Retargeting, retargeting retargeting. The word has been reverberating in the marketing world since its inception. Marketers found it to be a very useful technique that helped them reap good business and better return on advertising spend (ROAS). Let’s know in detail about what retargeting is, how it works in the cookieless future and how it helps achieve your marketing goals.


What is Retargeting?

Retargeting is basically reaching out to the users who have visited your website. Mostly because they have visited your website but did not convert or sometimes because you want to increase the customer lifetime value.

If you have a person’s email address or WhatsApp number, you can retarget them by sending an email or a message on WhatsApp. But what about the rest of the anonymous website visitors who have shown a certain level of interest. How will you retarget them? The solution lies ahead.

How is Retargeting Done?

Traditionally, retargeting these website visitors was done with the help of browser cookies. These are nothing but bits and pieces of data stored on the users’ browser. Using this data, relevant personalized ads are shown to the users. This increased conversion rates for the businesses. 

You can look at the below image to see how retargeting worked traditionally.

This is how the browser cookies collect the user data and then help in retargeting the user with personalized ads.

If it still works, why would we be discussing this here?


This traditional way of retargeting using browser cookies is no more possible because:

  • iOS 14.5+ updates have given full rights to the users to restrict any app from collecting iOS users’ data
  • Android 14 is about to be launched fully anytime soon in 2023 (most probably by August or September) will bring in place similar data privacy updates for android users
  • GDPR, CCPA, and other data privacy laws across the world
  • Browsers phasing out third-party cookies – Major browsers like Safari, Firefox, Brave have already phased out third-party cookies. Google Chrome is yet to start blocking third-party cookies. It announced that it would restrict third-party browser cookies from chrome starting 2023 but postponed it to 2024. 

The marketers have already faced heat because some of the above are already in place.

Stepping ahead into the future, starting from 2024, marketers’ hands will be fully tied off as they are completely restricted from access to all forms of third-party data. This causes a deficit of user data to marketers.

Does this mean that marketers cannot retarget the users at all?

No. Marketers can still target the right users with tailored ads in the cookieless world.

How retargeting works in the cookieless world?

With no browser cookies to track and retarget the users, the only way you can make retargeting work for you in the cookieless world is to collect high-quality first-party data. 

Google and Meta have time and again spoken about the importance of first-party data. In the recent report by Meta on “The importance of Good Data” they spoke specifically about first-party data.

When you collect first-party data you will be easily able to send the data through Conversions API or Google Enhanced Conversions if you are retargeting the users using Meta Retargeting or Google Retargeting.

There is no more reliance on third-party cookies when you collect the data on the server-side and send it to the required ad platform using the server-side mechanism.

How to use First-party data in the Cookieless world:

First-party data is that data which you collect from your users directly with consent when they visit your website. It consists of both known and unknown users. For known users you collect email addresses, and phone numbers. Whereas for unknown users you collect IP address, device ID, browser ID, user behavior across the website, etc., and store that information.

Now, based on the user journey and behavior on your website, you can understand the audiences’ interests, intents and preferences.

With this information as your base, you segment the audience and retarget them.

Let’s understand this in detail with an example. Assume that you own a women’s fashion store. 

Example of how First-party data is used for retargeting: Showing both without and with first-party data

Emma has visited your website. She has scrolled through the home page. While scrolling she found a particular product category interesting.

Further she went onto exploring the brand new arrivals category, and found a red jacket interesting. She has clicked on that product, viewed it thoroughly. Without a second thought she added that red jacket to the cart.

Ideally, you expect Emma to complete the purchase to end the journey for that session. But for some reason she does not purchase it. 

Traditional way to retarget Emma…

In the traditional way of marketing, you can automatically retarget Emma even after she left the website by showing an Ad related to that red jacket using the third-party browser cookies where Google / Facebook collects the data using the pixel installed on the browser side.

Now, when the third-party data cookies are blocked, there is no way that Google / Meta collects this data effectively. 

The Futuristic way to retarget Emma…

  • Collecting the first-party data

Here, if you act quickly and have started collecting first-party data on the server-side using a Customer Data Platform, you can still retarget Emma.

  • Audience Segmentation based on the user behavior:

You can easily segment your user data based on their behavior. Let’s say, for Emma and people who followed a similar path of Emma, you create a segment of product viewed, added to cart and not purchased.

