By Trevor Clawson

Most of us have probably got used to the slightly spooky experience of being ‘followed ’ around the internet by so-called ‘reminder’ ads that pop up repeatedly in our browsers, showing products that we’ve already looked at online. The persistent retargeting of consumers has become one of the most important weapons in the armoury of online marketers, but now Google is offering its account holders a means to turn off any reminder ads that they don’t want to see.

Anyone who spends even a small amount of time online will almost certainly trigger reminder ad activity. For instance, If a consumer looks at a particular shirt on a fashion website, the chances are that he or she will see ads for that shirt – sometimes at different price points – for several weeks afterwards, even when browsing on totally unrelated websites.

Pester Power

The aim of the reminder ad is – unsurprisingly – to drive sales by regularly nudging consumers towards a purchase. The theory is, that if a potential buyer decided against parting with credit details today, he or she may well make the purchase tomorrow, particularly if the product is regularly brought to mind via a repeated display ad. It’s a kind of pester power.

Retargeting also allows advertisers to identify prospects and lure them towards the buy button with special offers.

“A lot of companies will utilise this as a way to entice users back with an extra 10% off or a free enquiry or trial & this is often built into their margins and/or sales strategy,”

says Amanda Walls of digital agency, Cedarwood Digital.

Reminder ads are made possible by the fact that most of the advertising we see online is served up across huge networks of sites. As we cross these networks our activity is tracked and ads are presented to us, according to where we’ve been and what we’ve looked at.

The Power to Remind Us

And that gives the big ad networks the power to remind us of certain products, even when our interests have moved on elsewhere. For instance, if we’ve been researching tablet computers for a day or two and then revert to spending most of our time on social media, the ads for IPads and Android slates will probably follow us to Facebook and Twitter.

Ad retargeting can be effective. According to research shared by website optimisation company, Invesp four out of five consumers notice retargeted ads. More importantly, website visitors who are served reminder ads are 70% more likely to make a purchase from the retailer than those who aren’t.

Cooking The Golden Goose

So why is Google – one of the world’s biggest ad network operators – allow its users to turn off of the retargeting?

The probable truth is that reminder ads draw a mixed reaction from consumers  As Matt Tomkin, founder of Tao Digital Marketing points out, retargeting can serve the consumer’s interests.

“Remarketing is great when the site visitor has been taken away from buying something they really want or need. In this scenario, a remarketing ad becomes a positive experience, busy people sometimes need a push,” he says.

But he acknowledges a flipside. “If you are constantly showing the same ad to the same person I think it can cause some negativity,” he adds. 

The Privacy Problem

There is potentially also a perceived privacy issue. Every time a reminder ad pops up in a browser it serves as a reminder that everything we do online is tracked and analysed. For some, this is an uncomfortable feeling. Google’s move – perhaps in a small way – is allowing account holders to control how their data is used.

The problem is that this may just be something that appeals those who are tech-literate. In order to mute reminder ads, Google users must first have signed up for an account – for instance by joining Gmail or using Google Docs. Once signed-in, users can click on the My Account Button and in the section relating to advertising and privacy, view all the remarketing campaigns that are currently actively directed at them. At that point, those campaigns can be muted by simply pressing a button.

This won’t put an end to all retargeting as the mute button only works for ads served across the Google network. Nor will it mean that Google’s users will see fewer ads. Once the retargeting campaigns are silenced, new ads will be served up in their place. Google isn’t killing the golden goose.

Advertisers Will Get Smarter

But for advertisers, it will mean that retargeted ads will, overall, reach fewer people.  Matt Tomkin says this is not necessarily bad for marketers.

“I think this change will be positive. Let’s be honest we’re all users of the internet and get really fed-up of the same ads coming up again and again. From an agency perspective, it just means we have to become better and more creative with the overall remarketing campaign. No longer can we just rely on the same old stagnant ads,” he says.

And as he sees it, there is a real danger that overly aggressive marketing can have a detrimental impact on the advertiser. Retargeting is always a good way to get another bite at the apple,” he says.  “But it has to be used in reasonable ways, i.e you can keep putting ads in front of past visitors for weeks on some platforms, this can actually cause the reverse effect. We’ve heard people say they will never buy from ‘that’ brand that keeps following them about.”

As such, Google’s move has to be seen in a wider context.  Among consumers themselves and on the part of regulators, there is increasing concern about the how data is being used, particularly by giants of the new media industry. At a regulatory level, that concern is reflected in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation which gives consumers new rights to demand transparency over how their data is used while also imposing strict rules on the storage, processing and sharing of digitised information.

So in the same week that Google has acted on reminder ads, Facebook announced plans for a new privacy centre that will provide its users with much more control over their privacy settings and greater insights into how their data is used. In the meantime, Facebook will also be posting videos and other content, all aimed at educating its user base on privacy issues.