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Confused about the difference between remarketing and retargeting?

You aren’t alone!

These terms are used interchangeably these days.

But are they the same?

Technically they aren’t!

Remarketing and retargeting have similar goals.

But there are also important differences you need to understand.

Remarketing and retargeting differ in strategy – and who you are able to reach.

Remarketing & Retargeting: Similar, But Different

Advertising managers spend a lot of time testing audiences, getting creative, and obsessing over numbers.

It can be a long process; with only a small percentage of ad clickers actually converting.

While you might be getting a lot of new incoming web traffic, you may not see those numbers translate to sales quickly.

And few become a sale the first time they land on your webpage.

In the age of “but we can track everything”, it can be easy to get distracted.

It’s easy to forget the true role of marketing:

To win people over long before they make the decision to choose your product or company, over others.


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Oftentimes, the best people to target are those who have visited your site more than once or have already digitally interacted with you in the past.

Retargeting and remarketing both give the opportunity to reach these customers. And they are the ones more likely to purchase rather than first-time visitors.

And this can be an extremely important strategy in your marketing efforts.


Now let’s explore remarketing and retargeting individually, so that the differences become clear to you.

What Is Retargeting?

Retargeting can have multiple approaches.

It most often refers to online ad placement or display ads targeting users who have interacted with your site in specific ways without purchasing.

Once a visitor enters your website, clicks on a product, or takes a certain action that you want them to take, a cookie is set in their browser.

You can then use this information to “retarget” them with ads based on their interactions once they leave your site.

These ads are placed by third parties, such as the Google Display Network or Facebook. They allow your ads to trigger on other sites that your visitors go to.


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Ultimately, retargeting can be categorized into 2: “on-site” and “off-site” events.

Each has different strategies you can take depending on the kind of interactions you want to target.

Let’s look at these a little closer.

Targeting ‘On-Site’ Interactions

This is the category often associated with retargeting. It involves targeting individuals who have already visited your site.

They have interacted with your products and services before. Or they have taken some other action but may not have completed the sale.

Retargeting to those who have had on-site interactions can increase conversions.

They can also help retain those who have already expressed interest in your brand.

There are a bunch of ways to retarget.

Here are some of the ways you can target individuals who have had onsite interactions:

  • Target based on a product that they interacted with, but didn’t buy.
  • Target based on how they found your site (social media, a search, or other inbound events).
  • Those on your email list who have expressed interest in your brand, but have not yet converted to a sale.

These parameters can be set up within different platforms, such as:

  • Google Ads.
  • Google Analytics.
  • Facebook Ads.
  • And many others.

Retargeting campaigns almost always show higher engagement and conversions than non-retargeting campaigns do.

This goes back to the fact that it is a lot easier to market and advertise to those who have expressed interest in your brand or industry.

Targeting ‘Off-Site’ Interactions

Retargeting used to be pretty limited to on-website behavior.

That changed, though, as more users spent time on social media.

The delivery of product and brand information was no longer housed in one place.

Instead, it started to disseminate across other areas.

This meant audience interactions now existed in several places that weren’t owned by the brand anymore.

Social media giants like Facebook recognized this and started to make engagement targeting a possibility.

In other words, brands could make retargeting pushes based on what a user did on the platform as it related to their Page, Events, and other Facebook-controlled items that a brand participates in.


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Retargeting could now include “users who interacted with your Page” and other similar options.

In practice, targeting these users was still retargeting.

This became the brave new world of “off-site” interaction targeting.

Remarketing vs. Retargeting: Are They The Same Thing?

What Is Remarketing?

This is where it gets a little confusing and there is some overlap in the industry.

Sometimes retargeting is referred to as “remarketing” (even though it actually is remarketing).

An example of this is Google’s Remarketing Tools. They are all retargeting tools in the classic sense, really.


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While this may be a little confusing, just remember that remarketing and retargeting do share goals, and that the terminology is not as important as the associated strategy.

That being said, remarketing is more often about re-engaging customers via emails.

Retargeting is about moving not-yet customers down the purchase path.

Things like emailing a customer to renew a service or upsell an accessory are traditional examples of remarketing.

It can also take the form of a brand “reminding” a user to act, using information about their purchase history.

This frequently happens in email marketing but also takes the form of paid ads targeted toward current customer buckets.

The Blurry Line Between Remarketing & Retargeting

These two tactics used to exist in silos: email was its own island, and paid media was limited to top of funnel targeting, and remarketing based on website actions.

However, these two have become somewhat interchangeable in recent years.


Well, platforms like Google Ads, Facebook, added the capability to target on-platform using email customer lists years ago.


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Email no longer exists as a separate silo of information from the paid media part of the world.

Here is Facebook’s version:

Remarketing vs. Retargeting: Are They The Same Thing?

Here is Google Ads’ version:

Remarketing vs. Retargeting: Are They The Same Thing?

When an email list is uploaded, the platform will then work to match those email addresses with user logins.

That matched list is used to show ads to (assuming it meets the minimum threshold of audience size, which varies by platform).


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So now you have that blurry line of targeting your email users, perhaps with the same message you’re sending in emails, but doing it with a paid advertisement.

Retargeting vs. Remarketing: The Takeaway

When comparing retargeting and remarketing, the overlap and differences have become less clear over the years.

But that has also been true for digital marketing, in general.

Their shared goal, though, is to increase conversions to those most likely buy from your brand; and the difference really being the associated strategy.

Retargeting is really focused on paid ads (and can take a variety of forms, and target a broad range of individuals).

Remarketing is focused on email campaigns and reaching out to those who have already had interactions with, allowing for more specific upselling and messaging.

This merging of retargeting and remarketing is really indicative of what we see in digital marketing as a whole:

Attribution is not a clearly defined thing.

It used to feel like it was, once upon a time, but it was mostly due to platforms not integrating all the elements marketers had access to.


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As these platforms continue to cross-reference one another, the questions become less about what defines a tactic, and more about which blend of them yields the best results.

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Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, September 2020

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