6 Reasons Pregnancy Resources Centers Should NOT Retarget

In digital advertising, retargeting is a common practice among marketers where an advertiser drops a cookie on a user’s browser to tag them as a “visitor”. This cookie can then be used to later identify someone as having visited the advertiser’s website. If that advertiser is using programmatic media placements or is plugged into any platform or channel that allows retargeting, it can then show and add to those users who have visited their site when they visit other websites.

I am sure you have experienced this and for the most part, it is a rather harmless scenario. For example, you might be looking to take the family on vacation to Florida and you search vacation homes on VRBO for the 4th of July weekend. Two days later you are looking for the top-rated sushi restaurants in your area and the first website that comes up has ads for VRBO vacation homes. If you are signed into both VRBO and your email and your search history hasn’t been cleared, you might even get ads for homes in the exact area you were looking for! 

I am a seasoned marketer and I was shocked when I saw a commercial via Connected TV for the exact home I had searched for a few days prior to watching a show on HULU. This is often an effective way to reach an interested audience and get them back to your site, and as a result, in many cases, the response rates for these ads are much higher than if an advertiser used a general audience target. Because response rates are generally so much higher with retargeting, many media buyers and leaders in the pro-life communities have trumpeted this approach as a must-have tool in the toolbox and are now using this tactic to reach women who are pregnant and who might be considering abortion. While technically in some platforms, even Facebook, this can be done, Google does not allow this type of targeting and to the surprise of many, I firmly agree with their position. Here is why:

Why Do I Avoid Retargeting For Pregnancy-Related Content?
Yes, retargeting can be a powerful strategy in digital marketing, however, it can also compromise a user’s privacy and safety. While cookies generally don’t pass sensitive or personal data, There are other factors to consider.  Retargeting attempts to get users back to a site they have previously been too… But what if that user doesn’t want to be tracked, to see an ad, or to come back and you haven’t given them a way out? How can we build trust with a woman in a vulnerable pregnancy situation if we are bombarding her with ads she may not want and violating her privacy and ultimately her trust?  

Here are 6 reasons why we might want to reconsider this approach for Pregnancy Center digital advertising.

1) Does retargeting as a marketing strategy align with your mission? 

The Pregnancy Centers I work with prioritize patient confidentiality and seek to build trust with their clients.  But if the first thing we do in interacting with her is to violate her privacy and tell the world she is pregnant, is that protecting her confidentiality? Shouldn’t confidential care start with the ad itself? 

Retargeting can feel invasive and unwanted and more so to someone who is unsure about what to do with an unexpected pregnancy.. We all believe this is a private and personal pregnancy decision, right? And we will keep her appointment confidential, correct? So why are we using saved cookie data to invade her private moments with ads, especially when there are other ways to remind your audience that you exist and want to help them through this unsettling time without the use of retargeting? 

This leads right to my second point.

2) There are other effective digital advertising strategies to reach her that are not invasive.

In fact, better options are not only available, they generally work better. According to data I’ve seen over the years, search ads actually perform better than retargeting ads. And if your Google Adwords campaign is only garnering 25% of the market share and conversion rates are strong, then the move I most often recommend is to continue increasing your Adwords market share. If this strategy offers reliable leads and the data is consistent month over month, then ramp it up rather than shifting it away to another more risky type of ad buy. 

Another effective strategy is to buy intent-based audiences. For example, we buy audiences that have shown interest in planned parenthood, but to avoid “following” our pregnant women anywhere they go, we also use a targeted audience campaign and we “cross over” our ads by layering on similar content. This means we ONLY serve an ad on pages with similar content like “what to expect when you are expecting” in a digital women’s magazine. A user would expect a pregnancy center ad here and would not feel “followed.” In order to make our campaign have an incredible response rate we only show that ad to the audience that has shown interest in a competitor’s (pro-abortion) site or products, like Planned Parenthood. This maximizes intent, and since our content is aligned with the content on the page, we are less likely to make our users feel like we are stalking them. Native is another fantastic alternative in online advertising and can also be coupled with targeted audiences, keyword targets, and similar content. More on this digital strategy in a forthcoming post.

3) I don’t want to put a woman in danger.

There are several scenarios to exemplify how retargeting is not only invasive but also dangerous.

What if she is showing her boss an online article and your retargeting ad shows up repeatedly? What if the workplace is toxic and not supportive of her current state? 

What if she is at home cooking dinner and an abusive boyfriend is scrolling the recipe as a sous chef and starts to realize what is happening? What if it is a relationship she needs to get out of and we just exposed her situation to a person who would intend to coerce her into an abortion? 

What if her pregnancy has ended in a miscarriage or worse yet, an abortion, and repeated ads for pregnancy begin to haunt her, causing severe emotional harm and depression? 

The list goes on and on. There is a reason why Google does not allow health-related retargeting, and I stand behind their position 100%.  No one wants to disclose they have Cancer in the office because they are being followed around with cancer treatment drugs.  Why would we treat an unwanted pregnancy any differently?

