Retargeting Case Study: Should You Use Frequency Capping?

Despite the potential of display retargeting, one big FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) for advertisers is to creep customers out by “stalking” them around the web.

While this is a valid concern, there are a few ways you can limit your creep-quotient, including diligently researching and applying negative audiences to your campaigns, using burn pixels and employing frequency caps.

The first 2 are relatively easy, they only require thoughtful “thinking ahead” when building out your campaign. Frequency caps, on the other hand, are not so straightforward. How much is too much when it comes to remarketing?

Is there a magic number of exposures?

I’ve seen figures like “maximum 3 exposures per unique visitor per day,” “7-12 exposures total,” and even “1 exposure per day.” Support for these recommendations are often “advertising industry best practice,” which may be true for general display — but is remarketing really the same as display advertising?


Whether you are site or search retargeting, your remarketing ads are targeted to web users who have expressed intent, either by previously visiting your site or querying a relevant keyword in a search engine. This enables you to build campaigns that are more relevant to your targets, including creative that is personalized to contain items left in a cart, search terms performed on a site or cross-sells based on items already purchased.

Turning up frequency can turn up sales

An example is Indochino, who began with a 3-exposures-per-unique-per-day approach. Bumping the frequency cap up by 3 in every test, Indochino kept seeing revenue increasing. “We got as high as 15-20+ impressions per day per user. Every time we’ve increases it, we’ve seen greater revenue and ROI. Users don’t seem to mind,” says Omar Al-Hajjar, Online Marketing Manager.

If Indochino did not question the conventional wisdom of “3 exposures per day,” its campaign would be driving only a fraction of the sales it currently does.

Branding benefits

But sales are not the only benefit a high frequency cap has rewarded the company. High exposure makes the company appear “bigger” to web users who are not aware of retargeting – all of a sudden, this brand is everywhere. Its also landed business development deals because partners have seen the brand appear on sites like the New York Times, a display buy which is usually cost prohibitive to small business through such publications’ first-party advertising options.

Consider your industry

Indochino sells custom made suits. To order, a customer must submit detailed measurements. Its average days to purchase is 28 days, longer than most other apparel sites. “Retargeting keeps us top of mind during those 28 days as a customer goes out and researches reviews on Indochino, talks to a buddy about which style of suit he wants, and ultimately finds a tape measure and a spare weekend to get measured at home.”

How do you determine optimal frequency for retargeting?

Your testing capabilities may depend on your vendor, but ideally a true A/B split test that involves one group receiving a low exposure, such as 3 per day, versus higher frequencies would be run during a single test period, rather than sequentially.

An alternative is to create 2 campaigns with similar audience attributes, such as visitors to product category A and category B. Choose categories or landing pages that receive similar traffic, and have similar days to purchase or visits to purchase, as reported in your web analytics. Ensure these test audiences become negative audiences for your general campaigns, and that visitors who view both categories A and B are excluded from your test (they can still be members of your general audience).

It’s a good idea to test the types of campaigns you run – general campaigns may bear more or less frequency than your more targeted ones, as do certain categories.

You may not find the same results as Indochino, a tighter cap may be more effective for you. But don’t rely on “industry says this,” or you will sell your campaign short.

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6 Responses to “Retargeting Case Study: Should You Use Frequency Capping?”

  1. Be aware, though, of what you’re unable to measure. Retargeting breaks the permission rule which is the foundation of trust on the web.

    A company I really like has recently implemented an aggressive (and tactically successful, at least if I’m the target) retargeting campaign. Like Indochino, they may be seeing much higher sales–I don’t know–but I’m creeped out, and my opinion of the company is changing.

    It deeply disturbs me that my personal browse habits are obviously available to any advertiser *and* I don’t understand how it’s done or if I can avoid it. It’s like spam phone calls before there was a Do Not Call registry. It’s like “Hey, I don’t want you to know that I visit this site–get out of here!”

    Professionally, it’s really annoying that the ad content doesn’t appear to have any thought given to sequencing or any kind of value offer beyond “buy now”. It is as though they already had this banner ad campaign built around ad sizes, all with some random copy, then dropped heavy retargeting on top. I’m a little curious to find out if the ads stop or change to product usage suggestions (as they should) after I buy.

    Maybe they don’t (and we shouldn’t) care–after all, we want to sell as much as we can to (only) those customers who really appreciate us, right? And maybe there is value in driving off fence sitters, Luddites and whiners like me.

    The web makes certain kinds of measurements so easy that we can forget the danger in believing that what we (can) measure easily is the only important thing. No web logs or Google Analytics dashboards that I know of report disillusionment, distrust, sadness, or slow disengagement.

    If social reputation is as important as all the consultants say it is, we owe it to ourselves, if not to our customers and prospects, to be sensitive and skillful with new ad channels. Today, we expect and demand user-granted permission, in advance and out front in exchange for our trust. Retargeting, clearly an dream for the advertising department, brings with it the real potential to be a nightmare for the business.

    • Todd,

      You raise some great points about why people don’t like retargeting. In the interest of full disclosure, I work for an ad platform that specializes in retargeting, ReTargeter.

      I think behavioral targeting is a good thing both for the advertiser, who can spend money more effectively by only showing ads to a relevant audience, and for the consumer, who is only shown ads for products they are actually interested in. I am a fan of retargeting both as a marketer who uses it and as a consumer who likes seeing relevant ads.

      That said, I think you are pointing directly to the biggest problems in the retargeting space. Though sales may go up in some instances, I think more times than not, inundating your site visitors with retargeting ads is a terrible idea. For every success story, there are many more people who feel the way you do: creeped out and annoyed.

      From a privacy standpoint, I just want to add that retargeting does not actually track any personally identifiable information. The cookies used to track users are 100% anonymized and we cannot track any specific data. Furthermore, all the bidding on ad space is automated and completed in real-time. That is to say, technology serves the ads, there is no human sitting, watching your movements online, bidding on ads as you appear around the web.

      You said the following — “it’s really annoying that the ad content doesn’t appear to have any thought given to sequencing.” I would agree 100%, but I would also argue that this isn’t the hallmark of a good retargeting campaign. A good campaign shows different ads to people who have already been to the site, because they are at a different stage in the buying process and should therefore be treated differently. Significant thought and strategy should be put into a retargeting campaign, as there is no one size fits all strategy.

      Your comments provide the best example of why frequency capping, and working to create a positive experience for the customer should be the bottom line of any retargeting campaign. Any tactic that makes customers uncomfortable or angry is neither good for the business nor the advertising department.


  2. That Indochino ad keeps following me around for days now :D

    Awesome article Linda, as always.

  3. It’s interesting that I personally get bothered a bit by companies running strong retargeting campaigns yet they’re increasing revenue. One was bothering me so much, I called the company to complain. Over the top? Sure, but I found it so intrusive.

    I definitely see the merits and may at some point try it myself for my geek merch, but I’d definitely err on the side of caution. I don’t want anyone to feel how I felt that is for sure.

  4. Todd Shelton says:

    Money we can measure. Perception (except as expressed in money) we really can’t. Maybe for money-making sites it really doesn’t matter. I’;m with you, Aaron, but I’m not comfortable with throwing money away either.

    Are there ways to use retargeting that make people happy to be retargeted?

  5. I definitely see the merits and may at some point try it myself for my geek merch, but I’d definitely err on the side of caution. I don’t want anyone to feel how I felt that is for sure.

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