Preparing for Peak: Actionable Paid Search, Shopping & Social Optimisations to Drive More Holiday Sales

6 November, 2020


Josh Duggan

Josh Duggan

Working in paid media for over 8 years. Specialises in Google Shopping and paid social. Spoken at various eCommerce events around the world about paid media and Google Shopping.

The peak shopping period leading up to christmas provides significant revenue opportunities for all retailers. In this guide Josh demonstrates actionable tips to optimise campaigns in order for retailers to reach target consumers amongst the heavy competition.

In this guide, we’ve tried to provide super actionable tips for getting the most out of the pre-Christmas peak, including BFCM - relevant to brands and retailers of all sizes. Topics covered include optimising around inventory, remarketing to previous sale customers, building out effective segments for prospecting, optimising data feeds and shopping activity and maximising search performance etc. Because we’re writing this guide for Klaviyo, we’ve also honed in on some of the paid media <> CRM tactics we use to get the most out of client budgets.

The peak season provides a significant revenue opportunity for almost all retailers - according to Google, traffic typically starts increasing in early September and peaks late November, aligning with Black Friday before returning to normal in January. The holiday season, however, not only drives a higher level of traffic and revenue but also incurs higher advertising costs due to increased competition. 

So how should advertisers prepare for peak? And how can advertisers stand out from other brands and retailers targeting the same consumers? Here we discuss 4 key areas, focused on how you can optimise your paid activity to be more efficient and targeted to ultimately drive more holiday sales.

Search and Shopping optimisations to help capitalise on increased search demand 

Prepare your accounts by answering a number of the following questions.

  • How will search behaviour change? What search terms will users be searching for and how do we need to adapt search keywords and product feed data. 

  • Do we have visibility of stock? How can we adapt activity based on the availability of key items, size variants, colour variants etc?

  • Are we running promotions and how are they being managed in the ecom platform (e.g. promo code, sale price etc)? How are we promoting these (merchant centre promotions, search ad copy etc), are the offers competitive? 

  • How are we marketing the promotion on-site? Is the messaging strong enough? Do we want to try and serve different content to paid advertising channels to enhance messaging?

  • Do certain product SKUs sell better over these periods? 

  • Do we have CRM data for customers who purchased during peak or key sale periods previously? 

  • Are consumers going to be more price-sensitive?

  • How does Black Friday perform Vs Pre-Christmas and Post-Christmas?   

Answering these questions will allow you to pre-empt the requirements of your shopping and search campaigns. You can pull data from your analytics platform, BI platform and Google Ads campaigns to understand the patterns which occurred in the previous year. You can use this data to build out the structure of your campaigns. For example, if you are The Body Shop, you may have a selection of Product SKUs which you will be pushing across Black Friday, whilst keeping a heavy focus on promoting Gift Sets and Advent Calendars for the holiday period. What were the best sellers in 2019? Are there new products this year you will be promoting?

Applying these learnings alongside best practises to your search and shopping campaigns allow you to effectively take advantage of the increase in search demand. Here are some effective strategies, we recommend rolling out and testing over peak.

Segment your campaigns by brand (for resellers) or product category 

This applies to both search and shopping allowing greater control of bids and budget management. For shopping campaigns, having separate ad groups by sub-categories via product data and then ID allows for much greater control. You want to make sure your top traffic SKUs and SKUs you expect to perform well are broken into their own product groups. This allows you to apply a specific bid for this product based on performance (rather than a grouped bid for a collection of products which perform differently). Another benefit of splitting by product IDs, is if a product is almost out of stock, you can either bid lower or exclude altogether (if you expect it to be sold organically). With a clear segmentation, you can also use cross-match negatives; it might be that you add sale as a negative to SKUs which are not on sale and even more specifically ensuring the right SKUs serve to the most relevant queries. A good example here would be negativing the phrase ‘running’ from your Adidas Stan Smith ad group and not from your Adidas Ultraboost ad group. 

