If you are interested in promoting your content through online ads, you have probably heard about retargeting, RTB, and content retargeting. The processes behind these terms are complex and highly technical, but in laymen’s words, how do they actually work? The programmers of Boost the News volunteered to explain it to our non-geek audience. Here is everything you ever wanted to know and never dared to ask!


What is retargeting and how does it work?

Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel? Looking for their way back home, the two little siblings left bread crumbles along their way as they went into the woods.

Retargeting (otherwise sometimes called “remarketing”)  works in a pretty similar way (although without any ginger-bread houses or old hags). Basically, it is about users leaving online traces in order to find their way back to a website they once visited.

To make things simple, let’s take the story of Average Joe as an example.

  1. Joe visits your website and reads a little bit about what you have to say. Upon entering the website, he leaves a metaphoric “crumble”, just like Hansel and Gretel. This is the famous “cookie”, collected by websites (the rumor says that they are called cookies exactly because of the Hansel and Gretel story).
  2. After leaving the website, Joe continues his journey throughout the web, leaving cookie crumbles in all the websites he visits. These cookie crumbles enable you to see where he is at a given point.
  3. While Joe is visiting other websites, you can send him a reminder from your website. Use the ad space on the website in which he is now located, to show him items from your website that he might have missed or forgotten, and call him to “come back home”.

This is how the process looks in an illustrated way:


What is RTB and what does retargeting have to do with it?

RTB are the initials of Real Time Bidding. It stands for a virtual bidding process that takes place in real time between different advertisers over the right to show an ad to the visitor of a certain page.

When you want to show your ad to Joe, your ad competes with other ads over the space.

Let’s see an example of how such a bidding takes place when Joe enters a website.  



This is exactly what happens in a real time bidding (only much faster, automatically, and not really in the form of a funny auction). Retargeted ads are much more efficient in RTB bids for two reasons:

First, they know when to rise the bid and when to stop, so you don’t spend all your money quickly on irrelevant bids. Imagine the ad budget of the random ad in the story above: if it offers the highest price on every bid, it will quickly run out of budget. Retargeted ads, on the contrary, know exactly when and where to bid (and for how much), and assure you the best value for your money.

Second, the accuracy of retargeting ensures higher chances that the person to whom the ad is displayed will actually click on it. A random ad, shown to a random reader, has much lower chances of being clicked than an ad that was personally crafted for a particular user.  

In fact, the average CTR (click-through rate, meaning the chances of your ad being clicked by an user) of a retargeted ad is 10 times bigger than the one of a regular ad (source).

What is more – in an real time bidding process, as takes place in Boost the News, when you win a bid over an ad spot, you don’t pay the price you bid, but rather the price of the offer that got in the second place. So, for example, if you offered 0.3$ on a bid and the competitor offered 0.2$, you win, and have to pay only 0.2$!


Is retargeting creepy?

Despite its effectiveness, retargeting got itself a reputation of being kind of creepy. The reason is that when people see retargeted ads, they get the feeling that someone is “following” them. Something like a big brother, or “I know what you did last summer”.

It’s important to face this argument seriously. Let’s make things clear:

Retargeting doesn’t gather any personal information. It only tracks information related to internet behavior.

The whole process is done “computer to computer”. When cookies are gathered, all they can say is “oh look, somebody from this browser was in this page and is now in another page!”.

Never, ever ever ever do they say: “hey look, here’s Joe, 34 years old from Manningtree, the husband of Simone and the father of Nina, James and Mark, who likes to travel by bike and eat Chinese food, and who is still secretly afraid of rabbits!”

Nobody – neither we, nor the advertiser, nor the website that provides the ad space, literally nobody – actually knows who is reading the web page in a given moment.  

What is more: even what we do know (which is only the browser from which the cookie crumbled), doesn’t reach anyone in the process. The bidding process is completely automatic, and lasts a few milliseconds! Even if we really really wanted to, there is no chance we could have gone into the cookies and said “hum, this guy read yesterday an article about cats on, let’s show him an article about dogs, that’s something he’ll surely like!” in several milliseconds.

Bottom line is: cookies are nothing personal. It is safer for your privacy than opening an account on Facebook (or, God forbid, on Ashley Madison) – and it’s even safer for your privacy than entering your local shop.


What is content retargeting?

Until now, retargeting used to be about ads for products and brands. Joe looks for a laptop in an online electronics shop, and after he leaves the page without making any purchase, he keeps getting ads of the same laptop, as a reminder. It is a linear model of advertising: the advertiser on one side, and the provider of the ad space on the other.

For publishers, content retargeting is an innovative way of doing retargeting. It adds a new dimension, and creates a triangular model of retargeting: a publisher (provider of the content), an advertiser, and another website (provider of the ad space) working together! Example:

Joe is looking to buy a laptop. He searches not only in online electronics shops, but also reads articles and reviews about different available laptops. He enters laptops.com (fictional website) to read reviews, but of course, doesn’t manage to read all the reviews (we never manage to read all the articles of every website we visit, do we?).

Now, let’s say that there is a very good review praising a new laptop of the (imaginary) company “Pear Technologies” on laptops.com, but Joe missed this review. Isn’t it a pity? With content retargeting, Pear Technologies now has the opportunity to show this review to Joe and make sure he doesn’t miss it!

This is how the workflow looks like:


Who gets what from this process?

Laptops.com (publisher, provider of the content): increased traffic and received free advertising of its website. If you think about it, when Joe sees the ad and clicks on it, he get redirected to laptops.com – this way, laptops.com increases traffic without any additional cost (the ad was launched by Pear Technologies ). What is more, laptops.com gets commissions for being the creator of the content: it means that it increases traffic AND earns revenues, without any additional effort. If you doubt it, check out the tests we made at Boost the News, in which we increased traffic of websites by retargeting their content.

Pear Technologies  (advertiser): made a great deal by helping Joe to find the review about its laptop. It’s a “2 in 1” deal: both a great piece of content marketing in the form of a high-quality article, and an efficient ad that makes sure Joe does not miss the article.

Joe: initially missed the review but now gets the information that he needed. Content retargeting is all about giving the readers valuable information that they were looking for but didn’t find.

Provider of the ad space: earns money for the ad space sold.

You see? With content retargeting, everybody wins – especially the publisher!