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Explainers | 11 min read

Site retargeting vs Email retargeting: which will work better for you?

Every digital marketer is at least aware of retargeting, and a vast majority are using it. All the methods are effective in their own way, but if you’re on a limited budget, should you go for site retargeting, or should you try email retargeting?

The mail vs display isn’t an issue exclusive to the age of digital marketing. I remember a simpler time. A time without the internet (yes, I’m that old) where the only adverts you’d see were on TV, outside, or at the foot of your door underneath the letterbox.

I was usually the first home after a hard day at school, so I would be the one to contend with sorting the real post from the junk mail. From what I remember, most of the junk mail was, indeed, junk. Maybe the odd interesting offer, or voucher, but it mostly went straight into the trash.

The ads I would see more were often the ones on the sides of buses or buildings, and for me at least, these stuck in the memory more.

The outdoor ads were usually advertising a film, or product, and I remember more than once where they served as a nice reminder of something I was already interested in. These only really worked as I was already interested though, and I probably saw an infinite amount more which didn’t grab my attention at all.

For me, the outdoor ads worked more often, but the more interesting junk mail probably had more of a direct impact. Although, as I mentioned, I’m old, so all these memories are rather hazy…

Why am I telling you this? Well, when you think about it, not too much has changed. Instead of junk mail, you get marketing emails, and instead of seeing billboards, you see banner ads (although outdoor advertising is making a big comeback).

The difference is, these are now much more targeted, and specific to the audience. But if you had to choose, which should you be going for, site retargeting or email retargeting? Here’s a few of the pros and cons of each, so you can decide for yourself.

Image of how targeting works

Site retargeting

There are a few different types of retargeting that would fall within site retargeting, but for simplicity, we’ll say that this retargeting involves a user going to a certain page on your website, or clicking a certain button, and then seeing banner ads around the web after that based on the action performed.

It’s easy to implement, and just involves placing a single line of code on the web page you want to link the ads to, which then leaves a cookie in the user’s browser.

The Pros of site retargeting

1. Easier to get started

All you need to do is put the line of code on the pages you want to retarget from, and then have a few users visit them, which will then drop the cookie in their browser.

Then you need to build your banner ads, which itself can be done in minutes with the right software, like Bannerflow.

From there, you need to use a retargeting platform like AdRoll, and voila, you have your first retargeting campaign. So then visitors to the pages with the code embedded will see your ads elsewhere on the web, and getting visitors to your site shouldn’t be a problem, as it’s probably pretty great, right?

2. More options

With site retargeting, you can track almost any behaviour on your site, and segment the different users based on what they’ve done.

To be truly effective, you need to have different ads for different segments. Say, for example, you’re running an online clothing retailer. If someone clicks on the men’s clothing section, but then goes elsewhere you might want to show them a banner advertising a sale on all men’s clothing, with a wide range of products.

Now say you have another user who looked at a specific pair of shoes, including size, but then left. You can target this one with an ad for the same shoe, saying that they’re still in stock.

There could even be a segment for customers, showing them ads for items related to the ones they’ve bought.

Site retargeting is incredibly flexible, and the only real limitations relate to budget, and how much scope you have for ad production.

3. Natural flow

One of the big benefits of site retargeting is that for it to start working, you’re not actively asking the user to do anything. It’s not interrupting their browsing experience, and they will hopefully be organically working their way around your website.

Depending on where they end up, that’s what they’ll see ads for, so it’s a great way to recapture their attention as they should recognise your brand when they see it elsewhere. After all, they chose to visit your website in the first place.

4. Great ad variety

This was touched on before, but with site retargeting it gives you a great opportunity to show your audience a huge range of different ads, based on what they’ve been looking at on your website.

You might think this will create a huge workload for your designers, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Firstly, there are the platforms which make HTML5 ad production incredibly straightforward.

Secondly, there’s the option of using Dynamic Creative Banners. So, rather than having to produce multiple ads, you just use a feed which will update the products shown based on parameters set by you.

The Cons

1. The creepiness

A vast majority of users won’t know how retargeting actually works, so you can imagine how it might be a little unsettling. One minute, they’re just looking through a few products on your website, the next they’re seeing ads for those very same products when they’ve moved on to other sites.

It could almost feel like…you’re being followed. Scary.

This is true, as well, to an extent. So the best way to ease the user’s concerns is to be transparent. On your site, have a disclaimer about cookies and how they might be used. Also, cap how many times your ad is seen within a certain time frame, so that’s not all they see. This should hopefully offset any of the worries.

2. Lack of recognition

If someone has just stumbled upon your website for the first time, and looked at a page or two then left, they’d be forgiven for not paying too much attention to your brand in general, right

So if they then start seeing ads for your brand everywhere they go, they will probably be at least a little confused, even annoyed. This really depends on the strength of your site and brand, so focus on making it all as strong as possible.

There is always the risk that they just landed on your site and left, though, without any real interest. So bear this in mind when you’re looking at the analytics.

Retargeting image

Email Retargeting

The principles of email retargeting are very similar to site retargeting. You are still using the same line of code, but instead of embedding it on a website, you’re putting it behind certain buttons on an email.

This means you can have multiple offers and calls to action in one email, and track the response to each individually. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this technique…


1. You only reach your own subscribers

You can be sure that the people who see this email and click through are an audience who are already interested. After all, for you to have their email, they will have at least subscribed to your blog, or better, purchased something.

This means it’s more likely that your efforts will be rewarded, as they already know your brand. You just need to make sure your email is well targeted enough, with an irresistible subject line.

2. Higher initial engagement

So the users targeted are already your email subscribers, but if they click through to actually read the email, they have a much higher chance of converting. From there, whichever offer they click within the email means that they are already very interested.

If they don’t convert right away, the retargeting ads they see afterwards are much more likely to convert rather than if they just stumbled upon a product or offer while browsing.

This is because the steps they have taken signify a much higher level of engagement, so they are already further along in the buying process, or further down the sales funnel. The ad they see following this could be just the nudge they need to get them over the line.

3. Fantastic abandoned cart recovery capability

Abandoned shopping carts are a big problem for any ecommerce site, and email retargeting helps massively with getting these customers back. According to some case studies, like the ones mentioned here, if you send a personalised email with a discount code after a user has abandoned, conversion can increase by up to 200%! A huge figure, and one that would make a real difference to revenues.

4. Great for analysis

Having multiple options in a single email is great for comparison, and ultimately analysis. Not only that, but if your audience do click through to any of the products or offers, this allows you to segment them in a more thorough and detailed way.

This can help you shape future email campaigns where you optimise based on the previous results, which in turn should increase your conversion week after week.

The multiple touch points on an email also give you fantastic insight into which products and services are most popular, so you can alter future campaigns accordingly from this as well.

5. More accurate targeting

If you have someone on your email subscriber list, you should have more information about them than if they have just visited your website a couple of times. This means you know how you can target them more effectively, to produce better results.

This means the retargeted ads will be super relevant to the user, and in turn more likely to catch the eye. You can make the ads according to your different groups of users, based on what they have clicked on in the most recent emails. It doesn’t have to be based on just one, after all, but on their behavioural patterns across a number of emails.


1. So many variables impact the end result

Even if you’ve done all your research, and nailed your A/B testing, it’s still far from guaranteed that your audience will actually get to the point where a cookie is dropped in their browser.

There are a huge amount of things which affect your open and conversion rates. The subject line, the time you send it, the offers you include in your email, the images, the style…the list goes on and on and on.

There’s no way to guarantee that your subscribers will get to the point where they can be retargeted, you just have to hope that your email performs well. Even then, realistically you’ll only reach a small percentage of your subscribers, which means you might not be retargeting that many people in total. This will have an impact on your return on investment, and not in a good way.

2. Unsubscribers

With anything related to email marketing, there’s always the certainty of getting a few unsubscribers each time you launch a campaign. This is fine if you’re consistently growing the number of subscribers, but if not, the potential audience for retargeting will shrink week after week.

Also, if you’re showing your user retargeted ads, and then they get another email from you, this could be a tipping point where they see too much of your brand and unsubscribe. There’s a very fine line between strong advertising strategies and annoying your user base. A good unsubscribe page can help limit losses, though.

3. Difficult to get started

Only 26% of ecommerce sites retarget, and that’s because it can be difficult to make it effective. As outlined in this post from Moz, there needs to be a feed of three emails, sent to the potential customer at various points after their initial interest. This can be time consuming, and the results and time frames will likely be different for every business, so this can be a barrier.


If you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to choose between these two, site retargeting is probably the way to go. The conversion percentage may well be lower, but that is offset by the fact that the potential reach is so much greater.

Both are great techniques in their own ways though, so if you have the budget you should try both, and see which works for you. You should see results from both, as long as you’re tracking the right things and putting the appropriate effort into your ads.

From there, you can test and see which is most effective, and which gives you the best ROI, and go forward with that option.

One thing is clear though: retargeting is one of the most effective ways to bring users back to your site, and get great exposure for your brand.

If you want to learn more about the details of retargeting, download our free ebook here!

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