Take Your Retargeting Audiences to the Next Level With These Tips

We recently completed a series about retargeting across many different PPC platforms. Our goal was to give you an understanding of what’s available in each platform so you can test it out on your accounts and find what works best.

But the channel capabilities are only part of the story when it comes to retargeting. It’s also important to know how to leverage those audience targeting options to the fullest extent.

It would be impossible for me to write a blog post telling you all the audiences you should create for your business and have it apply to everyone else reading the same article. All businesses are different and require a unique set of audiences to maximize their potential.

What I hope to do instead is give you some insights as to all the ways I think about retargeting audiences and in doing so, hopefully, inspire you to take a deeper look at what you’re currently doing as well what’s possible and encourage you to level up your retargeting audience strategy.

Let’s start off by talking about the high-level types of audiences and then we’ll dive into some utilizations from there.

3 Retargeting Audience Types

There are three main types of retargeting audiences to consider. Let’s run through each with a little insight attached along the way.

Website Pixelled Audience

This is the most common type of retargeting audience in use as it’s been around the longest. For these types of audiences, advertisers are able to place a pixel on every page of their site, then create lists of users based on the pages they visited, did not visit, or many different combinations in between.

A typical list builder based on URLs looks something like this from AdWords:

Here’s the same list created in Facebook:

You can also get a bit fancier with AdWords retargeting audiences utilizing the Google Analytics Audience Builder then importing for use in your AdWords account. (We’ll chat about this builder a little more in-depth here in a minute.)

Most audiences created in this fashion are used to designate people who have converted on a site versus those who haven’t or those visitors of a key page to indicate better intent than others.

Customer Uploads

Customer uploads are a relatively new type of retargeting audience as they’ve only been around for a couple of years now.

This one is pretty straightforward based on its name. Essentially, our ad platforms allow us to upload a list of user emails (along with some other custome information in Facebook’s case) that are then matched to their user database for 1:1 matching to individual users within their system. If that user is logged in on that device, you’ll be able to target them. Pretty straightforward, though it’s not always a perfect science.

Sometimes targeting users with personal emails for business purposes (or vice versa) can be troublesome. Not to mention I’ve yet to ever see a perfect match rate of 100% of emails matching to users. Keep that in mind when uploading your lists. These are great options to utilize, but there is going to be some bleed here and there.

Engagement Audiences

Our third type of retargeting audience is the newest as the platforms continue to roll out new innovations. Engagement audiences are somewhat similar to the pixelled groups of users as you’re able to target people based on the way they engage with you, but we’re able to take it a step further than a simple page visit.

There are a couple different instances of engagement audiences we have access to. The first is through Google Analytics. Through this platform, we’re able to use nearly all site engagement metrics to create a list of users. Earlier we discussed creating a list of folks who visited a specific page, but what about users who are only on that page for less than 5 seconds? Do you still want them in your list? Or someone who has 100% bounce rate?

Here is the Google Analytics audience builder and all the levers you can pull:

There are quite a few different possibilities here, so I highly encourage you to run through all of the available audience options to determine which is right for you and who is the audience you want to entice back to your site.

The second type of engagement audience only lives within social platforms. As Facebook and YouTube are destinations in and of themselves (as opposed to Search where you’re looking for information most likely found on an external site), their ad units are increasingly working to keep users within the platform rather than sending them away to a third party site. Videos, Lead Ads, Canvas ads are all in this group of ad units that are designed to keep you on the site.

Lucky for us, the platforms have given us the ability to create audiences based on the way people engage with these ad units rather than our website itself. Here are just a few examples from the Facebook platform:

Engagement with a Lead Ad:

Amount of Video Views:

Engagement with a Canvas Ad:

There are more, but this post has to end sometime and we’re still not to audience utilization. Similar to everything else, I encourage you to scroll through all of the available options here to identify which are most enticing to you and think through how you can use them in your retargeting strategies.

4 Ways to Use Retargeting Audiences

Now that we got the technical stuff out of the way, let’s get to the fun part. If I’m being honest, I think the utilization of retargeting audiences is something that’s being undervalued in our industry at the moment.

Creating audiences is one thing, leveraging them is another. Let’s walk through all the ways you can be utilizing your audiences in your campaigns, even if it’s not exclusively for retargeting.

Audiences to Target

Starting with the basics, the easiest type of retargeting audiences you should be making are those you want to actually retarget. More often than not, these include a list of non-converting users who came to your site but can also include customers if you’re selling a product or service that can be utilized multiple times.  

This is the “duh” section of this post, but I do have a little further insight for you. I recently wrote an article about utilizing different cookie lengths with retargeting audiences to make the performance that much more optimizable. Just because an audience should be targeted, doesn’t mean there’s not some nuance to be utilized in targeting them. Ideally, this works out better for you as an advertiser and for them as a user. Check it out.