  • Retargeting & Activating the users across ad platforms:

This data is collected and then you have to sync it with Meta or Google or any other ad platform.

Run an ad with a discounted price for the exact same product. In this case, the red jacket for Emma. This ad will be shown to Emma. Now, if price was the reason why she abandoned the cart, she would for sure click on your ad and buy the red jacket. If it was not due to the price and some other reason, it does not work out.

Exploring the additional causes as to why Emma did not purchase. One reason might also be because of the doubt in product quality. In such a scenario you can retarget Emma with a social proof, let’s say a testimonial from people who already purchased the same red jacket. A video testimonial works better. 

In similar ways, based on your understanding of the user behavior, you can come up with different strategies to retarget that user who left your website without making a purchase, and convert them.

Advanced usage of First-party Data:

You can up your retargeting efforts using contextual targeting.

Give your first-party data to the ad platform. On top of that, when you are giving audience signals to the algorithm, you should also give contextual signals.

For your retargeting list of your travel website visitors, you can give contextual signals such as hotels, cabs, car rentals, resorts, flights, trains and buses. 

Now, you are retargeting the users only when they are visiting the websites or spaces related to the context you specified but not based on their personally identifiable information. Therefore you are protecting a user’s privacy but at the same time you are able to reach out to the user in the right context.

This is the huge potential first-party data holds that helps you in targeting the right audience with the right message, at the right time and in the right place.

Other ways to survive the Cookieless world: For New Businesses

For new businesses that are just starting, it is highly impossible to have historical first-party data. Therefore, they have other options to choose from when they want to personalize their ads to the users. In addition to that, to take their business to the next level, from day one, it is recommended that they collect their first-party data.

Some of the ways they can target the right audience with the right message are:

  1. Contextual Targeting
  2. Interest-based targeting

Contextual targeting:

Contextual targeting is not exactly retargeting but helps you offer some-what personalized ads to the users based on the context. This acts as a user privacy-friendly alternative way to Behavioral targeting. 

Using contextual targeting you can target people on a website that has content similar to the contextual signals you have provided.

Let’s say Emma has visited a women’s fashion eCommerce store. 

You can show ads targeted towards Emma, by choosing the contextual targeting signals such as women’s fashion, and women’s clothing. 

This way, even though you do not personalize to the extent you personalize using first-party data, it is still possible to target relevant users and convert them into customers. Businesses can use this when they do not have enough first-party data for retargeting.

Interest-based targeting:

Interest-based targeting is yet another way to target the right audience by choosing to target based on their interests. These interests are determined with the help of

  1. Their browsing behavior
  2. Survey done by the ad platform

You also might have observed that sometimes, suddenly Facebook, Google (especially on YouTube), LinkedIn and others ask you if the ads shown are relevant to you. Google chrome has gone a step further and gives you the option to choose which kinds of ads a user is interested in. Below are the screenshots from Google Chrome where it offers Ads privacy to the user to choose the ad topics as well.

Not just this alone. AI and machine learning can help you predict the user interest based on their past behavior. Now, using this you can retarget the users based on their interest by protecting their privacy. 

For example, if Emma is browsing a website related to women’s fashion or searched related to that or at least has chosen that she is interested in ads related to women’s fashion, you can show her your ad related to all of the women’s fashion. 

Tips for retargeting in a cookieless world

  • Track your conversions and monitor how your retargeting ad campaigns are working. Based on this, optimize your retargeting strategies.
  • A/B test your retargeting ad campaigns and double up the budget on that which is giving better results.
  • Retarget with first-party data collected along with unique identifiers such as device IDs, IP addresses, browser fingerprints, etc.
  • Optimize your ad spend using omnichannel marketing.
  • Setup a frequency cap of two to reduce your ad spend wastage.

Moving Ahead into the Cookieless Future:

The future is going to be tough for digital marketers. Meta has once again iterated that the Meta Pixel is soon going to be history. In a recent report on “The Importance of Good Data”, it specifically spoke about using first-party data. 

Retargeting is always the best strategy to optimize your return on investment. You can easily convert those people who have shown even the slightest interest in your product or service. It was easy earlier with third-party cookies.

To retarget in the cookieless world is a herculean task as marketers had to rely on developers to setup the server-side tracking. There are many alternatives to the hard code way. One of them is using customer data platforms like CustomerLabs, Segment, Adobe, etc.