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Remarketing Vs. Retargeting: Are They The Same Thing?

Remarketing and retargeting are used interchangeably, but there are key differences paid media advertisers should be aware of. Learn more here.

Confused about the difference between remarketing and retargeting? You aren’t alone!

These terms are used interchangeably these days. But are they the same?

Technically, no.

In online advertising, remarketing and retargeting have similar goals but key differences that are important to understand.

The biggest difference between remarketing and retargeting lies within strategy and who you are able to reach.

Read on to discover how they differ and when it’s appropriate to use each strategy.

Remarketing & Retargeting: Similar, But Different

Advertising managers spend a lot of time crafting audiences, testing creative, and obsessing over data.

It can be a long process, with only a small percentage of ad clickers actually converting.

While you might be getting a lot of new incoming web traffic, you may not see those numbers translate to sales quickly. And few become a sale the first time they land on your webpage.

It’s easy to forget the true role of marketing:

To win people over long before they make the decision to choose your product or company over others.

Often, the best people to target are those who have visited your site more than once or have already digitally interacted with you.

Retargeting and remarketing both give the opportunity to reach these customers. They are also more likely to purchase rather than first-time visitors.

This can be an extremely important strategy in your marketing efforts.

Now let’s explore remarketing and retargeting individually so that the differences become clear to you.

What Is Retargeting?

Retargeting can have multiple approaches.

It most often refers to online ad placement or display ads targeting users who have interacted with your site in specific ways without purchasing.

Once a visitor enters your website, clicks on a product, or takes a certain action that you want them to take, a cookie is set in their browser.

You can then use this information to “retarget” them with ads based on their interactions once they leave your site.

These ads are placed by third parties, such as the Google Display Network or Facebook. They allow your ads to trigger on other sites that your visitors go to.

Typically, retargeting can be categorized into two themes: “on-site” and “off-site” events.

Each has different strategies you can take depending on the kind of interactions you want to target.

Let’s look at these a little closer.

Targeting “On-Site” Interactions

This is the category often associated with retargeting. It involves targeting individuals who have already visited your site.

They have interacted with your products and services before – or they have taken some other action but may not have completed the sale.

Retargeting to those who have had on-site interactions can certainly increase conversions.

It can also help retain those who have already expressed interest in your brand but aren’t quite ready to purchase yet.

There are a bunch of ways to retarget potential customers.

Some of the ways you can target individuals who have had onsite interactions include:

  • Target based on a product that they interacted with but didn’t buy.
  • Target based on how they found your site (social media, a search, or other inbound events).
  • Those on your email list who have expressed interest in your brand but have not yet converted to a sale.

These parameters can be set up within different platforms, such as:

  • Google Ads.
  • Google Analytics.
  • Meta (Facebook) Ads.
  • And many others.

Retargeting campaigns almost always show higher engagement and conversions than non-retargeting campaigns do.

This goes back to the fact that it is much easier and more efficient to market and advertise to those who have expressed interest in your brand or industry.

Targeting “Off-Site” Interactions

Retargeting used to be pretty limited to on-website behavior.

That changed, though, as users spent more time on social media.

Product and brand information delivery was no longer housed in one place.

Instead, it started to disseminate across other areas.

This meant audience interactions now existed in several places that weren’t owned by the brand anymore.

Social media giants like Meta recognized this and started to make engagement targeting a possibility.

In other words, brands could make retargeting pushes based on what a user did on the platform as it related to their Page, Events, and other Facebook-controlled items that a brand participates in.

Retargeting could now include “users who interacted with your Page” and other similar options.

In practice, targeting these users was still retargeting because they had not yet converted to customers.

This became the brave new world of “off-site” interaction targeting.

choosing a custom audience sourceScreenshot from Facebook Ads, September 2023

What Is Remarketing?

This is where it gets a little confusing, and there is some overlap in the industry.

Sometimes retargeting is referred to as “remarketing” (even though it actually is remarketing).

An example of this is Google’s Remarketing Tools – they are all retargeting tools in the classic sense, really.

While this may be a little confusing, just remember that remarketing and retargeting do share goals and that the terminology is not as important as the associated strategy.

So, what’s the biggest difference?

Retargeting is about moving not-yet customers down the purchase path.

Remarketing is about re-engaging existing customers through media platforms like email or even paid ads.

Tactics like emailing a customer to renew a service or upsell an accessory are traditional examples of remarketing.

It can also take the form of a brand “reminding” a user to act, using information about their purchase history.

This frequently happens in email marketing but also takes the form of paid ads targeted toward current customer segments.