We need to protect her privacy and build trust from the first interaction with our brand until her final interaction with the brand. Violating her trust through repeated retargeting is starting out on the wrong foot and if the wrong people start seeing the ads around her, they could end up causing the abortion you are hoping to avoid. Ultimately this could breach a vulnerable woman’s privacy. This could make her uncomfortable, distract her from her task, or even put her in danger. Retargeting is not mission-aligned in this case.

4) Is good data driving this online advertising strategy?

The answer is no, the data is weak and the ROI is even weaker. Some marketers have moved a step sideways and are retargeting a geofence by placing cookies on users’ devices when they simply walk into a certain digital zone, say around an abortion clinic. Conceptually this would seem like a good strategy: to retarget users in that zone, as their location seems to indicate intent. However, these campaigns are littered with issues and often rely on limited data points and feel-good tactics which can result in low conversion rates and even a negative return on investment (ROI).

Instead, a woman searching online for the keywords “where can I get an abortion” has shown intent, and will have a strong conversion rate. That is why Search always outperforms other tactics. 

In a geofenced zone, you might be a doctor, a nurse, a staff member, a person walking down the street, in a nearby office, or just a friend. Instead of just a girl searching for abortion, you now have her, plus dozens of other non-intent users whom you are bidding on and paying a premium for, via your retargeting ads. This is why when you compare conversion rates of Geofencing to Search, Search generally does better. Your digital strategy should be driven by data and the numbers just aren’t there for geofencing retargeting or what some call Polygoning

Stronger conversion rates and better results can be achieved with other strategies. Some folks immediately disagree with me here, but what reinforces my position is that I have seen dozens of reports of these efforts, and to date, I have not seen one that has shown anything more than vanity metrics or confusing conversion data that doesn’t mesh with reality.. Marketers are saying they can do it technically but are not showing clients actual ROI with real lead data. 

Why? Is it not possible? 

Showing real data is absolutely possible– in almost every digital marketing scenario. So this data is either not being provided on purpose because the stats are bad, or the marketer is not up to speed with tracking results. If the latter is the case, I would pause that campaign immediately as you want an agency that will provide in-depth, robust stats to substantiate any claim that a campaign is effective.

5) Protect your brand reputation.

Unless a retargeting campaign has a curated list of websites on which they will serve ads, they often suffer from an extreme lack of content targeting, and the programmatic spaces where these campaigns are served are filled with low-quality inventory. The inventory of websites or ad spaces on which many retargeting ads end up are all too often sites like kids’ gaming apps, low-budget blogs, foreign sites, or ad farms. 

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen clients’ sites on ad farms and foreign language sites prior during new client audits. The concern here is that these sites may not align with the quality of your brand and the image you are trying to portray to the community. This can damage your brand by association with these sites.  Throughout my 25-year career in digital marketing, I have used over 2 dozen platforms, and let’s not even discuss how many times during audits we found possible ad placement on adult content.   It can be very risky if you are not using the most sophisticated distribution methods for your ads.

Even in the Google Marketplace, clients who are able to retarget struggle with quality control as Google makes it very very difficult to eliminate app traffic, foreign website traffic, and gaming inventory. Other programmatic platforms are worse and buyers need to be hyper-vigilant and demand to see the site URLs where their ads appear. If you can’t obtain that from your marketing team then I would be even more concerned. 

At Filla Life Media we seek to elevate your brand by helping clients who can retarget without concerns to steer clear of any platform without good channel exclusions and brand safety controls.

6) Do the aforementioned potential impacts justify the risk?

Simply… No. Retargeting is a risky business, especially in pro-life healthcare. Other strategies are strong and safe. 

We all have seen the headlines– or even experienced ourselves– the biased attacks on pregnancy resource centers and pro-life supporters these days. Our opposition is a litigious bunch; always on the lookout for ways to file suit, entrap, or regulate. No need to give the other team a reason to sue. It is much better to employ other digital strategies, like Google Adwords, that find and match great ads with strong intent. If you don’t think the climate is hostile to this type of approach to ads just read some of the attention it is getting:

Tracking Planned Parenthood Visitors – POLITICO

Caught Running Anti-Abortion Ads—to People Sitting in Clinics | Lawfare 

Cellphone Data Used to Target Ads to Planned Parenthood Visitors – WSJ 

Google Got More Than $10 Million for Misleading Abortion Ads | TIME 

Google has given $150,000 in free ads to deceptive anti-abortion group | The Guardian

Missouri hires an anti-abortion marketing agency | St. Louis Today   

At FLM we have a vast array of data-backed, ROI-driven strategies that are working great for our clients; strategies that allow them to control their branding and drive conversions while also respecting the sensitivities of their target audience. Google policies prohibit healthcare marketers from using remarketing tactics. It is Google’s way of ensuring privacy is protected and in this case, Filla Life Media agrees with Google. They got this one right.

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