The holiday season is just around the corner and Santa's elves are already hard at work fulfilling wish lists in preparation for Santa’s big night. If you are an online marketer these days, I bet your job feels a bit like one of Santa's elves or at least it should! The fourth quarter is by far the most important for a majority of advertisers. The question is: How can you make sure that you maximize your online sales this holiday season? One way to guarantee success is to make sure your paid search strategy is laser focused.
The beauty of paid search is that it provides an opportunity to level the playing field for any online retailer. Wal-Mart and JoesGolfMart.com must go head-to-head to bid on the same keyword. Want to show up first for a search query like "Buy Golf Clubs"? No problem -- bid high enough and the top spot is yours. Sounds pretty easy doesn't it? Famous last words.
Every year around this time, marketers are deluged with news about how ecommerce transactions will hit record highs. Well, folks, this year will be no different. In fact, early indications show that we will see an even higher year-over-year growth rate than ever before. According to Goldman Sachs, consumers spent $18.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2003 (excluding Travel). That was a 35 percent increase over 2002, which came in at a healthy $13.7 billion. In other words, online merchants should be ready for a fourth quarter like they have never seen before.
So, how do you prepare for this onslaught of online shoppers, wallets in hand, that will be heading to the likes of Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Shopping.com, and others searching for that perfect holiday gift at the best price? The answer is simple: Design and implement your strategy NOW! Here is a list of 10 tips that will get you through the holidays and ensure a successful season of happy marketers and, in turn, consumers.
1. Be prepared for huge increases in overall search volume. In particular, look for the retail and even pharmaceutical (e.g. depression, heartburn, etc.) categories to spike. What this means is that you could potentially hit daily caps on Google faster than usual and with Overture you may hit your monthly cap -- and now daily caps, a capability Overture just launched -- way ahead of time, so be on top of your budgets. This doesn't mean lowering your bids to avoid hitting caps. If your current bid is profitable for you, then find more money to spend. There is no sense in decreasing your sales volume if you are already profitable.
2. You will also see a significant increase in branded searches (and of COURSE you are bidding on your branded terms, aren't you?). People who know what they want -- and who they want it from -- will still search for it and BUY. Which leads to my next point ...
3. Conversion rates will start to creep up and then explode in mid-to-late November, and stay high through the early part of the third full week in December (or whatever the last day is that most retailers can ship goods to arrive before Christmas). Last year, we saw conversion rates triple in some cases during the holidays. This makes perfect sense because all of those search "browsers" are now "buyers." Exploit this opportunity as best you can. It only comes but once a year!
4. Costs-per-click WILL increase. As search volume and conversion rates increase, advertisers (the smart ones) will get a lot more aggressive in their bidding to take advantage of this prime traffic. Keep an eye on your competition in terms of what keywords they are bidding on, what their copy says, what their bid strategy is and so on. But, don't get overly obsessed with them. What is most important to you, the marketer, is to bid so that you are maximizing sales volume and doing it in a profitable manner.
5. Advertisers will add keywords like "Christmas gift" or "Holiday gift", etc. Be very wary of these terms. These terms get a lot of volume, but do not convert all that well -- unless you are an eBay or Amazon.com type business. For the most part, people who type in these sorts of queries are people looking for gift ideas. They are not necessarily ready to buy. If you have strict direct-response metrics then stay away from these terms or bid VERY conservatively until you have enough data to justify a higher bid. If you are more of a brand marketer, these types of keywords can be effective in influencing consumers who are the top of the purchase funnel.
6. Be aggressive with your copy. This is not only applicable for the fourth quarter; this is a rule to always live by. Merchants should offer things like "free shipping" or special holiday discounts. Writing good copy takes time, so you should be working on this sooner rather than later. Do you have a distinct price advantage over your competitors? Then say it LOUD and CLEAR! You may even want to try copy that has specific price points (e.g. “Great Gifts Under $50”). Using holiday specific copy will be the way to get great click-through rates; and since conversion rates will go up, it will cause a volume increase and a potential Cost-Per-Sale decrease. That's a true win, win.
7. Be ready for fads. Can you say, "Tickle me Elmo"? If you have any holiday toy or gift that gets hot, make sure you have all of the right keywords, copy and budget to take advantage of fad type products. Watching search volume grow is the best indicator of consumer interest and can be done, for example, utilizing Google’s Zeitgeist (http://www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html) or the Lycos 50 (http://50.lycos.com/).
8. Can you guarantee on-time delivery? Last minute shoppers will flock to the search engines looking for help. If you can guarantee that your product will ship in time to make little Timmy happy, then say it!
9. Test new, holiday specific landing pages. If a user searches for a specific item like "Golf Clubs" test out offering complementary items like a "Golf Travel Bag". This strategy always makes the original product seem more attractive to the shopper. Up sell at every opportunity. Don't be afraid to test new landing pages often. Sometimes you can learn just as much about your target audience from a landing page that doesn't convert well as you can from one that does. Mistakes = learnings.
10. Hire an expert! Gone are the days when you could start a paid search campaign and "set it and forget it." The market is way too complex and search is just too critical to be left in the hands of a novice. If you have the budget, get someone in-house or hire an outside search engine marketing firm that lives and breathes this stuff. The good search engine marketing firms save you so much time, effort and money that they end up paying for themselves!
Rob Wilk is director of search engine marketing for Avenue A/Razorfish Search (http://www.ar-search.com). He oversees search engine marketing efforts on behalf of clients in the East Region of the largest independent interactive agency Avenue A/Razorfish, as well as establishes and maintains strong vendor relationships with all search providers.