.
– Now knowing that we have interest in the film, Fox Searchlight serves us additional banners when we enter other web sites such as Salon.com by buying into an ad network (ad inventory on a vast collection of other web sites).
Retargeting risk vs. reward
Retargeting is clever (and honestly, we’ve recommended retargeting for our own clients using ad networks such as Value Click and Fetchback). It essentially lowers online ad costs by 50% or more, because the cost of subsequent impressions is much less than the original expensive media buy on a top site that kicks off the sequence.
But retargeting also carries risks. If rules are not set up to limit the number of impressions given to the user, the vibe becomes one of stalking — OMG, that product is following us everywhere! The second risk is it’s still easy to chase the wrong computers. A year ago we researched nursing homes for an aging relative and began receiving ads for Viagra and wrinkle cream, and laughed ’cause we’re not there yet. The third risk is for publishers, who may lose their value as online marketers learn how to “steal” their audiences for future ad impressions on other web properties; after all, why spend big bucks to advertise on a marquee site such as NYTimes.com if you can serve the same ad to the same audience later, via retargeting, on a less-expensive site?
As online media and Internet gadgets continue to fragment, we expect to see such individual targeting continue. Just be careful not to stalk customers too far; if they pick up they’re being watched, they could go crazy.