What is frequency illusion?

Ever noticed how you first learn something, then notice that “something” pop up again and again in the coming days?

Hey – Wasn’t I on That Website the Other Day? A Guide to Retargeting.

Watching yet another episode of “Damages” on Netflix the other night, I first take note of the word “redacted” in proper context, and remember it. Then I hear the word “redacted” again in a news story that night, and a friend uses it in conversation a few days later. Is that just a massive coincidence? Nope–  I’m probably just experiencing “frequency illusion,” otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Mother With Teenage Daughter Sitting On Sofa
A week or so later, I see a profile of an ex-colleague on LinkedIn and see she’s now the founder of a kids play brand “My Cubby”. I check their website, and later get back to work. But in the following days, I see ads for My Cubby on all sorts of websites I visit. Is this just another case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? Or another massive coincidence?

It’s neither! It’s a specific marketing method called retargeting (or retargeting).

How does retargeting work?

Retargeting is intended to be a reminder to recent visitors of your site. Here’s an example of how it might work:

You are thinking about getting your kids into dance classes and are doing a little research. You find an interesting article about how learning ballet at pre-school age can have benefits for many sports later in life  — interesting stuff on the blog of a North Carolina dance school.


While you’re reading this, your browser is cookied, which means your visit to that site is remembered.

A word about privacy here – the site or company doesn’t know anything about YOU specifically; the cookie is just a record that you visited – much like your browsing history. You have probably visited a site where you log in and the site remembers you are logged in when you return – this is thanks to cookies, too. A person can clear the cookies on their browser at any time. And any site using cookies should declare this in their privacy policy, which should be linked from every page of their site.

Rather than targeting their online ads at people within a certain city, or age, or gender, the dance school would define their audience by a list of cookied users who recently visited their site.

When you’re on Facebook the next day, you see an ad for that same dance school with an offer for a free dance class.


Reading up on your favourite news site a week later, you see another ad for the dance school. These are reminders about the business you were reading about and invitations to return and learn more about what they offer.


Then after a while, you might not see these ads anymore. Usually, a campaign is set to expire a cookie after a period, like 30 days. The ads are only designed to target recent visitors to the site.

The appearance to the website visitor is that the dance school is really prominent and their ads are everywhere. That person might write this off as a case of frequency illusion (the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). The reality is that the ads are just really narrowly focused to an audience that might be receptive to their message.

Taking retargeting up a notch

Sometimes it’s hard for a local business to start retargeting because their monthly website visitors are only 500 people – this is often too small to place an ad campaign for, and if the cookies expire every month, the total count never builds up! But for larger sites with lots of traffic, you might see retargeting become even more specific: you check out a particular cut of jeans on an e-commerce site, and then see specific ads for those exact jeans tempting you back to that very page to complete the purchase. This obviously takes a high traffic number, a high retargeting budget, and a lot of management. But it illustrates another opportunity retargeting provides.

Is retargeting right for my business?

Retargeting is not appropriate for all business types. But for some, it can work really well. If you have high traffic (lots of people to target) and a good offer to bring people back to the site, that’s a good start. You should also consider whether your product is appropriate for this form of targeting – if someone visited your site, can you say they are more likely than the general public to buy from you?

What do you think about retargeting from an advertiser perspective? Beyond the cool-factor of the targeting approach, what’s most important in ensuring a campaign is successful?


Free Web Checkup