Online Marketers are Creepy

A creepy alligator has been stalking me. Yes, an alligator. Ads for HostGator, perpetually offering 20% off, have been on nearly every site I visit. Unfortunately for HostGator, I already chose a hosting provider, and now, I’m tired of HostGator’s advertising and their alligator mascot.

Retargeting ads are inexpensive and for online direct marketers, they usually perform very well on click rate, conversion rate and cost per conversion metrics. However, like companies that once used telemarketing during the dinner hour, some companies are focusing on measurement and forget about their audience.

The Downside of Retargeting

How do you feel about prospects describing your marketing as creepy, annoying or obnoxious? [Tweet this] That’s the way many of them describe retargeting.

Over the last six weeks, I asked people around me on my commute what they think of online ads for sites they recently visited or for products they recently looked at. This was an unscientific survey of approximately 30 people, but the results were stark.

The words most often used were creepy, annoying and obnoxious. Some people asked if these ads meant they were being tracked, highlighting another potential negative implication for marketers. Only two people told me they liked the ads or the ads were relevant. Both are marketers.

I asked the same question in a simple online poll, sent out via Twitter and LinkedIn. In the poll, 54% of respondents described the ads as creepy or annoying, 13% say they love them.

Beyond the unscientific nature of the two surveys, they are different audiences. My commuter survey was a broad audience, marketers likely represented a small percentage. However, my personal network is heavily skewed towards people in online marketing.

Get Out of Your Bubble!

The difference shows why it is so important to focus on your target audience. When your marketing decisions are based on the perspectives of others in marketing instead of the perspectives of your target audience, you make the wrong decisions. As a marketer, you may think you are providing value. But unless you are marketing to other marketers, prospects just might think you are creepy.

Another example of marketers not being aligned with their audience is comparing the content valued by marketers and by buyers. In research from IDG Connect and MarketingSherpa, 79% of marketers say peer best practices have an impact, yet only 48% of buyers agree. Buyers rank news and articles first out of 10 types of offers, but marketers put news and articles in 6th place.

I will post a followup specific to changes marketers can make in their retargeting programs to limit their negative impact next week.

Your Turn

Have you ever seen retargeting ads go too far? Are there other marketing activities that annoy you or may do marketers more harm than good? Share your examples in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

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  • Amy Clausen

    I agree. I hate the online ads – it turns me off after I visit a site and that particular product starts following me around everywhere I go. Great case for buying the competitor product that didn’t creep me out!

    • Thanks for the comment! If this makes you consider competitive products, that should be a big red flag to marketers. Somehow they are missing that…

  • Anonymous

    Eric i am with you 100 % on this… It is indeed annoying and disturbing. Myself i host on Hostgator and still everywhere i go i need to look at them 🙂 Creepy!

    • Now I’m really glad I didn’t go with them. It would actually be easy for them to set up their retargeting to NOT continue to target people that have accounts, disappointing that they do not even bother with an additional step like this.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  • Hafez

    Great post Eric. Your anecdote about HostGator shows that online advertisers need to take great care when using tools like retargeting or else they risk annoying their customers and alienating the very people they’re trying to entice. 

    In this case, the retargeting firm working with HostGator committed two cardinal sins:1) They didn’t include a burn pixel. This is the pixel that signals that the advertising should stop once a user converts (in this case, signs up for a HostGator account). 2) They didn’t cap the frequency. Nobody wants to see the same ad thousands of times in a 3 day period. Savvy advertisers know this, and cap the frequency and volume of their ads accordingly. Disclaimer: I work for ReTargeter, an online advertising and retargeting company. 

    • Thanks for the comment from your viewpoint in the space. Yes, a burn pixel and reasonable frequency capping certainly would have helped. This is a space were marketers seem to have been blinded by success and are not looking to limit the downsides.

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  • Anecdotally, I’ve heard that clicks from retargeted ads are actually quite expensive. That would need some confirmation, but – if it’s true – it would provide a way out of retargeting hell. Just click those suckers. Eventually, they would detect who was doing all the clicking (and leaking money) and cut you off. Presumably. Hopefully. Despairingly.

    • Interesting thought, I don’t really want to click 20 banners to see if it makes a difference. My hope is advertisers will begin to recognize the downside, not just the upside, and modify their practices. Here are my followup thoughts on things marketers could do to limit the stalking perception:

      Thanks for the comment, let’s hope it doesn’t come to this!

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  • Navneet

    Using bulk sms service, companies can send bulk sms to thousands of
    people at same time and mostly used for marketing of our business.

  • Matt Payne

    Too bad you don’t have AdWords installed in the right rail, would be funny if they automagically & contextually served ads from HostGat… arrraaaggghhh!!! Another one for the time capsule, Jedi Master.

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