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4 Rules for Writing Effective Retargeting Ads: How to Follow Up with Leads

By The Leadpages Team  |  Published Nov 10, 2015  |  Updated Mar 31, 2023
Leadpages Team
By The Leadpages Team
Blog 795x4471

When I first saw this Facebook sponsored post, I stopped scrolling. I thought it was a post from Gary Vaynerchuk.

Facebook Creepy Retargeted

Gary V., if you don’t know, is a marketing savant. This guy seems to be ahead of the curve on EVERYTHING in the marketing sphere, and his work ethic and the true narrative is inspiring. I try to grab hold of his wisdom whenever I can.

Needless to say, I was 100% ready to click on the post and read the article.

But then I took a closer look at the post’s copy:

Facebook Words

Truth time—that creeped me out. I’ve written a ton of online ads and seen even more. Not a lot fazes me at this point.

But a random ad on Facebook explicitly saying they know I’m a Gary V. fan? That’s a bit much.

And I’m a marketer thinking this. Imagine how creeped out the general populace is when they see these kinds of retargeting ads.

(Are you creeped out by retargeting ads? Let me know in the comments.)

For those unfamiliar with how retargeting ads work, here’s a quick rundown. You’re basically installing a small piece of code from your ad platform on your web page, called a “pixel.” Once someone visits your site, that pixel then follows the user around the Web, signaling to ad networks to serve your ad to that specific person (because they’ve visited your site).

If you're totally new to retargeting, we've made things simple with a screen-by-screen guide to one of the most beginner-friendly ways to effectively retarget your best leads: by combining Facebook ads with your email list. Click below to download it now:


Retargeting ads aren’t inherently bad. AdRoll reports that 92% of retargeting ads perform as good as or better than standard search ads, with 91% performing as good as or better than email marketing. It’s no wonder that, since 2013, retargeting ad budgets have consistently grown as a share of marketing budgets overall.

These ads are great for marketers and consumers. Marketers get to advertise to hotter leads, and consumers see ads for products that actually interest them, and which they may even want to be reminded to buy.

The problem almost exclusively comes in the actual execution of the ad. More specifically, the words that people see when they view your ad.

Creepiness isn’t the only reason retargeting ads fail, though. There are a host of other subtle errors that can plague a retargeting ad. In this post, I’ll show you how to avoid them by following the 4 immutable copywriting laws for writing retargeting ads.

#1: Choose the right offer

Wayne Gretzky (THE hockey player, for those not so sports-inclined) said it best:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

That’s an important concept to remember. Your ads should carry people through your funnel—not halt their progress. What your copy offers in the ad is what keeps people moving closer to a sale.

That foresightful writing comes from knowing where they’ve been. With traditional ads, you have no clue how much someone has interacted with your brand. That leads to generic messages.

With retargeted ads, you know what content or web page someone interacted with, so you know exactly where they should be in your funnel. That means you don’t have to guess with your copy—you know where you want to lead them.

Backtracking a moment: for best results with retargeting, you need to have mapped out a full-funnel from point of interest to point of sale. If you’re new to that or need a refresher, check out this epic funnel building post I wrote. It’ll help you create a full-on campaign that converts.

Once you’ve got your funnel mapped out, you can see which assets you need to deliver at different points in your campaign. That’s an immense help when you’re writing your ads because you can see where you’re leading the consumer.

Each stage of your funnel has a specific goal. You’re either engaging someone with content, or you’re selling them something. So once you know what someone's already seen, you can decide whether they need to be presented with more content or with a product to buy.

Say someone looked at your blog post about biking in the winter. You know that the next step in your funnel is to offer a free e-book about how to winterize your bike. That means you need to write a retargeted ad that gently offers the e-book. It could look something like this:


The call to action is firm, but the copy around describing the book is gentle and unassuming. It’s not a hard push, which makes it seem serendipitous to the viewer.

On the flip side, perhaps someone looked at your homepage, then looked at your features page, then your pricing page (but didn’t buy). Since they looked at your pricing page after looking at so many other things, you know this is a hot lead. This situation would call for a firm, enticing sales push.


Since you know their interest level, you can afford to write an ad that prompts viewers to buy without ever offering free content.

It’s all about knowing where someone has been and where you want them to go. Armed with this knowledge, you can craft copy that converts higher than generic ads.

Once you've decided what to offer and how to communicate its value, it's time to consider tone. And that's where so many retargeting ads fall short.

#2: Don’t let them know you know

This is the cardinal rule of retargeting ads. Unless you have a crazy M. Night Shyamalan master plan where letting people know you’re retargeting them will come full circle in a mind-blowing way, you should not let people know they’re being retargeted.

Context is important here. When you’re on Amazon, it’s okay to see the “Inspired by Your Shopping Trends...” section because it’s in the context of that site. Amazon can bring you more options related to the product you’re looking at because you’re already browsing Amazon.