Audiences to Exclude

The second use for retargeting audiences is to create a list of folks you want to exclude. Most of the same principles apply here as they do for the audiences you would like to target, but use reverse logic. Who is in your audience that you don’t want to pay money for again? How can you create a list to ensure they won’t be targeted in your campaigns?

During the engagement section, I briefly brought up the idea of excluding people based on their engagement. Here are just a couple examples to get you started:

  • Users who stayed on the site less than 5 seconds.
  • Users who opened but did not submit a Facebook Lead Ad.
  • Users who visited your careers page (because if they’re looking for a job they’re likely not buying what you’re selling).

But they don’t have to be as cut and dry as those examples.

If you’re trying to preserve budget it might make sense to cut your audiences down to only those most likely to convert rather than simply everyone who hasn’t converted yet. While you’re doing your retargeting audience builds, take some time to think about who should be excluded from your lists. You might be surprised at all the ways you can trim the fat with only a few extra targeting parameters.

Audiences for Observation

“Observation” is the lingo in the new Google AdWords interface. For those seasoned AdWords users, we would think of this as a “Bid Only” layer.

No matter what you call it, retargeting audiences can be great for observations about how different groups of users behave on your site. Maybe you’ve created a handful of audiences to target, but you’re not sure which will be the most impactful.

Layering many retargeting audiences on top of your existing campaigns as “Observations” can allow you to see how each of those audiences is performing without the need to create campaigns for them exclusively. This can cut down on campaign bulk if you’re not sure which audiences deserve their own campaign just yet or if your audiences are never really large enough to warrant their own campaign.

In the new interface, here’s where you would designate which setting you want to apply to your retargeting audiences:

Add your selected audiences and set them to “Observation”. Hit save.

On the Audience tab, you should now be able to see performance for each audience on a separate line. You can also adjust bid modifiers for each of these retargeting audience observation layers if needed.

Audiences for Learning & Expansion

The last way to leverage retargeting audiences, for this post at least, is to utilize them to better understand your target audience and expand into new users more efficiently.

Many platforms we have access to allow for some form of Lookalike or Similar Audience modeling. If you’re not familiar with these, the idea is that the ad platform will review an audience you’ve created, determine a pattern or persona for that audience, and will then go find new users on the platform that behave similarly to that pattern or persona. Essentially, they are finding users that look like the users in our given audience, hence the name “Lookalike” audience.

On the whole, I’m a big fan of Lookalike and Similar Audiences. I’ve seen them work well in many different use cases and help drive additional scale and conversion for my accounts.

But that’s only part of the story. You’ve got to be specific with your side of the bargain to get good performance from these lists.

Like most discussions around machine learning, we rely on the principle of “you get out what you put in”. Meaning, it’s very important for you to create useful and meaningful retargeting audiences to leverage with lookalikes, because that’s what the platform is going to be analyzing.

For these audiences, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Clear Patterns

These platforms are looking to create clear patterns within your retargeting audience. If they can’t find discernable patterns, the resulting outcome is going to be less precise and could end up being like targeting the entire internet. Be sure to create groups of users with meaningful differences and don’t be afraid to get specific.

For ecommerce, don’t create a list of users who made a purchase. Break that down one more step and create a list of users who spent over $500. Or your high ROI purchasers. Or some other group that’s meaningful to you.

For lead generation, maybe you want to upload a list of customers to create a Lookalike from. Instead of utilizing your entire database, maybe upload only those larger accounts or only the decision makers rather than all contacts.

Always be thinking about ways to segment your audience to create more meaningful breaks so the platform can create better lookalikes for you.

Audience Size

In a similar vein to having clear audience patterns, your audience size needs to be something to consider as well. Without enough data input, it will be hard to find a user pattern. The opposite is also true: if you add in too many users to a list, you’re likely creating a list that has less consistent patterns and can end up being just as useless as the audience that’s too small.

As a rule of thumb, I like to keep my seed audience sizes between 1,000 and 50,000.

Although I’ve seen audiences outside of that range work well, on both the smaller and larger ends, this range seems to consistently perform best. What that means for you is if you only have 500 users on a list, it’s probably a good idea to keep them all as one group rather than to split them out. Work to add more users to the list over time.

If you have more than 50,000 users to add, try looking for a pattern to break the existing list up into two or more new lists. What are the different degrees of separation you can add to find new patterns? Maybe your list of 100k users all were high ROI shoe purchasers. But did they buy different brands? Did they buy different colors? This might seem like splitting hairs or a distinction without a difference, but you might be surprised what the algorithms come up with.


There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for retargeting audiences, but there are a large number of ways to think about user segmentation that can mean great improvements on your performance. Don’t just set it and forget it when it comes to your retargeting strategy. You’ll not only be leaving money on the table, you’ll likely be irritating the users who are most likely to purchase from you.

Take some time to analyze your business and the audiences you’re creating. Make sure you’re targeting, excluding, and leveraging these audiences in the most efficient way possible. And take full advantage of all the ad platforms have to offer within their audience builders. 

What are your tips for creating more useful retargeting audiences? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!