The Blurry Line Between Remarketing & Retargeting

These two tactics used to exist in silos: email was its own island, and paid media was limited to top-of-funnel targeting and retargeting based on website actions.

However, these two have become somewhat interchangeable in recent years.


Well, platforms like Google Ads and Meta Ads added the capability to target on-platform using email customer lists years ago.

Email no longer exists as a separate silo of information from the paid media part of the world.

Here is the Facebook Ads version:

Facebook AdsScreenshot from Facebook Ads, September 2023

Here is Google Ads’ version:

Google Ads customer segmentScreenshot from Google Ads, September 2023

When an email list is uploaded, the platform will then work to match those email addresses with user logins.

That matched list is used to show ads to (assuming it meets the minimum threshold of audience size, which varies by platform).

Or, that matched list is used to as an exclusion in campaigns, so they are not shown ads, which means the goal is still focused on new user acquisition.

So now you have that blurry line of targeting your email users, perhaps with the same message you’re sending in emails, but doing it with a paid advertisement.

Or, you’re using the same list of email users but sending them a different message based on how you’re using those lists.

When To Use Retargeting Vs. Remarketing

Deciding when to use retargeting or remarketing ultimately comes down to this: strategy.

Incorporating both tactics into your marketing strategy is a great way to incrementally increase conversions. It doesn’t have to be an “either/or” game.

On one hand, you’d be targeting ‘net new’ customers by retargeting interested customers via paid platforms like Google or Meta Ads.

On the other hand, you’d be remarketing to existing customers for the chance they become repeat customers.

Since both methods target interested customers, the cost efficiency is usually greater than non-targeted ads.

Now, let’s take a look at some examples of when you’d use one over the other.

Prioritizing Retargeting As A Strategy

As mentioned above, retargeting is all about reaching potential customers who’ve interacted with your brand in some way.

A sound retargeting strategy should be incorporated if:

  • Your main goal is gaining new customers.
  • Your brand has a product/service that is typically a one-time purchase.
  • You’re spending a decent amount already on paid ads for awareness building.

The most important one to address is if you’re already running brand awareness campaigns – and spending money on them.

If you’re spending those hard-earned marketing dollars trying to attract new users, you need to do due diligence with retargeting campaigns.

Most users won’t buy something the first time they’ve heard of a brand or the product/service.

That doesn’t mean brand awareness dollars aren’t worth it, though!

Nurturing those users down the funnel with retargeting efforts is where you’ll start to see those incremental conversions come in.

Prioritizing Remarketing As A Strategy

As a quick refresher, remarketing is all about re-engaging existing customers who’ve already purchased from your brand.

You should consider incorporating a remarketing strategy if:

  • Your brand has a product/service that is typically a repeat purchase.
  • You want to upsell customers with additional products that may fit their needs.
  • You don’t have a big marketing budget.

Remarketing options have come a long way throughout the years, which is great for marketers.

Utilizing ‘free’ channels such as email marketing or SMS messaging is a great way to re-engage current customers. Especially if your marketing budget is constrained.

It’s a chance to remind them that they need your product. Or, it’s an opportunity to introduce them to additional products that they might like.

Nurturing existing customers even after they’ve purchased allows for long-term customer relationships to form.

And typically, customers are truly a brand’s best advocates. And word-of-mouth marketing is something that’s extremely underrated.

Retargeting Vs. Remarketing: The Takeaway

When comparing retargeting and remarketing, the overlap and differences have become less clear over the years.

But that has also been true for digital marketing, in general.

Their shared goal, though, is to increase conversions from those most likely to buy from your brand; the difference really being the associated strategy.

Retargeting is really focused on targeting users who have interacted with your brand but have not yet purchased via paid ads (and can take a variety of forms and target a broad range of individuals).

Remarketing focuses on re-engaging existing customers, primarily through email campaigns or paid ads, and reaching out to those who have already had interactions, allowing for more specific upselling and messaging.

This merging of retargeting and remarketing is really indicative of what we see in digital marketing as a whole:

Attribution is not a clearly defined thing.

It used to feel like it was, once upon a time, but it was mostly due to platforms not integrating all the elements marketers had access to.

As these platforms continue to cross-reference one another, the questions become less about what defines a tactic and more about which blend of them yields the best results.

More resources:

Featured Image: Yalcin Sonat/Shutterstock

Susan Wenograd Consultant

Susan is the Paid Media Reporter for Search Engine Journal. A marketing veteran of almost 20 years, she has managed ...

Remarketing Vs. Retargeting: Are They The Same Thing?

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