Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you’re a hard-working and underappreciated communications manager. Hard to imagine, I know, but bear with me. Your content strategy is fantastic and every week, hundreds of people visit your website, engage with your content and… fail to sign up to your mailing list. You’re starting to wonder: Why don’t they want our emails? Is our content really that great? Is our subscription form broken? You brought them to your site and they engaged with your great blog but now you’ve lost them forever and it seems like such a waste.

What if I told you that you can track them, and with a few inexpensive tactics, you have a much better chance of converting them to subscribers? Welcome to the powerful, if a little creepy, world of social media retargeting.

Map Your Terrain

First things first, you have to make it easy for your website visitors to do what you want them to. With help from your web analytics, plot the path people take once they get to your website: Maybe they come in through search or social media shares, find a piece of content, click on some related articles and then, hopefully, subscribe. These are your key pages, and it’s vital that you clear the path so that people can easily do what you want them to do. If your so-called conversion path is full of obstacles and friction points, no amount of great social media is going to convince them to stay on the sidewalk.

Pave the Path Back

Now that you have a clear path, it’s time to develop a plan to capture the people who find themselves on it. This is where things get awesome. Do you remember that time last week that you found a really great pair of shoes while shopping online but decided not to buy them just yet? Then, this morning on Facebook, there was an ad for those exact same shoes! What may seem like an uncanny coincidence is thanks to a magical thing called a tracking pixel.

Named after a literal pixel (a 1x1px transparent image), pixels trigger a string of code called a cookie that helps servers identify you and your behavior. The page where you found those shoes had a pixel, and you’ve been identified as a potential buyer. Next time you visit a site that uses the same ad network, it recognizes your pixel and you become part of the audience for a set of ads tailored to your behavior.

Now, before you start feeling like you’re in George Orwell’s 1984, don’t freak out: It is not like you’re actually being tracked. It’s your browser that is holding on to that cookie information, not the site, and it’s your browser that tells the ad network where you have been. You can control what cookies to accept and how long they last by managing your browser’s security and privacy settings.

The process you employ by using these cookies is called retargeting, and it basically means you have a second chance at conversion for people who you know are interested in your offer. Once you cookie your website visitors, you create a highly qualified audience that you can target with ads across a wide range of other sites.

Note: Before placing third-party pixels on your site, make sure your privacy policy covers how you’ll use them. Your visitors’ use of ad blockers and browser security settings impact how well they work, and cookies do expire. But it’s a hugely powerful technology and therefore no surprise that for-profit organizations have been quick to pick it up. Was a third look at those shoes exactly what I needed to make me buy?

Branching Out

This technology has enormous potential. For example, you can pixel your fundraising landing page and retarget those who were interested enough to visit but who didn’t donate at that moment. Or you can find potential subscribers who stalled out at your join page. Perhaps that Facebook ad was the gentle reminder they needed to come back and reconsider joining. If you mash these ads with smart landing pages, you can tailor your conversion messages to an array of behaviors (and thus, interests) for much more relevant calls to action and therefore greater success. And what’s more, in what is possibly the only upside to media consolidation, a handful of big ad companies own huge networks outside of social media that you can now access with just a few clicks, in order to find your targets. The ad you make for Facebook can also appear on the Huffington Post app.

What excites me the most about this technology is the ways we aren’t even using it yet. Imagine using a pixel to track a reader’s content views, and then using that information to tailor a content site just for them. The site would become so much more valuable to them, and they would be much more likely to return, subscribe, and support the organization’s work. Or pairing this kind of tracking with a world-class CRM that could connect the dots based on someone’s behavior and trigger suggested ways to have that person become more involved. The power and applications seem endless, and I, for one, am excited to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

This post originally appeared at the NTEN site.

Main image: John Cooke, CC