Brand Vs Generics

Another level would be taking your high volume shopping campaigns and separating these by brand and generic queries. The campaigns themselves will be a duplicate of one another, however, your generics will include the brand terms as phrase match negatives, and your brand campaign will need to hold a list of all generic exact match terms (to be continuously updated either manually or by a script). Using Adidas as an example again, your generic keyword would have the Adidas branded terms as phrase match negatives e.g. ‘adidas’, ‘ultraboost’, ‘stan smith’ etc. Your branded campaign would exclude all generic searches which have triggered your ads to show historically (you can also get more from KW planner) e.g. ‘trainers’, ‘running shoes’, ‘white sneakers’ etc. 

We have a script which automatically updates the generic negatives into your branded campaign to help automate this process. For the campaigns themselves, you will then have a higher bid for brand Vs generics and be able to optimise these separately over time. You will need to set your brand campaign priority as low, your non-brand campaign to medium and your brand campaign should also have a higher bid than your generics. 

The idea is Google will initially prioritise the non-brand (higher priority) campaign first, but if the search term includes the brand term which is of higher value to you, it will then switch to serving ads from the low priority campaign which has the higher bid. More than likely - conversion rate and user intent will be much higher when a user searches for the brand and you would want to increase your bids here. You can also reduce spend on generics and bid higher only on past visitors for example. If you want to control spends, this is an effective way to reduce spend on the more generic queries and only serve if a user meets certain criteria e.g. visited the site before, shopping during peak hours, using a specific device or lives in a certain group of postcodes. 

Ad Messaging 

Messaging across your search campaigns should reflect ‘Black Friday’ or ‘Gifting’ in the copy. You can also apply countdown messaging where applicable for Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale periods. Emphasise delivery dates for gifts when users may be purchasing last-minute presents. For more advanced advertisers you can also pull in the product price into ad copy via ad customisers. You can create business data based on your product feed (updating every four hours) and this will allow you to serve live and up to date prices if these will be changing. 

Ad extensions

Ad extensions can be utilised to message price drops or shopping ideas. For example, a user may search for ‘gifts for women’, and the sitelinks may be tailored to this campaign and message ‘gifts under £15’, ‘gifts for teenagers’, ‘Fragrance gifts’ etc. This will encourage click through to site and convert.

A/B testing to understand the best user LP

You should test your homepage vs sale page on branded terms. We often use branded keywords to build significant test results around which page works best for conversions. Over BFCM, retailers will often update their HP to include sale messaging and also have a page dedicated to sale items and messaging. You will want to identify which page converts stronger to adjust other paid activity over the weekend. 

Have separate campaigns for promotional and gift SKUs

This will allow you to better manage budgets and understand performance between different categories. For the best products on sale, you will want to add these into specific campaigns in shopping using the high priority settings to ensure these serve most often.

Optimising your product data and shopping feeds for peak

Technology and custom labels

Across your shopping campaigns, you can use custom labels in your product feed to subdivide products based on variables i.e. best sellers, sales items etc. You can then use these labels for monitoring, reporting, and bidding. We use a feed solution which automatically populates top sellers (with higher than average ROIs) with a custom label. We then have a high priority campaign which targets all SKUs with that custom label. Top sellers are then pushed in the campaign with this higher bid and then if the ROI drops the label is removed and the SKU begins serving in its original campaign. This is a great tactic to ensure best-sellers are serving aggressively over the weekend, whilst also ensuring they are pulled back if efficiency drops. 

Monitoring site best sellers vs shopping traffic 

Similarly, we use our Google analytics and / or Shopify API to automatically monitor SKU coverage on top sellers. If top sellers on-site are driving only minimal traffic via shopping - we will get an alert to review. We can then ensure best sellers on site have good coverage across Google. 

Managing Sale product SKUs and stock - Taking custom labels one step further, you can use these labels to identify black Friday sale product SKUs, Christmas product SKUs and have separate campaigns to manage these products. This will allow you to up-weight budgets and bids accordingly. You can also use alerts to flag stock i.e. pull back if stock volume is low and inform if new products need to be pushed. 

