Forget the Grinch that stole Christmas. This year, maybe it’s ad retargeting that’s stealing Christmas, at least the surprise of what people are going to receive.
Certainly in my household, a new war on the Christmas surprise has been declared. Advertisers taking advantage of “retargeting” — a way to follow visitors around with ads — are making life difficult for our number one gift giver, my wife.
“Everything I’m buying for Christmas, it’s showing up in ads,” she complained to me this week. That’s a problem because our kids are often using her computer. You don’t want them seeing what might end up under the tree.
We Know What You’ve Been Shopping For…
Talking with her further, it was clear that retargeting was to blame. Consider this example from her computer:
At the top is an ad for Macy’s displaying, as it turns out, a jacket that she was considering getting for me (she decided against this, which is why I was allowed to see this example. She had to check each page carefully before showing me any because she is still seeing an ad for what she actually bought for me from another merchant).
Do They Know How Retargeting Works & How To Opt-Out?
Most of our readers here at Marketing Land understand how retargeting works to make this happen. Someone visits a website, such as a retailer like Macy’s. Macy’s then takes part in an ad network that allows it to show its ads to that person if they go to another website, if the other website is in the same ad network. The ads can be very targeted, such as linked to a particular product someone looked at or even an item put into a shopping cart.
Consumers have become more aware of this, as well, as our recent survey reaffirmed: 3 Out Of 4 Consumers Now Notice Retargeted Ads. For those who don’t like it, the option to opt-out is supposed to be easy. Just click on that little triangle in the top corner of the ad, such as the arrow in the screenshot above points to. That provides more information about why an ad is appearing. Here’s how it looked for that Macy’s ad:
The page supposedly explains why this particular banner ad was shown. It says that right at the top, “Why are you being shown this banner?” But it doesn’t really live up to that promise. There’s no introductory text, no easy-to-understand plain language explanation of what’s going on.
You do get shown what are the last products that were viewed on the Macy’s site with a “Learn More” option next to them. That doesn’t let you remove these individual products, if you’re trying to keep them from appearing in banner ads on your computer. They actually take you back to the product page as another attempt to sell them to you. The page even has suggested products you might want to buy on it.
You get the option to temporarily disable Macy’s banners, which is good for merchants who might get how retargeting could be inconvenient in some cases, such as spoiling surprises, but not so bad that a consumer wants it disabled permanently.
Of course, temporarily disabling it only works for Macy’s. You’ll still see that product showing up if you view information about it on other sites, and if those sites also do retargeting.
Similarly, going for the “completely disable” option really doesn’t completely disable retargeting. It completely disables it only for this particular ad network. Other items you’re considering may appear if merchants retarget using other ad networks.
Should You Have To Study How To Opt-Out?
That leads to the next example:
This ad is from ThinkGeek, where my wife did make some purchases and then found those purchases continuing to show up banner ads. To stop this, she eventually went back to ThinkGeek and clicked on a bunch of different items, to push what she actually bought out of the banners she was being shown.
Why not just opt-out temporarily, as with Macy’s? For one, like many people, she didn’t know that’s what the little triangle in these ads was supposed to do. For another, well, let’s look at that opt-out page:
You can explore it yourself more here. It’s from Google, and unlike the other opt-out page I mentioned, it does a good job of explaining in plain language what’s happening:
Ever notice “Ads by Google,” “Sponsored Links,” or the AdChoices icon as you browse the web? Ads like these show all across the Internet. Advertisers can use AdWords to show Google Ads on sites that are part of the Google Display Network. You may come across such ads when you’re viewing a website, video, or app on Google’s Display Network or other partner sites. In addition to seeing ads based on the types of sites you visit, you may also see ads based on your interests and more.
OK, so this comes only after the page makes a pitch to get you to actually advertise, which really shouldn’t be on a page designed for consumers. But there was some thought put into helping consumers with easy-to-understand information.
Unfortunately, it falls apart assuming consumers then want to go on to read a four-part article about how all this works, then want to jump to another page where they can figure out that “interest-based ads” means ads that are based on pages you’ve seen before.
There’s no way to just temporarily disable the ads. Or to opt-out of ads from just this merchant. Or to remove them for just the product that’s showing.
‘Tis The Season To Think More Carefully About Retargeting?
Retargeting is an incredibly powerful advertising tool, and it’s not going away. It’s also continuing to get super-smart about what we do online, what we’ve browsed, what’s in our shopping carts.
For advertisers, perhaps there’s a lesson in all this that you can be too smart, too pushy, too targeted in your messaging. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to show the exact product all the time, especially when it’s common for people to share computers and tablets.
For advertising networks, the lesson is they could still do a lot more to help consumers deal with opting-out. If someone just wants to stop a particular ad from appearing, why not make it easy to help them just remove that ad, rather than possibly having them opt-out of all ads entirely?
For consumers, it’s another reminder that whatever you do on the web is being tracked in order to target you in ways that might be visible to others. If you’re sharing a computer, it can be a pain, but having people use their own account on that computer helps keep ads targeted to you from showing up for them. Some browsers also allow you to have different accounts linked to them, as well.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, and here’s hoping retargeting doesn’t spoil any gift surprises out there.