Donkey video: retargeting debacle hits Guardian

Let’s put aside the obvious novelty value in writing the above headline. This post is (kind of) about retargeting and its implications for content marketing.

It is also about a situation faced by the Guardian when an ad appeared on its pages linked to a video of a lady becoming a little too “friendly” with an equine friend.

At the risk of damaging FirstWord’s SEO ranking, the Guardian story has been revealed in more detail on the political blog Guido Fawkes.

Obviously, the offending ad was flowed in from a third party. We all know the Guardian is struggling, but things have not got that bad… yet.

One more thing to add, and this is important, it was pointed out to Guido Fawkes by interested readers.


The donkey ad was a form of retargeting. If you are unfamiliar with the term you have probably noticed it in your web browsing. For example, you have looked briefly at buying a new TV and then gone to a news site. Lo and behold! – an ad for the very make and model you were looking at is staring back at you.

What a stroke of luck! No, not really. You have been retargeted. It is a service run by companies such as AdRoll or Facebook, among others, which operates on a pay-per-click model. That is not to say either was involved in the Guardian‘s embarrassing episode.

Retargeting works by placing a pixel – basically a lump of Javascript – in your browser. It can also target specific people from a list.

According to Guido Fawkes, the Guardian has ordered a review of third-party ads. Of course, the fault really lies with the retargeter who allowed the ad through the gate.

It would be sad if this affected retargeting. If you are a B2B site, especially one that is very niche, it can provide an excellent and cost-effective way to distribute content and drive awareness.

One problem with distribution networks such as Outbrain is that you get coverage and pay for the clicks. But you have little control over who or what actually appears.

Retargeting means the click rates are lower but the quality of click is up. For example, if you want to drive traffic to your company blog you can retarget someone who recently looked at the product page of your site.

Concluding thoughts

So would people have flagged this story if they knew the ad was triggered by their browsing habits? One suspects not.

However, as they busily delete their browsing history, they can mentally pat themselves on the back for reminding the rest of us about an efficient way to cut through the content glut.

Providing the Guardian and other sites don’t drop the dead donkey.

Donkey video: retargeting debacle hits Guardian is part of Content24, the blog for London content marketing agency FirstWord.