We use more specific logic also; for one retailer we pulled Shopify data to understand sizing behaviour. 80% of purchases were made in sizes XS, S and M. We often found that when these sizes sold out, the larger sizes would still serve for specific queries. Users would not see the size in the title (where this can truncate) and when users would land on the site they would quickly bounce since the most popular sizes are OOS. We, therefore, built logic to send us alerts when the most popular sizes were out of stock and the M, L and XL within the same product group ID began spending too much. 

This is one specific example of what is possible, but the importance of stock is considerable and you want to make sure you understand how this impacts your business and how you can capitalise on it. 

Optimise your feeds

By adding extra detail into the description or prepending ‘Black Friday’, ‘Cyber Monday’ or ‘Christmas gifts’ in the titles will help you rank for these queries. This is quite an advanced tactic; but if you are splitting your shopping campaigns for brand and generic search terms, you can also look to optimise your product data separately towards each type of search. Creating a duplicate product in the feed with a different ID (e.g. append with _generic), you can load generic search terms nearer the front of the title and descriptions to allow you to appear more strongly for generic terms, without having a negative impact on your brand presence. We previously wrote this pretty comprehensive guide for shopping feeds and optimising product data here

Price Drop messaging 

This can be used in your feed title e.g. 15% Off - Title, you can use promotion extensions for shopping or you can use the price drop attribute in the feed which shows the strikethrough in the SERP. 

Reviewing your reliance on automation over peak

The industry is moving more and more towards automation. However, there are still a few drawbacks with automation (especially over peak) which are worth considering. 

The main considerations are stock, price changes, margin, competition, and budgets. The benefits of automation are endless and include time savings, better performance, eliminating wasted spend and ultimately driving a higher ROI. However, neither Facebook nor Google offer strong automation and tactics to understand the products going on sale and predicting how performance will change based on the level of price drops. One basic example is the extent to which products are on promotion. 

It is likely that performance will differ based on the level of promotion. For products with the largest price drops or promotion relative to the market, it is important to make sure these are prioritised (which will unlikely be the case if solely relying on automation). Here are some key tips to help with this:

  • If you are using smart shopping, add all sale SKUs to a BFCM campaign to ensure these are monitored and managed separately. You may also want to set a less aggressive bidding goal to give the products a push. My colleague Bethan wrote this more detailed piece on the pros and cons of smart shopping, that’s also worth reading on this topic.

  • Use manual bid overrides on 3rd party platforms

  • Test high priority manual campaigns with much more control over bids, audience bids, priority settings and search terms. 

  • For dynamic product ads (dynamic remarketing on Facebook) you should create a new product set (group of SKUs within your catalogue) for the products on sale. You can then increase the budget on products which users have viewed which are now on promotion. You can also tailor the ad messaging knowing that all SKUs within the carousel will be on sale. You might also want to build out more specific product sets in general; you should segment products by at least gender to ensure users do not see products sold to the opposite sex. With bigger catalogues you may also want to build product sets based on brands, price or product category.  

Serving sequential messaging through Paid Social to new and returning customers over peak

The below section looks at a number of tactics to serve more relevant and engaging content to consumers. 

Paid social opens up many opportunities which search does not. Search is reliant on user intent, whereas paid social gives retailers the opportunity to push their messaging to users before they are in the purchase phase. Search is a great channel for picking up the intent, whilst social gives you the opportunity to reach consumers with interesting, compelling ads when they may not yet be in the mindset to be searching. If users are familiar with the brand, this could give you the advantage of securing a user purchase before they search in what will likely be a crowded search results page.

For new and returning users you can serve sequential messaging. A few weeks prior to Black Friday or Cyber Monday you will want to start promoting your brand message, whether this is through video or link click campaigns, you can start building familiarity, not to mention remarketing pools. You may want to serve interesting content for consumers to read and engage with, which can help position yourself as an authority in the space. If for example, you are a sports reseller, consider advertising content on the best running shoes and introductory guides to yoga and running 5k etc. Users then engage with the brand in a positive way, where you can remarket to these users with acquisition led messaging during those key sales periods.

