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To understand burn pixels, you first need to know about tracking pixels, which are single, transparent pixels placed on web pages. We all encounter tracking pixels while browsing, we just don’t see them. When a web page is downloaded, so is the invisible tracking pixel. That allows the marketer to track how many people visited the page. In digital adman parlance, tracking pixels are “set” or “added” to pages, and “fired” when downloaded.
A burn pixel is a type of tracking pixel. It is used in retargeting (aka remarketing), which is a marketing technique where advertisers show display ads to people who visited and then left their website. When someone visits a site but does not convert, the ad network cookies the visitor, then displays ads on other sites served by the network. Retargeting keeps the company or product top of mind and works to compel the visitor to return. This is why you will see ads for products you searched for or browsed when on other sites later the same day.
Now let’s feel the burn. You don’t want to annoy users by showing them your remarketing ads forever and ever. Nor do you want to spend money retargeting visitors who already returned and converted. A burn pixel allows you to untag a visitor who has converted, or someone who seen your ads a set number of times as set by the frequency cap. Why it is called a burn pixel, and why “burning” equates to removing someone from a list, I have not been able to unearth, despite a few hours of Googling.
Quenching my need to understand burn pixels led me to another unusual marketing term of art. Where there’s fire, water is sure to follow, which led me to the cookie pool. This is the group of cookies maintained by the ad network, representing all users who have visited your site and are targets for remarketing. The pool can be segmented in your retargeting efforts. You might segment them by the type of product, geography, device type, or other factors, and serve up different ads accordingly.
As those of you who read my blog know, I am fascinated by the evolution of the language we use in marketing. The fact that an ephemeral, invisible pixel can be discussed in such elemental terms as “burned” and “fired” is fascinating.
And speaking of evolution, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the origin of the humble pixel. Such a fundamental part of our digital lexicon, we forget that it is a portmanteau of the words picture and element. Coined by Silicon Valley engineers? Nope. NASA scientists in 1965, and based on a the German word Bildpunkt (picture element) – first used in 1888!