Mike Isaac and Jason Del Rey

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Twitter Unveils Its Ad Retargeting Effort

Twitter on Wednesday announced it will begin to serve its promoted tweet ads to users’ Twitter streams based on the outside, third-party sites they’ve visited.

The practice, known as ad retargeting, allows marketers to identify and target Twitter customers based on browser cookies (essentially, a bit of tracking data stored inside your browser).

Twitter said that advertisers will also be able to show promoted tweets to people that they have in their own customer database by matching the email address that an advertiser has on file with the email address with which a user signed up for Twitter. Kevin Weil, senior director of revenue products, assured users that the email addresses used would be hashed and scrambled, an attempt to assuage any privacy concerns. This type of targeting is currently only available in the U.S.

Both types of ad targeting should be familiar to close observers; Facebook introduced ad retargeting when it launched FBX — its ad exchange — last year. Facebook also offers a custom audience product that also allows marketers to match ads to people by using their email addresses (as well as phone numbers) as an identifier. Facebook is said to be seeing success among advertisers with both products.

But there are some differences between the two offerings. For one, Twitter has not set up an ad exchange where advertisers target a certain ad to a certain user in real time, as is the case with FBX. Instead, advertisers upload an aggregate set of cookie IDs to Twitter’s ad system and ask Twitter to match those with the cookies of users who visit the social network, Twitter product execs told me in an interview today. The same thing goes for targeting according to email addresses. Twitter also stressed that it never sees raw email addresses, and disposes of email addresses from an advertiser that don’t match any in Twitter’s own user database.

It’s also important to note that since mobile apps can’t drop identifying cookies on users, people who use the Twitter mobile app will only get retargeted if they also use the Web version of Twitter.

Ad Age first reported that Twitter was looking to introduce retargeting by creating an ad exchange and Bloomberg reported in May that Twitter would likely let advertisers target tweets by a user’s email address.

Cookie tracking and ad retargeting is a contentious privacy issue for many users, and browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox have implemented “Do Not Track” features to allow for opting-out of ad tracking techniques. Twitter also has a “Do Not Track” option, though it is slightly buried inside a user’s account settings menu.

So the timing on Twitter’s announcement — one day before the Fourth of July holiday kicks off — is interesting, a potential suggestion of the sensitivity around the new retargeting effort.

Still, Twitter believes its one-click option is more straightforward than others in the industry. On Facebook, for example, people need to take several steps to opt out. And if you have “Do Not Track” enabled in your browser settings, Twitter will automatically stop collecting your browser information for ad-targeting purposes.

Regardless of the announcement timing, the features were enough to gain Twitter praise from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for the design practices.

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