Say you call MetLife Auto & Home for a quote. MetLife emails you to confirm. Then you go web surfing and there's MetLife in the ad banner of a news site. You use a search engine and there's MetLife's ad again. It's as if the firm is following you.
And it is—all because you opened that email.
This is the newest, potentially spooky front in direct advertising—something Responsys, a leader in its usage and the marketing firm behind such campaigns for MetLife and Dollar Thrifty, calls "retargeting." Why? "We targeted you the first time when we sent you an email. Now we know you're interested, so we're retargeting you in a new location," says Responsys CEO Dan Springer. "That's just being a smart marketer."
The system works through cookies—nothing new, though marketers are just now learning to drop a cookie through email and then follow potential clients. Responsys uses a network of ad exchanges to show up just about anywhere its clients want to reach a customer. It's mostly automated, but companies can personalize ads too— everything from "Buy MetLife!" to "MetLife in Miami!" to "Hey Jodi, your Honda needs MetLife!"
Not that Responsys will go that far: "I wouldn't recommend you risk the creepiness," Springer says.
The system is good news for websites. "Marketers' love affair with display media is back," says Forrester Research's 2011 report, which expects the once-sagging online display-ad market to jump 36% (to $27.6 billion) in five years. In part that's because retargeted ads boost the value of cheap, buried ad space—stuff that often sells in bulk but that marketers will spend more for if it's used in a targeted way.
It seems worth the cash: Of people who engage with MetLife because of display ads, about 75% now come through retargeting.
"We want to be able to put out a message that people relate to," says Rick Heffernan, MetLife Auto & Home's director of Internet sales strategy. "There's a connotation that this is all very invasive. But I would say that the opposite is very scary too—because then you have a lot of ads that don't apply to you."
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A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.