Anant Jain

Two tales of retargeting ads


I do not use AdBlock Plus any more. A couple of months ago, I believe some of us came across a post through HN[1] blaming all our Chrome speed woes on AdBlock Plus. It made sense, and before I was done reading the post, AdBlock Plus was gone from my Chrome. I remember that day I took an oath to experience web the plebeian way from then on. It was time to see first-hand all the hard work our fellows at Facebook, Google and practically every major consumer web company were putting into building the beautiful ad tech that powers the web economy. Moreover, it’s just amazing to see how far ad tech has come since I last saw it in its prime — which would be almost over 5 years ago (yes, I had been slowing my browser down for that long). On the web, 5 years is a generation or two, and all the nifty schemes that ad tech people have come up with over all this time are pretty fascinating. Retargeting ads, in particular, seem almost like magic when you first see them. I’m sure a bunch of you have seen them as well.

I remember one day I found myself wondering what happened to the Google Sketchup — the product I used to make very simple 3D drawings with in middle school. You see, that particular day, your humble author happened to be feeling very artsy and was hoping to give it a spin after so long.

My last memory of SketchUp. Source:

I was somehow not so surprised to find out that Google gave up on it, sold the product away and it now operates as SketchUp under another company. Once I visited their site[2], every subsequent visit to Facebook on the web showed a SketchUp Pro ad stuck to the newsfeed sidebar like it was part of their permanent markup. You see, there’s this well known concept called retargeting ads which I hinted to earlier, where companies can work with Facebook (or any other ad exchange really) to put up ads to reactivate dropped off customers. Trust me, it’s a thing — all it needs is a little pixie, no, browser cookie dust and seven drops of virgin bloody mary amongst other things. On a good day, I believe I act like a benevolent person. I forgive people who keep shoving the same product ad again and again in front of me even if I refuse to click on it the 118th time. In this particular case, I decided to politely tell Facebook that I’m not interested in the SketchUp ad (I don’t have $590 to buy your product, duh! Specially if there’s a free version available!) I honestly believed this retargeting thing can get pretty stupid when done over and over again (if I’ve already ignored the ad a couple of times, they can give up. Thresholds vary, but people are bad at picking them) In fact, I believe it’s borderline evil to do this to someone — would you keep showing them the product till they give in and buy it?

Something similar happened today. I got an email from one of the dev lists I am on— it’s one of those lists you subscribe to because you admire a company and they do a good job in making sure you do not end up in one of those situations where you feel you have been living under a rock. At the bottom of the email, these guys were trying to sell me a tee of one of their open source products. No harm done — I like well made product tees, especially if the product has an interesting name, is open source and happens to be something I’ve been using for a while.

So I clicked on it, which took me to a cheeky blog post describing the tee[3] and I thereupon landed on the teespring site[4] actually selling the tee.

I was not sure — you see, while I love Bourbon (both the whiskey and the SASS mixin library), I was not quite ready to buy an orange crush tee. I closed the tab, and moved on with my life. Fast forward a couple of hours, the little slacker in me takes me right back to Facebook and voilà — the orange tee is staring right at me from the sidebar. The magic of retargeting ads had worked again! And yes, it’s been over 12 hours since I first saw this ad and trust me it’s still there — stuck right to my newsfeed sidebar with thick putty.

If you think about it, it’s pretty mind blowing. A company that helps other companies run crowdsourcing-style campaigns to print tees knows that I am not sure if I want to buy a particular tee, tells an ad network that it’ll give it money if it asks Facebook to show me the product again and again over the day, so that, as you guessed it right, I give in and buy it! Brilliant!

Honestly though, I do not even know if I hate these retargeting ads that much anymore — the ever optimistic in me says that this is not that bad a thing. It enables companies to reactivate their lost users — it gives them a chance to get in front of the user again a couple (or even an obscene) number of times. There have been times when I saw something, wanted to come back to it, forgot about it and eventually came back via retargeting. You see, advertising should be helpful — and sometimes it can be.