The holiday season is crazy for everyone, but it is BRUTAL for online retailers. Every year, online budgets get bigger and the stakes, and expected returns, get higher.
In 2018, I had just signed a new, large e-commerce client (we’ll call them Client A) and, as a mildly competitive person, I wanted to knock it out of the park over the holidays. So, I got to work, reviewed all the data I had, talked to key stakeholders, developed hypotheses and formulated a plan of attack.
The Best Black Friday in 4 years—79% increase from prior year
Over 2X prior year sales on Cyber Monday
In total, a 52% increase in website sales for the month of November (over prior year)
I’m not a genius and I loathe the word “guru” with a fiery passion. I AM a strong believer in sharing information. It took a lot of work, some stress (mostly positive? 😅) and a ton of trial and error to figure out what worked and iterate on it.
I’ve been a team of one, responsible for email, paid search, website updates, social, and everything else deemed “marketing” many times. I’ve learned that 1) the pareto principle is REAL and 2) you can’t do everything, so the earlier you find what works and automate it, the better. I hope the information in this guide helps you get there faster. Below, is what we’ll cover in this guide.
My Top 5 Takeaways in the Holiday E-commerce Marketing Guide
Build focused promotions based on sales data
Always be testing: Websites, LPs and CTAs
DIY digital assets when you’re in a cinch
Get focused with email: segmentation, testing & beyond
Start with the basics for Google ads (+ remarketing)
🤓BONUS: Easy, obvious wins that sometimes get missed
So, let’s get started!
1. Build focused promotions based on data
There are so many different options for promotions; BOGO, coupons, free shipping, free gift with purchase, event sales (like Memorial Day), membership specials, flash sales…the list goes on.
Often, businesses will look to their competitors, or the industry overall, to see what seems to be working and, then, try to replicate it. This can be a good benchmark, but when it comes to delivering on what your customers want, it can miss the mark. You need to look at your own data and see what is resonating. Start with what worked well last year. Why was it successful? Make a small modification to the prior campaign to test against last year’s baseline and keep iterating on it.
You’ll also want to take a hard look at your current situation to figure out where opportunities and challenges exist. Which slow moving products do you need to get rid of? Which high margin products are selling well, how can you do more of that? Which product categories bring people to your website and which are your best sellers?
Once you’re done with all of the above, you’re ready to fit it into your Holiday campaign planning. What I did for Client A is below.
What I did to be successful over Black Friday.
Pre-black Friday Promotion – 1 week prior. This promotion was for family and friends (we wanted them to spread the word for us). I paired some of our best-selling and high margin products at a slight discount—we wanted to prime people for our better sales that would be coming the following week, so we were top of mind when they did their shopping.
For: Family & friends (get people to create an account online)
Best-selling & high margin products at a slight discount (average 10-15%)
Channels: Email & website
Free shipping over X
Black Friday. We ran this for one day only and offered two different promotions, but the focus was mostly on Promo 1. (We did the same promotions on Cyber Weekend & Cyber Monday, just advertised differently)
Promo 1: Best-selling & high margin products at a discount
Promo 2: Slow movers and high inventory products at a steeper discount
Channels: email, social (organic & paid), paid search, website, EVERYTHING!
Free shipping on all orders. We dug into our average order data and shipping costs and determined this could be financially beneficial for us. It worked out, but it was a risk and, before taking such a risk, you need to fully understand what you’re doing and back your decision with your personal data. Don’t just do it because “everyone is doing it!” BONUS Tip: After the holidays we were successful with a 2-tier price point for free shipping. Everyone received free shipping once they hit X price point, but then if they went above and beyond to price point Y, they got a free gift as well. This helped Client A get the average order value up, without a large increase to costs, which translated to better profit margins at, essentially, the same work.
Cyber Weekend. We ran this on Saturday and Sunday between the major holidays. We offered the same special (as Black Friday) all weekend, but made entirely new assets, featured different products and had separate campaigns for everything.
Cyber Monday. This was the same as Cyber Weekend/Black Friday, just advertised differently.
Looking back on this, I would do a separate campaign for Small Business Saturday, and I would have extended Cyber Monday to Cyber week (running a full week after) to continue to see those sales come through after the holiday, but before shipping becomes a nightmare for retailers in December.
2. Always be testing: Websites, LPs, and CTAs
Let’s talk about website testing. Just like promotions, the possibilities are virtually endless. From landing pages to CTAs (call-to-actions) to pop-ups and down to small variations like button color and copywriting (Shop now v. Buy Now!); there are lots of options. The best way to learn what your customers want is to test, and then look at your data in Google Analytics or any other data analytics software you use.
Website usability & product grooming. Go through your site and see where people are dropping off/if there are opportunities for you to aid them. You’re also going to want to go through your best-selling products and product categories, as well as your most high traffic pages. Can you add information to the descriptions? Recommend complementary products? Add more images? Anything you can do now to improve these will help you over the holiday, when these pages likely get even more traffic.
