Thursday, September 25, 2008

Planning search for Christmas

This article was first published in marketing magazine

If you’ve got children, you’ll know the degree of forward planning that goes into Christmas. Mine started early lobbying (landscape analysis, benchmarking) in August, and by mid-September, their campaign had moved into a fully active phase.

Goals had been established, and broad strategies to achieve them put in place. Without being consciously aware of it, I’ve already got high spontaneous recall scores for ‘Lego Secret Agent Truck’, and ‘ponies’ (my daughter has audacious goals, and I’m not sure it’d go in the garage).

On the other side of the fence, retailers have been working away for months preparing their offerings. Christmas store designs were signed off months ago, and bets made about winning lines for the season.

But online, (with some notable exceptions) few retailers pay as much attention to Christmas planning as they do offline. This is particularly true in search – a key channel as the shopping season swings into action. So this week I’m going to look at three of the most important things you can do to get set for Q4 – there are plenty more, but space as ever is at a premium.

First, what happened last time? Smart search advertisers create separate campaigns for Christmas. This allows full control over seasonal inventory, facilitates independent measurement and creates a module that can easily be amended and re-used each year.

If your search team did this last year, you’ve got segregated performance data to go back to and see what worked and what didn’t, and this is the starting point for planning 2008. If they didn’t (and you still plan to be around next year), now’s the time to get this set up – you’ll thank yourself in 2009.

Analysis of historic data will help forecasting and ensure that the seasonal opportunity is maximised. Additional seasonal traffic, plus increased competition can push up CPC levels, so don’t miss out on sales by running out of budget.

This is easier said than done – after all competitor activity can drive up your volumes too, and to avoid being caught out you need to keep an ear to the ground.

So making sufficient funds available is vital to avoid disappearing from the search results just when there’s a spike in interest in your product or sector. But as ever, just being there isn’t enough.

Copy is always hugely influential on effectiveness, and at Christmas your advertising and product offering may be quite different to the rest of the year. This needs to be reflected in the integration of seasonal offers into ad creative messaging and the testing of different offers to maximise clickthrough and conversion. So test special offers, price reductions, free delivery and gift wrapping – but make sure your landing pages reiterate the offer.

This is one of the commonest mistakes. When you put a sign in the shop window saying ‘free giftwrap’, think how many consumers nevertheless ask whether you do free giftwrap before making a purchase. They don’t wait until after they’ve bought, instead they seek reassurance before they buy.

So by using the homepage to repeat the offer that’s brought them in, you’re offering the reassurance that the assistant gives in-store.

Finally, technology. Using an XML product feed as part of a search marketing platform allows stock availability to be used as a dynamic control in your search campaign. So when an item goes out of stock, keywords can be paused - minimising wasted clicks and ensuring budget is diverted to best sellers or available products.

Christmas is a time when spikes in demand can play havoc with inventory control, and the application of technologies like this can improve customers’ experience of a retailer, whilst also enhancing the effectiveness of its advertising budget.

I hope my kids get what they want this Christmas, and if they do, it’ll be in no small part down to their clear objectives, consistent strategy, and the groundwork they put in early on. They’re already halfway through their campaign - what chance do I stand?