Who is stealing your cookies?

Have you ever considered a purchase, decided against it, then had the couch/shoes/tent follow you across platforms to try to change your mind? This semester, we’ve talked a lot about the creepy/cool spectrum – useful innovations that can very quickly seem intrusive. I fall on the more conservative end of this spectrum. I have no interest in buying an Amazon Alexa, Apple HomePod, or the like. I don’t have “Hey, Siri” turned on, and I try to avoid using products or services that feel like they’re collecting all my data. This concern about privacy extends to browsing behaviors too, which has spurred the development of things like incognito mode for Google Chrome, which people use to stop ads from following them. I decided to share the approach and arguments in favor of retargeting, to help understand ways in which companies are finding the balance between invasive specificity and pinpoint accuracy with respecting privacy and anonymity.

Before going onto strategy, I want to make sure everyone understands retargeting. According to Retargeter, only about 2% of web traffic converts to sales on the first visit to your website. This is where retargeting comes in. Using cookies, a company can follow you all over the internet once you visit their website. Retargeting platforms serve you these ads on Facebook, other social platforms, and other websites you visit. It’s been compared to an online salesperson. If you were in a store, someone might walk up to you and offer things based on what you’re already trying on, or stop you as you’re leaving to remind you of a sale. Retargeting allows for pursuing potential customers for e-commerce.


From a company’s perspective, retargeting is just smart business. They succeed by finding the customer at the right stage of the buying cycle – ultimately getting prospects to return to the original website and complete a purchase. Facebook also has a Custom Audiences feature, allowing marketers to target specific customers. If a website had already collected your email address or other personally identifiable information, they can often use it to retarget to your personally, putting something that you’d put in your shopping cart straight into your Newsfeed.

When considering the buyer’s journey, retargeting plays an important role, as examined by Conversion Giant. Potential customers start with awareness – and for retargeting, you know the consumer is already aware of your offering, as they’ve visited your website. Both awareness and discovery, in a digital venue, require education. Retargeting can be used to educate consumers about a company’s offerings, using video or images to portray the company in the best light.

Once a buyer moves to intent and evaluation, retargeting becomes even more useful. It’s fair to assume many consumers are considering alternatives, so creating incentives to buy from you personally, like coupons or discounts, could drive the customer to buy from you, faster. Keeping your product at the top of the customer’s mind as they discover offerings, develop an intent to buy, then evaluate the offerings will increase the likelihood they choose to purchase from you.


Retargeting is particularly useful for companies who sell big-ticket items. When you’re choosing a new TV or another major purchase, you might browse and research for months. Companies don’t want to be your benchmark, they want to be the one who sells you the product. If you’re about ready to take the plunge and you see a link to your chosen option on Facebook, you might click through and buy it then.

However, it looks like our concerns about privacy and creepy v. cool are shared by others. According to InSkin Media, the most common reactions to retargeting are feelings of annoyance, intrusion, and anger. They discovered that over half (55%) of consumers are put off by seeing an ad multiple times – but they also found that 10% of customers are likely to buy something after being served retargeting ads. While this number sounds low, it is 5x the initial conversion rate of 2%. In addition, though, 69% of consumers felt uncomfortable with advertisers knowing which sites they visited. I know I had a bad feeling when I saw my viewing history follow me to other sites.


When retargeting is paired with Facebook’s new feature that allows companies to market to customers who’ve visited their brick-and-mortar locations, things get even more interesting. Say Best Buy knew you’d come in to look at TVs but hadn’t bought one, and was retargeting you with the TV they thought you should buy. If you were already tempted, could that convince you?

The simple answer to who’s stealing your cookies: everyone. In order to serve you with content that’s relevant to you, companies retarget you constantly. They can use cookies/pixels to control frequency, what you see, and try to narrow their audience as much as possible. On the bright side, at least you’re seeing ads for things you’re interested in! If Zappos finally convinces you to buy that pair of shoes you’ve had in your cart for weeks, it just means they’re succeeding.



  1. Your article really addresses the cool v. creepy without being too opinionated. The facts were really useful at understanding how/what information is used in order to lure consumers into buying a product. It would be interesting to see whether certain industries are more successful (i.e. clothing, electronic devices, food, sports gear, etc.) than others at targeting online. Great article!

  2. I really liked the survey that showed the different reactions customers had to re-targeted online ads. It’s interesting to see that more than half of them feel unhappy or uncomfortable about seeing an ad multiple times, yet companies continue to employ this form of marketing because it increases the customer buy rate by 5 times. I have gotten accustomed to re-targeted advertisements of Facebook compared to a couple years back, but I think this new feature that allows targeting based on offline behavior may be pushing the line. People can’t shop for items in “incognito mode” when they are in a physical Best Buy store like they do when they are browsing the web.

  3. Although a bit off topic, I remember at the beginning of my career learning how eBay “retargeted” customers. Back when they were a bidding site, if a customer lost a bid for an item and eBay had another item listed, they would offer the item lost at auction at a slight discount from their highest big. Conversion rates were in the 90% range. I thought it was so cool!

  4. juliasmacdonald · ·

    Hi, Adrienne! Nice post! I am a fan of retargeting when it brings to my attention things sitting in my cart that I meant to buy, but haven’t gotten around to doing so. One of the flaws of this system that I experience a lot is being followed by ads of things I have already purchased. I find this annoying because they already got the sale!

  5. emmaelennon · ·

    Interesting point about the brick and mortar strategy…I’m in favor of strengthening the relationship between brick and mortar/e-comm, rather than seeing them as either/or or competing, and this is a great way to do so. Do you think cookies will soon be able to differentiate between users on the computer, without requiring us to sign in? We all know we use other people’s log-ins for certain sites (Amazon prime being a good example), so it will be interesting to see how intelligence is developed to identify several separate users under the same log-in name, perhaps based on behavior…who knows though, this may already be happening?

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