Landing pages (LPs). You will want a landing page for each promotion that you make. This doesn’t have to be particularly fancy. You need a title at the page, a little copy telling visitors what the promotion is and how to contact you with questions, and then your products. If you’ve identified a target customer and can make a specific landing page for their unique needs, this could be another great opportunity for you to build it without menu accessibility and use it just for email and ad landing pages.
What I did to be successful over Black Friday, Cyber Monday & Beyond
Landing pages. I created a landing page for each separate promotion (Black Friday, Cyber Weekend & Cyber Monday). They were simple; just an ad/copy at the top that matched the CTA from other assets (email, ads, etc.), and then our products. I auto sorted the products with the most expensive items at the top. I made sure each of the products had a different assortment of products at the top so we had an opportunity to feature a variety of products, and also linked to some of our best-selling categories so it was easier for visitors (don’t make them work to find what they want!).
Banner ads. The client’s site had one main banner that ran on all product pages on the website. I made one, or more, ad for each promo we had to keep that CTA looking fresh. I kept it simple, and did some basic A/B testing with our offers (featuring “Free Shipping” over “X% off,” for example).
Product and category grooming. I looked in Google Analytics and the client’s sales history to figure out which products, and product categories were currently selling well and sold well in the prior year. From there I went through and groomed all of the pages to make sure we addressed frequently asked questions, had full photo assortments and had enough information on the page. For the category pages, I made sure our best sellers were right at the top of the page and added in links to other relevant pages to encourage more shopping. Considering most e-retailers see a large traffic spike in November and December these efforts were well worth it!
3. DIY digital assets when you’re in a cinch
Good creative and design is important, especially online. But not everyone can afford a graphic designer or has access to one in a time crunch. Enter Canva. As a one woman marketing team I’ve used Canva to create ads, social posts, blog images, and print collateral, and the possibilities are virtually endless. You can start with templates, or create from scratch with your own, use their fonts or upload your own—you get the picture. I’d recommend getting your fonts, brand colors and logos uploaded into Canva (Note: you may have to pay for this. There is a free version and a paid version, and I use the paid version).
I used Canva to make banners and ads for all of the assets—display/remarketing ads, email banners, and website banners. I would create the ad, and then just replicate it, resize it and adjust the fonts/graphics/CTAs for each new ad to make sure they fit the new dimensions and looked good.
🤓Tip: If making ads isn’t for you, you can also make responsive ads (more below). Old fashioned display ads (like what I proposed) are good for when you want control over every part of the ad and the testing process. Whether you make a responsive or traditional display ads there will be several main components you need in the ad itself.
Standard ad components.
Logo: First things first, your ads must be branded to you!
Headline: This is the first thing someone will read, so it needs to grab attention (ex: Black Friday Sales).
Offer 1: Now that you have their attention, explain why they should care (ex: X% off).
Offer 2 (optional, depending on ad size): Give them one more good reason to click your ad (ex: Free Shipping).
CTA Button: Visually explain, without words, that someone should click with a button—try out different colors that pop against the rest of your ad (ex: Shop now >).
Picture: A picture is worth 1000 words—so of course you want to fit all of those words into your tiny ad (.
What I did over the Holiday Season
I made a different ad style for each promotion, and in some cases, more than one ad to keep it fresh. I also created separate remarketing display ads (more on that later) so those visitors weren’t seeing the same ads they had already seen. The more targeted and focused you can be with your segmentation and ad copy, the more successful you will be.
Standard ad sizes
4. Get focused with email: segmentation, testing & beyond
With email, size isn’t everything. I’m going to say it again for the people in the back… your email list size doesn’t matter! Your engagement does. Look at the last campaign that you sent. Your deliverability rate should be over 97%. If it isn’t, it’s time to go through your email list and remove bounced and undeliverable contacts (and maybe even run a re-engagement campaign with inactive subscribers, but you can do that later). It might be painful to delete those contacts, but not only are they not getting your messages, they’re actually hurting your overall email deliverability, so if you keep sending emails to them, others who DO want your message might not get them in the future. So delete them!
Now look at your open and click through rates. In general, the average open rate is 15-25% and CTR should be 2.5% or higher. But you want to be better than average, right? The way to improve your open and click through is through list segmentation and better individual targeting.
List segmentation. If you’re like most companies, you have one email list that you send the same email to weekly, or even more often. No one likes to feel like just another one in 98,345 other people on your list, so you should break up the list into different segments. Demographic information, is the easiest to start with, since you likely have that information, but dig deeper. If you have good behavioral information (actions/behaviors groups of individuals have in common – like downloading an ebook off a website) and can use that to segment your list or launch automated series, it is often more successful than demographic segmentation because you know something about that visitor on a personal level, not just based on their age or gender.
Testing. By now, you know there are tons of things to test. Subject lines, send times & day of the week, from address/name, email copy, CTAs. You’re likely already doing some A/B testing (and if you’re not, you can easily due that in your existing system) but try adding that in conjunction with different list segmentation to get really targeted and better understand YOUR specific customers.