You may also want to reach out to past customers before sale / peak to introduce or reinforce your brand and values. Many advertisers will be competing for your past customer’s interest over peak and it is important to communicate with existing customers before they are hit with lot’s of promotions and sell messaging. You want to reinforce the brand and why they purchased with you the first time e.g. premium quality, sustainable, ethical, wide selection, loyalty etc. Advertisers will be competing for your customer’s attention over peak and it is fundamental you remind them of your brand and get them engaged before the peak periods. 

For new customers, it is a similar story. You may want to rely solely on sale, price reduction and acquisition led messaging over peak which makes sense if you are a retailer simply looking to acquire new customers during sale. However, there will be many retailers who are looking to drive customer lifetime value and consumers who will purchase outside of sale too. For these customers, it is fundamental you introduce the brand before your sale and acquisition led messaging. You will want to consider your ad formats here and ensure you are serving video, lifestyle and campaign imagery rather than just product shots. You will also want to run higher impact formats which drive more engagement e.g. collection ads, Insta stories and instant experience ads. We previously wrote this article on Paid Social Strategy and Structuring Campaigns which gives more insight into how to target consumers separately and build out effective campaign structures. 

Utilising CRM lists i.e. past customer data, you can target users who have purchased over the last year or those who purchased in the last Christmas and BFCM periods. This will enable you to target users who are more likely to purchase, you can also use these audiences as a source for look-a-like audiences i.e. you can find more users who share similar interests to those who have converted previously. Below is an example of segments built in Klaviyo which can be used to improve your targeting and relevancy through paid social. 


Klaviyo segments


Most importantly, consider your messaging. You will need to adapt your messaging between branded and acquisition focused ads. An effective way to manage this split is by building out a sequential messaging flow. This can be built out by two methods; building audiences for how they have interacted with ads and building audiences based on how they visited the site (via the UTM string). In the first approach; you can build audiences based on the ads they have previously been served. Please note, this only works for lead gen ads, collection ads and instant experiences which may restrict your approach. If you do however want to run sequential messaging and serve stronger branded and engagement led ads before next serving the more acquisition, call to action, price-led messaging next, this is a great method (as it does not rely on the user clicking through to site for the URL targeting). To run the sequential messaging this way, simply serve your target audience with one of the aforementioned ad formats and then build out remarketing pools based on the users who saw / engaged with these ads. The next option is to simply build audiences based on the UTM within the URL. Here you can build sequential messaging based on the campaign name within the UTM i.e. building an audience for URL contains campaign_PreSaleEngagement. In addition to the branding led messaging in the first phase followed by sale led messaging, another example of sequential messaging may be to build demand and interest, promoting the sale and promotion start date, before remarketing to these users on the day of launch to remind them to visit and shop. 


Final Thoughts and Concluding Recommendations

Plan ahead. Look at historical trends and broader industry insights to understand how demand and competition will change over peak periods.  Consider what product SKUs you will be promoting to which audiences over these periods. How does this differ between Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Christmas? How much budget is needed? 

Use Past data to inform strategies. Data is key. Whilst we can take learnings from industry publications and Google trends, every business is different. Data from your own holiday period will be able to provide you with much more insight. You also want to look at which products performed well last year, how the level of promotion impacts performance and also how you can leverage CRM data in your marketing. 

Apply best practises – Once you know what products you will be promoting and when, ensure your campaigns reflect that plan whilst applying best practices. This includes campaign structure, messaging, and automation. These best practices will give you the best opportunity to maximise the higher search demand whilst achieving a strong ROI.

Messaging is key –  Messaging will differ depending on the holiday/ sale i.e. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, pre-Christmas, and post-Christmas. Which messaging is most likely to encourage click-through to site and conversion? How does user behaviour change over those periods? 


Josh Duggan - Co-Founder, Vervaunt

Josh Duggan is the Co-Founder of Vervaunt, a London-based eCommerce consultancy and paid media agency. Josh has been working in the paid media space for around 10 years and overlooks Vervaunt’s search, shopping and social offerings. Vervaunt work with a range of premium brands and well-known retailers, such as MUJI, LUSH, Self-Portrait, Lulu Guinness, Joseph Joseph, Antler, O’Neills, PMT Music and lots more.