Retargeting 101: Retargeting Platform Basics

A Retargeting Platform is a Marketer's ideal tool for setting up assisted conversions. In an ideal world, every visitor to your website would convert the first time, whether that's signing up for a newsletter or buying a product. However, that's rarely the case. The customer journey is more like a long, winding path.

No matter the platform you choose, retargeting platforms are built on essentially the same premise. In this article, we will outline the basics of retargeting platforms to help you navigate the landscape. Most importantly, we will review cookies, pixels and audiences.

For more information about specific platforms, check out our blog post The Best Retargeting Platforms for Your Business.

How Do Retargeting Platforms Work?

First of all, retargeting enables marketers to show ads that appear to "follow" users around the internet. Prior to making a purchase, most people research, browse and compare prices. To keep a certain product top-of-mind, marketers utilize retargeting to show relevant ads to users. Retargeting works across different channels, including social media, display, search and email.

For example, a user is shopping for a new pair of running shoes. They likely browse a few websites and add a few shoe options to their shopping cart. Ultimately, they decide they aren't prepared to purchase right away.

After that, they visit a cooking website, but there's an ad in the right column for the exact pair of running shoes they placed in their shopping cart earlier. During the next few days, the shoes "follow" the user around the internet. Consequently, the shoes are on the user's mind and they likely consider the shoes.

Retargeting serves as a reminder to finalize a purchase or promote brand engagement.


Marketers can implement retargeting by adding a piece of Javascript code, known as a pixel, to a website. Pixels are provided by the retargeting platform and are unique to that platform. The code is usually placed in the website's footer. A pixel is literally a 1x1 image, small enough to go unnoticed. Pixels are not seen by the user, but a pixel allows retargeting platforms to send a request to drop a cookie.

When a user views a pair of running shoes, the retargeting code sends a request for a 1x1 pixel. The retargeting service sends back the 1x1 pixels and assigns a cookie to the user.


Cookies are a web-tracking device. In other words, they carry useful information about a user’s interactions with the website. Cookies enable retargeting platforms to know that the visitor to the cooking website was the same one from shoe website. Once the platform has assigned a cookie to the user, it can bid on the viewer's impressions in an ad exchange.

It is important to note that cookies track devices, not people. If multiple people use a computer, there's no way to differentiate between users. However, social media can target ads more effectively, since they use personally identifiable information.

This entire process happens quickly and automatically. After marketers set up ads and budgets on the ad platform, website visitors can start seeing ads as soon as they've left the site.

Retargeting Audiences

Marketers use information stored on cookies to build audiences. Cookies collect data ranging from page views, to time spent on site, to abandoned shopping carts. Data collected by cookies can be a powerful tool, if you know how to segment it.

In our shoe example, we talked about retargeting users who viewed product pages or abandoned a shopping cart. But, marketers can also segment an audience by other valuable information.

How you segment your audience ultimately depends on your conversion goals. Target visitors who filled out (or didn't fill out) specific forms. Create a segment of visitors who visited your site or viewed a video. With a wealth of data, your options are endless.

Go Forth and Retarget

In conclusion, knowing the basics of retargeting platforms can help you navigate the landscape. Above all, use the basics of retargeting to find a retargeting platform that works for your business and your conversion goals.