Remarketing vs. retargeting. Po-tay-toh vs. Po-tah-toh.

Note: The digital landscape is always shifting. Stakes are being claimed and lines are being drawn. If you’re having an important conversation with someone about “remarketing” or “retargeting,” then make sure you’re using the same definitions that they are.

That’s to say they’re the same thing, and there is a right answer. (It’s Potato. Po-tay-toh.)

First, let’s clarify this potato: both are the ability to display relevant messaging to a potential customer based on their previous activity or interaction. It’s why that fishing reel, camera lens or new Jeep Wrangler you’ve been coveting will follow you around the Internet, taunting you. It’s incredibly powerful, so why the big deal about remarketing vs. retargeting? It’s because words matter.

There’s a connotation to being a target, and it’s not good. Would you want your current or potential customers to feel like they’re in your crosshairs? Would you want someone to draw a bead on you? I should hope not. So don’t use that language behind the scenes, and it’s less likely to slip out where prospects can hear it and get a bad taste in their mouth for what you do.

Hey, Marketing is a Dirty Word, Too

“Marketing” isn’t much better with consumers, but better is better. And, for the most part, users expect marketing – it’s simply part of the equation. When Target got in trouble a few years back for predicting that a teen shopper was pregnant and “helpfully” sending coupons, that wasn’t marketing as we’ve all agreed to accept it – that was a targeted tactic based on predictive data. Powerful, yes. Also creepy as all hell. Remarketing, though occasionally creepy as well, is based on more solid interactions.

Most often, remarketing involves visits to your website(s) and interactions with your brand. It could include visits to properties like your Facebook page or other interactions, such as a Google search for something related to your business. The capabilities of this tool grow more each day and differ by the tool provider.

For instance, at the beginning of the year Google AdWords remarketing was limited to including or excluding people based on the pages of your website that they’d visited and the recency of their visits. Earlier this year when Google released Universal Analytics out of beta, they released an array of new options like:

  • Targeting based on referral source
  • Time on site
  • Number of pages visited
  • The order of their actions on the site
  • The number of times they’ve been to your site
  • Any custom segment you can dream up for your Google Analytics profile

Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to

Technically, Google AdWords rolled out the term remarketing as their display network’s equivalent of retargeting in 2010. Since then, the terms have become largely interchangeable (and confusing), but it’s time we settle on remarketing as the industry term. We regularly disagree with Google throwing its weight around to create new challenges for digital marketers, but retargeting is not a healthy term for the industry.

This may seem like arguing semantics, but marketers – of all people –  should be more aware of the connotations of the words we throw around. Remarketing and retargeting may share common technical ground, but if we want to make sure our users and customers stay comfortable with this specific potato, remarketing efforts need to be less predatory, even if we’re only starting with the name.



Brian Russell is a senior marketing strategist at 352. He's on Twitter a lot, but to get all the extra goodies, Google requires him to say he's on Google+, too.