I’m not upset that it happens – I get it – retargeted advertisements deliver on every performance indicator, are relevant to my interests, and tailored to my browsing history. My issue is that a format that has consumed so much of the airspace, the majority of ad spend, and significant ad-tech investment in the last decade is still pretty dumb…

I bought a Google Pixel before Thanksgiving. The two weeks between when I first abandoned the shopping cart and ultimately transacted were a canon of retargeting done well; I couldn’t go anywhere on the web without a gentle nudge from the clean, colorful ads singing to me: “The iPhone hasn’t changed in three years”, “Verizon is gouging you”, “Your friends will forgive you if you’re the green bubble in their blue-clique”, “Thumbprints are out. Index is in!”

I took the plunge, severed with Verizon, registered with Project Fi, purchased the Pixel from Google and…

Well, three months later, I’m still seeing Pixel ads everywhere. Stop it Google. You’re wasting your money! Worse, you’re wasting opportunities to hook me deeper into the ecosystem. I’ve been watching Google Home vs. Alexa infinite loops on YouTube. Why not tout the benefits of the Google connected home, convince me I need a Nest, pitch me the Daydream headset, or even sell me a phone case? Every Pixel ad served to me after I convert is wasted. If it doesn’t up- or cross-sell, then you’re just watering the sidewalk. Marketers need to make intelligent use of their purchase data and use conversion as a starting point to grow their relationship with consumers.

Six years ago, Google’s eBook, Zero Moment of Truth, taught marketers about the widening consideration funnel in digital content and e-commerce. The punchline: spend more (with Google); Buy (Adwords) while readers search for reviews; Buy (Adsense) while reviewers read articles; Retarget if window-shoppers arrive but abandon your checkout. Six years later, the formula still works on and off Google’s network, but also leaves much on the table.

Even when done well, retargeting only addresses a fraction of the opportunity; at most, it can recapture the two-thirds of winder-shoppers who abandon your cart. If you’re looking for new shoppers, you’re too late; most consumers decided to upstream while reading reviews, which vendor they want to buy from. Meanwhile, an audience that dwarfs your retargeting pool visits competitors for the same products you sell.

Consider Adidas’ NMD line of sneakers. The holiday season must-have was a leader for ten weeks in the VigLink Trends Report. For this product alone, review articles in our network delivered over 2 million shoppers to 35 different retailers in the last 90 days. No single storefront received for more than 15% of traffic during the period. The top three (Finishline.com, Journeys.com, Sneakerstuff.com) comprised only 30% of our network’s total NMD-product sales. The NMD’s official retailer and major industry player Adidas.com was not one of them; they won only 2%.

Why does that matter? Even though each storefront sells the same product, courts the same or similar publishers, and retargets potential shoppers via multiple providers, the bulk of shoppers interested in the product are beyond each marketer’s reach.

The traffic comes from links native to review articles on thousands of blogs, sites, apps, and social influencer profiles. Together these publishers drove over $1 million in sales and were a touch point for over $30 million. But when publishers author a review, they typically choose only a single storefront to link. When their interested readers click through and become shoppers, it’s to the benefit of only one retailer. Sorry Footlocker, Highsnobiety.com linked to Sneakerstuff. Sorry, Adidas. Menshealth.com chose Finishline.

When Finishline retargets the shoppers that don’t buy, they’re speaking to a fraction of the potentially interested audience. The rest visit someone else’s storefront for products you sell. If Finishline’s, Journeys’s, or Sneakerstuff’s marketing teams could identify which publishers link to the competition for the products they also sell (e.g. NMDs), together they could triple their collective retargeting pool. Adidas.com could increase their audience by 50 times.

How do you get data about who’s clicking through to your competitors for the products you sell? There are three ways. You can:

  1. Strike a second-party data-sharing agreement with your competitors (uncommon for obvious reasons).
  2. Aggregate second-party agreements with publishers who link to your competitor’s reviewer (hard to identify and laborious).
  3. Subscribe to third-party data from a provider who has accomplished 1 and 2.

Only one of the top NMD-retailing storefronts is currently positioned to target a competitor’s shoppers in the manner I describe. That is because they use a data-management platform (DMP) where competitive SKU-specific data is available and buy inventory from a demand-side platform (DSP) where that data is integrated.  They aren’t actioning yet because it still requires big data sophistication and some education, but the capabilities exist. As marketers invest, the returns will grow.

Insights we glean across our publisher network have convinced us marketers should favour this type of in-market data about specific products they, and the competition, sell far above ‘intender’ segments. If publishers link to you, retarget shoppers who click through as normal. When publishers link to competitors, use a third-party data partner who can give you that signal and buy media in real time across the exchanges. This represents an opportunity to place contextual and targeted ads with a ‘retargeting’ pool eight to 50x the size of the one you have from your first-party data.

When working with a third-party data provider, be selective and push the boundaries:

  • Choose a partner that can mine conversion data both from a large publisher footprint and a diverse retailer set. Affiliate data isn’t the only source of this information, but it is an attractive one.
  • Buy demand from a DSP that can facilitate micro-targeting. This is a bespoke offering, but there are viable options on the market that can deliver the granularity and accuracy.
  • Target as close to specific SKU as possible. This places the onus on marketers to know their own SKU catalogue and maintain competitive mapping (or partner with someone who does).

Brands depend on retargeting to drive incremental sales. The stark reality is, if you sell a competitive product, the majority of interested shoppers currently transact on a competitor’s site. The right publishers (and DMP+DSP) will help you reach those shoppers and increase traffic and sales.