Remarketing vs retargeting: what’s the difference and which is best?

Content Marketing

People visit plenty of websites everyday without taking further action. The average conversion rate is between 2.3% and 5.5%.

But just because someone came to your website and didn’t convert then and there, doesn’t mean they’re not interested.

They just might not be ready. Or something else might have come up and they just forgot to come back (it does happen).

You need to stay in the minds of these potential customers, and make it more likely that they will eventually come back to you when they’re ready.

You need a marketing strategy, like remarketing or retargeting.

These terms sound very similar, and things get even more confusing because people often use them interchangeably.

Here is a quick guide to help you understand what remarketing and retargeting are, how they work, and what the difference is.

Let’s get started.

What’s remarketing?

Remarketing is a series of strategies encouraging people to re-engage with a business. 

The process involves reaching out to current or previous customers based on their past purchases or actions.

This normally happens via email, so it’s necessary to have a customer email list. Businesses often obtain emails by offering a welcome promotion for mailing list subscribers.

Remarketing targets customers who browsed the site without buying anything, or abandoned their online basket without completing the purchase.

A remarketing email reminds the customer of what they’re missing out on, motivating them to go back and make that purchase. 

Reminding people of items they already showed interest in, whether through their browsing history, cart, or wish list, can influence them to commit to buying those products this time.

Remarketing emails do things like alert people of items still in their basket, wish list items on sale, or special offers for items related to things they’ve bought before.

It’s also a way to retain active customers through upselling or cross-selling similar products, often with promotions as incentives as well. 

Emails with calls to action are effective because they have such a wide reach. 

According to statistics gathered by HubSpot, 3.9 billion people use email daily, and 59% of people say that marketing emails influence their purchasing decisions.

It’s easy to reach out to potential customers via email, with high chances that they’ll take your desired actions.

Though email is the most common remarketing channel, other types of remarketing involve the use of targeted ads.

Types of remarketing

Here are several of the most common remarketing channels:

  • Google Display remarketing – monitor website visitors with Google Analytics and target them with Google ads
  • Video remarketing – users who didn’t convert see your ads while watching videos on sites like YouTube
  • Email remarketing – classic way to reconnect with customers using email addresses from accounts or subscriptions 

Since email remarketing is the most well-known form, here are several types of remarketing email strategies:

  • Stock limit alerts for items in abandoned baskets
  • Sales notifications for favourite products
  • Advertising time-restricted promotions
  • Offering coupons to long-time customers
  • Presenting a free gift with a minimum spend

Remarketing emails should create a sense of urgency and encourage customers to act fast to secure products at good prices.

What is retargeting?

Retargeting is a more specific type of remarketing. It usually focuses on placing online ads to target people who abandon your site using cookies.

The process identifies people who have taken certain actions, like interacting with a product page or social media profile, and targets them with digital ads across the internet based on these interactions.

Have you ever browsed a site, then gone to another site and seen an ad for the brand you were looking at before? That’s retargeting. It’s a useful way of staying in your customer’s mind in those days after they’ve visited your website.

Some common retargeting triggers are:

  • Clicking on a product
  • Adding a product to your basket
  • Online search history
  • Interacting with digital content
  • Consuming similar content
  • Visiting similar websites
  • Opening marketing emails

Though Google Display Network is popular, there are lots of different retargeting platforms.

Facebook Ads, AdRoll, and ReTargeter for example.

Retargeting offers higher engagement and conversion rates because most of the people your ads target are already familiar with your brand and products.

Check out these retargeting stats from Invesp:

  • the average clickthrough rate for display ads is 0.07% but ten times higher at 0.7% for retargeted ads
  • retargeted visitors are 70% more likely to convert
  • retargeted customers are 3 times more likely to click on ads than people who’ve never interacted with the brand before
  • 26% of customers return to sites through retargeting

Retargeting is an invaluable remarketing strategy that businesses shouldn’t overlook.

Types of retargeting

There are two primary categories of retargeting:

  • On-site – targeting people who already visited your site or interacted with products
  • Off-site – targeting people who haven’t done the above, but have similar interests to those who have

Targeting people from on-site interactions is much easier because you’re re-engaging people who already have a proven interest in what you’re offering.

Here are the main ways to retarget people following on-site interactions:

  • Pixel-based – adding a bit of code to your page to track customers via cookies when they leave your site and retarget them with ads on pages they’re now looking at
  • List-based – using an existing list of customer contacts to recognise them on social media platforms and launch display ads

There are more types of retargeting for off-site interactions, including:

  • Search – targeting keywords and phrases relating to your brand
  • Contextual – targeting users who visit similar sites to yours, or sites related to similar industries
  • Engagement – targeting people who interact with your social media accounts

Retargeting is most successful when it’s aimed at people who’ve had some level of prior interaction with your brand.

What’s the difference between remarketing and retargeting?

There’s a lot of overlap in industry talk that makes remarketing and retargeting more confusing.

People often refer to retargeting as remarketing, because technically it is.

For example, Google offers what they call Remarketing Tools, which are actually more for retargeting.

A lot of the confusion comes from their similar aims.

Common goals

The shared goal of both remarketing and retargeting is to:

  • engage audiences
  • build brand awareness 
  • and increase conversions from people more likely to buy your products.

For both, it starts with potential customers dropping off your site, or only showing interest in a product or service.

Then they change approaches to bring these customers back to the website to make purchases. 

Different strategies

The main distinction between remarketing and retargeting is the tactics they use. 

Remarketing primarily uses email campaigns, reaching out to people who’ve already opted in to receive communications from your brand. Sometimes SMS text messages are used, too.

