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Grasping At Thin Air: Retargeting Ads & The Neglected Customer Journey

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Success! You’ve won the internet lottery. You’ve been lucky enough not only for someone to find your site but also stick around long enough to browse some of your product pages. They clearly weren’t put off by their initial experience and feel reassured enough to dig a little deeper. This burgeoning relationship has potential…

Considering how saturated and competitive a space the internet is, securing a few seconds of a potential customer’s time on your site is a major step in the right direction. However, at this stage there’s realistically only a remote chance of a conversion happening there and then, so expect your precious visitor to soon slink back into the murky gloom from whence they came.

But wait! There’s hope. A way to reconnect with this intrepid e-commerce explorer even after they’ve left you in the lurch does exist; a strategy to take this delicate glowing ember of a conversion and gently nurture it into a smouldering fire of intent and commitment to purchase.

As it happens, the solution in question has become such a ubiquitous part of the average internet experience (unless you’re a proponent of ad blocking plug-ins) that it could be argued they almost disappear into the background. Undoubtedly the result of over-exposure, our browsing behaviour has become refined to the point that we’re able to filter out the visual noise that so often follows us from site to site and pick out only the most relevant information.

Yes, we’re talking retargeting ads; in particular, the variety that belligerently throws your recent browsing history straight back at you in a bid to somehow reverse your previous choice of not checking out at the cart or declining to complete the sign-up form.

butterfly catcher illustration Google retargeting ads customer journey

These bold, bright, flashing attention-seekers scoff at the concept of a customer journey, at the idea that the average user will travel through a series of internal decisions before making the decision to convert. The path from prospect to bona fide customer is never a straight one and each individual will work to their own needs, expectations and timeframes, but one thing is for sure: product retargeting ads won’t be addressing any of these variables. They might encourage 'buying', but will they lead to greater 'buy-in'?

Let’s take a look at a few scenarios from the perspective of a potential customer:

It’s early days and you’re just browsing

You’re doing some general background research and looking a little closer at whatever it is you’re interested in. This is a gradual process and one that takes time for you to understand what your options are and how well your needs are met with each. Alternatively, you may be investigating a recommendation from a friend and determining whether your own impression matches up to theirs. The crucial factor for the vendor to appreciate at this point is that expecting instant commitment is a tall order when there is still a great deal of trust to establish.

Why retargeted product ads now are damaging:

What would be a better use for the format at this stage:

butterfly catcher illustration strategic Google retargeting

You’ve gone through your own consideration phase and know what you want

By now you’ve chosen your items or decided on which policy you’re going to sign up to. You’re 4/5ths of the way and full committal is merely a step away. Yet you’re not quite ready; it might be price, product feature or service specification, but whatever the restriction right now it’s pertinent enough for you to take a breather after having made a shortlist.

Why retargeted product ads now are damaging:

What would be a better use for the format at this stage:

butterfly catcher illustration aligning Google retargeting ads to the customer journey

You’ve already converted/checked out/purchased/signed up

It’s a done deal: you are now a customer to one extent or another, whether for the first time or the fiftieth. You’ve done your research, weighed up the options and taken the plunge with the right combination of price, product and features for you – all wrapped up with a healthy dose of trust and reassurance. All being well, you may be back for more in future, so what you need at this stage is reassurance that you’ve made the right choice and, perhaps at a slightly later stage, suggestions for more products or services that may be relevant.

Why retargeted product ads now are damaging:

What would be a better use for the format at this stage:

Customer journey nurturing through retargeting ads butterfly hunter

There is yet hope, however...

In spite of the above, AdSense isn’t a total waste of time and resources. While the way in which the tool is currently used by most won’t contribute to a blossoming customer rapport or deepening long term engagement any time soon, an orthodox use still has its strengths for times when piercing through the noise and making an instant impression is warranted, such as:

In essence, use them to gain people’s attention in the first instance, serving the least transactional mode of communication as possible at that point and looking to get them onto your site. Assuming you’ve been successful, count the product-specific retargeted ad as having played its role, now ready to step aside to let in more robust messaging. This is wholly preferable to flogging your wares as hard as your budget allows in a bid to keep your visitors in contact with them, once they’ve left of their own accord. Create 'buy-in' rather than 'buying'. Don't stifle the conversation - lead it.

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