If Amazon did the same thing on Facebook, however, it might be a different story. An Amazon post saying, “Hey, we saw you looked at the Star Wars Complete Saga. Here are a couple more Star Wars things . . .” would feel weird because they’re letting you know they followed you to Facebook.

When people leave your site, they assume their interaction with you is over. If you show up in an advertisement, it should come across as a coincidence.

So when you see something like this:

Facebook Retarget Creepy

It’s pretty blatant and unnerving.

After analyzing tons of these kinds of ads, I’ve concluded that these are the phrases you should avoid writing if you don’t want to seem invasive:

  • We know/saw: You might as well just write “Big Brother is watching you.”
    Example: We know you visited this article about cats, so here’s ANOTHER article about cats.
  • You are/like: People don’t like to be told what they are in an ad.
    Example: You like our articles about cats, so here are more articles about cats.
  • When you (past tense verb): This is a phrase that references a specific action you took on a website.
    Example: When you visited the Why Cats Are Awesome post we wrote, we were quite happy about that. Read more of our articles.
  • Since you (past tense verb): This is an even pushier take on the “when you” ad.
    Example: Since you looked at flights to Cat City, you should complete your booking with a car and hotel!

Avoid these phrases when you write your retargeting ad. They waste space and they’re just plain creepy.

#3: Be subtle

This rule is the necessary counterpart to the above rule. Some of the best retargeting ads don’t even look like retargeting ads.

Why? They’re subtle with their language.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean everything on the ad needs to be subtle. On the contrary, your call to action should always be clear, concise, and obvious. When I speak of subtlety, I refer to the language you use to get people to read and act upon your ad.

Effective subtlety stems from knowledge. As a marketer, you have the advantage of knowing a lot of things about your audience.

You don’t address this knowledge directly. Rather, you write your ad in a way that looks like a normal ad, yet addresses what you know about the reader.

Let’s look at this ad:

Clothes Creepy Retargeted Ad

We can agree that this is a not-so-subtle way of doing things. Undoubtedly, that’s what the writer was going for. However, there’s a better way of writing this:


This ad takes on a different meaning now. The most alluring part of it is the 20% off promise, so I bumped that up to the headline and replaced the byline with something that speaks more to the targeted ad.

The assumption here is that a person was looking for men’s fall coats and left the site. The copy takes into account this action and presents an enticing call to action. It’s not saying “We know you want a coat, here’s 20% off.” It simply presents the right offer at the right time.

That’s the kind of subtlety that lends to effective ads. But there’s one more thing you can do that makes your retargeting ads even stronger.

#4: Echo their emotion

We know emotion is a large motivator in ads. But did you know the emotional response to an ad has a far greater influence on a consumer’s reported intent to buy a product than does the ad’s content?

The truth is, they may forget what your ad said. But if you can make them feel, then you have a much higher chance to get emotional ties to your ads.

Go back to the Gary V. stuff on Facebook. Weeks later, I may not remember the exact words in his posts. But I DO remember how they made me feel. That’s something that always sticks with you, and it’s because of his emotion and narrative.

The goal in writing ad copy is to either match your visitors' existing emotions or gradually intensify it. Very rarely will you go from 0 to 100 on the emotional scale in an ad (and if you do, it may not be a good thing). In targeted ad messaging, you’re looking to follow the AIDA curve —Attract, Interest, Desire, Action.

That's a gradual progression, and as the stages of your funnel move through it, so should your retargeting ads. Each targeted ad needs to build upon the previous steps, matching and increasing the positive feeling someone had when they visited a piece of content.

There are a host of feelings we appeal to when we need to sell something—expertise, acceptance, discovery, amusement, respect. The list goes on and on, but the main idea is to match the emotion of the content your leads viewed to the phase of your funnel they're in.

For example, let’s stick with the biking example. Say someone clicked the previously targeted ad that promoted a free e-book about winterizing your bike. So how would people feel after viewing something like that?

Ideally, they'd feel informed, thoughtful and aware. That’s because they now know how to winterize their bike, and they’re probably thinking about:

  • How winterized their bike is
  • What they can do to winterize their bike
  • How much they can spend
  • How much time is left until winter hits

That’s a surprisingly complex state of mind, but you can condense it into this statement: they feel like they need to winterize their bike quickly at a good price.

The next ad they should see after that piece of content should play on the urgency of winter coming, the appeal of affordable service, and maybe even a bit of superiority for being ahead of the curve. With that in mind, take a look at this ad:


It’s got a bit of humor in it, as well as the urgency and prestige we talked about. This combination of emotions should build upon the previous content and prompt a clickthrough.

Thinking about your ads from an emotional perspective, in combination with being subtle and knowing where your audience has been, leads to powerful ads and powerful results.

Try out some retargeting of your own!

Now that you've got a firm grasp on how to write a retargeting ad, it's time to actually create and deploy one of these ads! Have you discovered any effective strategies for using them? Tell us in the comments.

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Leadpages Team
By The Leadpages Team
Blog 795x4471
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