Meanwhile, retargeting primarily uses paid ads, engaging a wider range of people across other websites.

It may be easier to understand if you think of remarketing is an umbrella term, which retargeting comes under as a marketing strategy.

Does it matter?

Both strategies are effective, and it’s more important to know how to use them than how to distinguish between them.

Combinations of remarketing and retargeting often yield better results and gather valuable insights about customer behaviour.


Remarketing or retargeting: which one is better?

To decide which one to use, consider what your aims are and assess your resources so you can settle on the best approach.

Ask yourself these questions about your business goals:

  • Do you want to attract new customers or re-engage existing ones? 
  • Do you have an ads budget or an existing mailing list?
  • Do you want flexibility in ad locations or more space for content?
  • Do you have an existing content marketing strategy?

Remarketing works better for content-based communications aimed at current customers, and fits well with wider content marketing initiatives.

Retargeting focuses on people less further along in the sales cycle, gaining their trust and nurturing their interest.

If you have the resources, the best option is to use both tactics together to complement each other.

Use remarketing to reinforce your customer base and serve content to people who are most likely to buy, and use retargeting to engage new prospects or past visitors who may be sitting on the fence.

If you’d rather focus on just one of them, you’ll need to consider when each tactic is the most appropriate. 


When to use remarketing

Remarketing is more effective for quickly contacting customers about products in their basket or wishlist to remind them to go back and buy them.

Think about how these questions apply to your business:

  • Does your site experience lots of abandoned shopping baskets without sales?
  • Are most sales one-time-only purchases?
  • Do you sell a product that’s popular on people’s wishlists?

If the answer to these is yes, then remarketing is the best way to help you fix these problems.

How to use remarketing emails

Remarketing only works if customers actually open the emails and the content motivates them to make a purchase.

Make sure this happens by customising content according to user actions, like these examples:


Customer Action Email Type
Created an account on your site Welcome offer or birthday discount
First-time purchase Thank you message
Abandoned shopping basket Timely reminder
Added item to wishlist Sale alert for item
Subscribed to mailing list Regular newsletters
Repeat customer Upsell and cross-sell related products
Made a purchase at any time Notify all customers of new promotions
Joined loyalty scheme Offer exclusive discounts or rewards


The major benefit of remarketing emails is that you can personalise them to the customer’s needs and improve their loyalty to your brand.

The process can be automated so all you need to do is create the attention-grabbing content with calls to action, ready to go. 

The customer’s actions will trigger the right messages at the right time.


When to use retargeting

Retargeting is more effective when you want to track customers off-site and also target other potential customers with similar interests to your existing customer base.

Consider these questions in relation to your business goals:

  • Does your site have high bounce rates?
  • Do you get a lot of new visitors who are only one-time visitors?
  • Do you want to reach out to people beyond your customer database?

If you answered yes to these, then retargeting is the solution you’re looking for.

How to use retargeting ads

Sign up for an ad network like Google Display or Facebook Audience to get a retargeting pixel.

This is a small bit of code to add to your site which tracks the visitor to other sites within the ad network. 

It’ll then show the visitor ads for your site based on their browsing history.

You can also implement cookies, which collect user preferences and help determine which ads to show them.

Online ads tend to run on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis, so retargeting people who are more likely to convert should increase your return on investment (ROI).

Here’s a quick guide to the ways you might apply retargeting:


Customer Action Retargeting Method
Visited your site at least once before Static retargeting with generic display ads
Navigated away from your site Advertise on other sites they visit
Showed interest in specific products Dynamic retargeting with personalised ads for those items
Used search terms related to your business Search term retargeting with ads placed on specific keywords
Not engaging with retargeted ads Limit frequency and change ads to regularly keep them fresh


Retargeted ads will be less effective if customers get fatigued due to overexposure, so find the right balance to raise awareness of your brand without bombarding them with too many ads.


Remarketing and retargeting tips

Here are a few more quick tips to help you on your journey with remarketing and retargeting.

Getting the most out of it

Maximise your remarketing and retargeting efforts by remembering to always:

  • Use appropriate personalisation
  • Offer compelling promotions
  • Test different styles for effectiveness
  • Avoid overwhelming audiences with too many ads or emails
  • Make calls to action clear and provide links or buttons for them
  • Use different content in the right places (landing pages, social media, blog posts etc)

Privacy concerns

Something important you may not think about at first is user privacy.

Is gathering data on customers and tracking them across the internet too invasive?

Remarketing is less of an issue because customers opt in to mailing lists, and have the option to unsubscribe if they get annoyed.

On the other hand, retargeting can seem more forceful and persistent if the same ads are popping up everywhere someone goes online.

However, according to Social Media Today:

  • 30% of customers have a positive experience with retargeting ads
  • 59% of customers have a neutral experience with retargeting ads
  • 11% of customers have a negative experience with retargeting ads
  • Plus, 25% of people appreciate the reminders of retargeting ads.

These statistics show you shouldn’t worry too much about your brand seeming creepy to customers.

As long as you obey local data protection laws and don’t overdo the amount, it’s fine to pursue retargeting.

Measuring success

Make sure you’re maximising your returns by keeping an eye on these remarketing metrics:

  • Page visits
  • New and returning users
  • Email opening
  • Email unsubscribing
  • Lead conversions

Monitor your click-through rate (CTR) on retargeted ads to keep up with what’s working and what isn’t.

It’s important to identify any issues so you can adjust your campaigns and get better results. 

Expert advice

Now you know the basics of remarketing and retargeting.

But if you’ve still got questions about either of these strategies, you may want to consult a digital marketing agency.

Want to some help getting traffic to your website and converting customers? Get in touch.

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