How I tripled email channel return over the Holidays
List segmentation. I didn’t have a lot of information, so I used combinations of the below to segment my emails and test which combinations worked the best.
Age. People in different stages of their lives may have different priorities and factors driving their purchasing decisions.
Location. Different parts of the country have different climates and, if you’re a clothing retailer, breaking up your list based on seasonal changes can help you get more targeted with your recommended products and promotions.
Holiday purchasers. People who made a holiday purchase last year may be more inclined to do so again.
Email engagement. People who engaged with us more often received some emails more regularly or before others received them.
Testing. Ahead of the holidays we did a lot of testing to figure out how often we should send emails and which days we should send them. I’m not going to share what we found because that customer base is likely different from your own. You’ll want to similarly test to find out what works best for you. If you’re a B2C ecommerce site you may find weekends and after work hours are best, or maybe if you’re targeting busy professionals you find you can catch them best on their lunch hour. Always be testing!
Welcome email. This client didn’t have a welcome email series, so we created one. This may not dramatically drive sales over the holidays, but it will help build your brand and, ideally, drive repeat customers.
5. Start with the basics for Google ads (+ remarketing)
With advertising, people tend to think that more is better: more impressions, more views, more keyword searches. But, as with most things, everything depends on what your goals are. If you are doing an awareness campaign, then yes, more [of the right] impressions are better. But if your goal is to drive sales (i.e. conversions), you likely need to get more focused with your ads to ensure the performance is there without crazy high ad costs. And, really, since online ad costs are always rising, you should focus your audiences even if awareness is your goal.
Again, the options are virtually endless so I’m going to start with the basics (and tweaking them to get the most out of it) for now. Once you have the below mastered, or you get a major budget increase you can expand into new areas.
Basic search campaign. These are just based on keywords. At the most basic level, when someone does a google search for anything, like “Fog machine,” you can bid to have your ad show up. There are different types of keyword matches, so, depending on how you build your campaign you could show up for only when someone types “Fog machine” or a close variant (exact match) to something as farfetched as “Halloween fog machine decoration” (broad match). For this reason, being focused and narrow with your campaigns is extremely important.
Remarketing. For e-commerce retailers I typically only use display ads when I’m building remarketing campaigns. The first step in remarketing for ecommerce is cart abandonment. I like to make several different audiences, usually based on pages viewed and last visit, so I can tailor and compare cart abandonment remarketing success. As I mentioned in the DIY asset section, you can either make traditional display ads with images or make responsive ads or do both.
Basic tips for Google Ads over the Holidays:
Brand campaign. This was focused on driving people searching for Client A’s branded keywords and driving them to the right page. Having a brand campaign in conjunction with solid SEO can help you have 2 options for people to click right at the top of the page (increasing the likelihood they will visit your page) but they can be more beneficial if 1) you’re not ranking well or 2) people have a hard time getting to the right page and you can direct them with ads.
High margin/Best-seller campaign. Once you know which products you want to sell more of, a targeted ad campaign can help you get in front of new, like-minded shoppers at a low cost. In general, I’d recommend you keep a narrow focus and do some keyword research to make sure you understand the traffic you get with the money you spend.
Remarketing campaign. For this, we had several different audiences based on pages viewed and days since last visit and built display, text and responsive ads to run in conjunction.
🤓 Pro Tips:
Ideally you want very few, focused keywords in each campaign. You should not have multiple broad match keywords in a campaign. And, in general, if you have any broad match keywords you need to be monitoring them heavily and adding negative keywords based on the actual search terms to make sure your spend and corresponding traffic is appropriate.
A/B testing for ads – you should always have at least 2 Ads running and continue to iterate and improve your ad copy!
Make different audiences so down the road you can get more out of your data
OFTEN MISSED – don’t make these mistakes!
Make sure your Google Ads & Analytics accounts are linked and sending data back and forth.
Block your IP address – you don’t want to skew your data or, even worse, pay for clicks from your own staff.
Location targeting – If you only sell in the United States, make sure your ads are only showing to people in the US. You don’t want to pay to get customers who can’t buy from you!
Keyword match – Google has been making changes, and “same-meaning close variants” could show up in your account. It’s worth reiterating, you want to be very focused and regularly checking your account to make sure you’re getting the right traffic.
🤓 BONUS: Easy, obvious wins that sometimes get missed
It’s easy to miss small details, but those small details can make a big difference, particularly when you are, hopefully, getting in front of tons of new customers over the Holidays. Don’t overlook the below!
Manage your inventory. You don’t want to be out of stock of items! But if you are, make sure you can provide an alternative product or allow someone to place an order on backorder (if possible).
Communicate with your customers. The holidays are a busy time period, so make sure you’re sending clear thank you emails to customers after they make a purchase. If there is going to be a delay on a shipment, make sure you communicate early and often on the status.
WOW You made it!
I’ve got to say, I’m impressed. This was one LONG document. I hope you found this information valuable and are able to take action, iterate and improve on some of my key learnings last year. I’d love to hear your tips, questions or just general thoughts, so don’t hesitate to reach out!