man holding target in front of hime


[Post by Rex Hammock]

Even if you’ve never heard the term “behavioral retargeting,” you’ve experienced it. Online, it’s used by advertisers in a strategy called “advertising retargeting.” Here’s an example (based on a true story) you’ll recognize: You visit a few websites seeking information about a certain model of car. The next thing you know, you see banner ads for that car appear on practically every website you visit. That’s “behavioral retargeting.”

However, advertisers and online media companies are savvy branding professionals, so they’d never use a term like retargeting since that might suggest advertising is all about shooting things at potential customers over and over. They* call retargeting interest-based advertising.

In general, I’m not opposed to the use of behavioral retargeting, I mean interest-based advertising — especially since the organizations* that support interest-based advertising also provide you easy ways to opt out of it. At times, I’m even a big fan. For example, I don’t mind advertisers knowing I have a passion for bicycling — I like that I get all sorts of bike-related advertising on websites that have nothing to do with the topic. As I often say, advertising that I request and want is not advertising, it’s information.

Why Not Interest-Based Help?

Over a decade ago, Hammock spun-off a short-lived but incredibly prescient startup called** An innovative (for then and now) facet of the startup’s approach was to utilize cookies and “overt expressions” (clicks, ratings) to personalize content recommendations for each user. In other words, the 1999 startup applied similar approaches to what is now called interest-based advertising to the act of providing each user unique, interest-based content (though such a term wasn’t yet part of the vocabulary).

Perhaps that’s the reason I’ve begun to experience a sense of deja vu (all over again) when I notice an online advertiser “accidentally” using retargeting that provides me content I consider information rather than advertising.

When I say accidentally, here’s an example from, a company I’ve allowed to track and analyze my online behavior for nearly 20 years. I’ve let them do that because I have benefitted from how they use such information to anticipate the products I might want next. And, by bouncing my data up against similar data they collect from all of their customers, they can even begin to make assumptions that go beyond my behavior and actually can predict the intentions*** I’m displaying. (Am I buying a book for myself, or is this a gift?)

However, the accidental part I’m referring to is how Amazon’s interest-based advertising can sometimes lead me to interest-based content.

Recently (to use another example from my hobbyist interests), a few days after spending less than five minutes on Amazon glancing at various types of table saw jigs to seek inspiration for creating a jig for a small project, Amazon sent me an email promotion announcing a 25 percent off sale on a product that, while having the word “jig” in its name, had nothing to do with the kind of jig a person uses on a table saw. Always giving Amazon’s algorithms more credit than they deserve, I was curious enough about what the promoted product was to click through the email and onto

Strangely (magically? algorithmically?), while the product Amazon was promoting had nothing to do with what I was seeking, the infomercial-like video describing the product (see embed) was of great help in answering the question that had started me on my original quest. Quite by accident on their part, the interactions I had with Amazon led me to discover a company I’d never heard of and a product I did not know existed and, frankly, didn’t need. Still, the content led to me subscribing to their newsletter and YouTube channel. (And, if you know someone who is an aspiring, yet neophyte, woodworker like me, you know that when I say, “I don’t need that tool,” it means I’m already trying to figure out why I do.)

In this case, it was a fluke that behavioral retargeting led me to knowledge and to a relationship with a new company, rather than to merely a promotional coupon.

But wouldn’t it be productive for marketers to use non-accidental approaches that retarget help and knowledge in addition to, or instead of, banner ads?

Wouldn’t content that helps a prospective customer become smarter result in discovering the kind of customer who may not need 25 percent off to be convinced that a product is worth purchasing?

I think so. And I predict you do, too.

*The organizations behind behavioral/interest-based advertising are an alliance of all the trade groups you’d be proud to take home to meet Mom. And did I mention they’re smart? Instead of waiting for people to complain about retargeting, they are smart enough to create a “self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising” that includes tools for you to monitor and control who can advertise to you, and how.

**While the startup business was closed in 2000, the site still exists and is today a large-scale wiki owned and managed by Hammock. The content recommendation feature is not a part of the current site.

***To learn about customer intentions, I recommend the book The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls.