3 Experts Share Their Secrets For PPC Success During The Holidays


What better topic to cover on the first day of Q4 than how to get the most from online marketing during the holiday season?

At SMX East last week, three panelists each shared their own tips for success, and all shared similar stats that reinforce the importance of being ready early:

  • 25 percent of holiday shoppers started buying in October.
  • 48 percent had completed most shopping by Cyber Monday last year.

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Sophie Newton, BrainLabs

Sophie Newton, BrainLabs’ head of innovation, was up first and covered four things you should watch closely when the holiday sales start: budgets, hourly tracking, URL checking and messaging.

Not surprisingly, BrainLabs has AdWords Scripts to help them with all of these. Being a founder of Optmyzr, where one of our core products is Enhanced Scripts, I’m happy to hear how a successful agency is using these to be more effective during one of the busiest times of the year, when things can change dramatically from one day to the next.

If you need help with scripts, be sure to read Daniel Gilbert’s posts on this site, where he frequently shares code that you can copy and paste into your own account.


According to IBM, online sales on Black Friday peak in the morning, whereas they peak in the evening on Cyber Monday. This means you need to be on top of your budgets so that you don’t underspend on these days.

If you’re relying on a typical budget delivery curve, spiky days like these can really mess with your results. For example, on Black Friday, your budget might be constrained in the morning, when most activity happens, causing you to miss potential sales.

The remaining budget that was saved for the afternoon may be more than Google can spend when traffic dies down, leaving you with extra budget on one of the biggest days of the year.

Also think about building additional campaigns that are granularly targeted to a specific segment that presents a large opportunity. This micro-budget strategy can help capitalize on the growing slice of traffic going to mobile devices, coming on big days or being generated by a breakout popular product.

The stat that supports this argument is that 53 percent of online traffic in 2014 was on smartphones and tablets vs. 41 percent in 2013, and 28 percent of sales came on these mobile devices last Black Friday.

Sophie also shared the example of a breakout toy that is selling record numbers and hence should probably have its own budget to guarantee maximum sales while not detracting from other product lines.

She shared examples of budget prediction scripts so that you can model whether you’re on pace to deliver the expected amount at any time during the day. You can use the Google Prediction API to refine the model once the data starts coming in, and then you can use this to further refine the model.


Hourly Tracking

BrainLabs says that AdWords data is updated in the API every two minutes, with a data delay of 20 minutes, much better than the three to four hours mentioned in the service level agreements on the AdWords site.

While we at Optmyzr somewhat disagree with the methodology used to come to this conclusion, we do agree that there is a lot of value in monitoring data hourly, especially on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Sophie showed an AdWords Script that helps collect this data, and of course, there’s Google’s own Anomaly Detection Script that will check stats every hour and email you a warning if they deviate from the expected values.

Check URLs

Another great automation is to use an AdWords Script to check that URLs are leading to existing pages on the site and pause them automatically when they don’t.

Taking this one step further, they check for out-of-stock messages and even for search results pages where there are fewer than four matching products, because they found that users are 64 percent more likely to bounce on pages with just one or two results, and conversion rates go up 12 percent for pages with at least four products.

She also recommended building a big red button to pause an entire account if the site goes down. With huge daily budgets on Black Friday, it’s easy to waste thousands of dollars if it takes too long to pause ads for a broken site.

Of course, there also needs to be a button to re-activate everything just as quickly. This isn’t as simple as pausing everything and then unpausing everything, because that would also unpause things that were paused for other reasons; that’s why it’s good to have a script or tool ready to handle this.


BrainLabs found that CTR increased 33 percent, and conversion rate increased 18 percent, when combining ad parameters with countdown ads.

The parameters {param1} and {param2} can only be updated with a script or the API, but now there are new alternatives with ad customizers. It’s preferable to update ads using these methods because performance data is preserved, since the ad remains active, whereas making the same change by updating the text would create a new ad.

She shared some examples of using automation to make sure time-limited ads for promotions are turned off as soon as the sale ends.

Emily Kirk, Delivery Agent

Next up was Emily Kirk, online marketing manager at Delivery Agent. The core of her presentation focused on winning by targeting the right person with the right message at the right time and at the right price.

She nearly admits to being a shopaholic by sharing plenty of her purchase history with the audience. Emily, I’ve added you to our remarketing lists!

She predicted that Black Friday will now become Black November, with people shopping for the holidays sooner than ever. She offered the examples of Amazon Prime Day and Best Buy’s Cyber Monday in July. The downside of this is that some of the CPCs they see are at holiday levels by summer.

1. Right Person

Targeting the right person is largely about making effective use of remarketing lists. For example, use RLSA to bid differently for shoppers vs. cart abandoners.

It’s even possible to share remarketing audiences across brands when you control them all, like Gap, which owns Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Even when you don’t own multiple brands, there may be ways to make gentleman’s agreements to leverage someone else’s data.

Emily likes using Google Analytics to create combination lists with signals like frequency, visit duration, number of pages visited, purchase amounts, referring channel and recency.

She also likes to target self-gifters, since apparently, last year 30 percent of purchases over the holidays were self-gifts, and 77 percent of people bought gifts for themselves.

2. Right Message

Once you’ve targeted the right person, make sure the ad text compels them to click. They saw an 113 percent lift in CTR with an ad for the BB-8 Star Wars toy that used the phrase “The Force Is Strong with This One,” rather than a phrase that talked about features.


While it may seem like an overused phrase, it still makes sense to remind users you offer free shipping, because according to ComScore, this is the most important factor for users.


Finally, a lot of searches happen on mobile, so avoid the dreaded ellipses that cut off your ad in the wrong place, and make sure you evaluate what your ads will look like on mobile devices.

3. Right Time

When it comes to showing the ads at the right time, Emily says to remember it’ll be a Black November, so start showing holiday shopping ads early. Also, make sure your audience lists are set to go far enough back in time to capture the early browsers, so that you can retarget them as the deadlines for holiday shopping come nearer or when you’re running a better sale.

4. Right Cost

Holiday CPCs are expensive, so use tools to find lower-cost opportunities. For example, use RLSA to be able to target broader keywords that might otherwise be too expensive.

When you’re bidding just for the audience you know is more likely to convert, like repeat buyers, you can afford to set higher bids while still delivering the target ROAS.

There are four tools you should use to help get the right cost.

  • First, the Search Query Report (SQR) helps you leverage broad and modified broad keywords. You should add queries that have conversions so you can dial in the right bid for these. Also, find queries with high spend and no conversions, and add these as negative keywords. Finally, aggregate the data to spot new trends early on and identify words that are rising in popularity and maybe should be added as negatives to your campaigns.
  • Second, use Google Trends to find top related and rising queries. It now has data from as recently as one hour ago, and this can be very useful on high-traffic days, like some days during the holidays.
  • Third, use the Bid Simulator to evaluate if a small change in bid could have a big impact on volume. Just be careful, because the tool uses a seven-day window for the data, and it may not be accurate for exceptional days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
  • Fourth, use Auction Insights to identify competitors to guide your bidding strategy. Now this tool allows segmenting the data by device and time, giving even deeper insights into what your competition is doing.

Sean Popen, Office Depot

Last up was Sean Popen, senior director of e-commerce at Office Depot. He shared a slide that shows the biggest online and offline shopping days for Office Depot.

It looks like Tuesdays and Wednesdays in December are big in-store shopping days, whereas Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays tend to be big online shopping days.


For Office Depot, the holidays are a marathon, not a sprint, with 29 percent of holiday shopping done before Halloween. Some other interesting stats he shares:

  • Retailers doubled investment in PLAs since last year.
  • Mobile is 52 percent of traffic on Black Friday.
  • 49 percent of shoppers shop a new merchant during the holidays.
  • Cyber Monday was the biggest day in US online shopping in history last year.

Sean often likes to go after the category keywords rather than more specific product keywords because there is more volume, but he says that holiday CPCs have gotten so expensive on keywords like “laptops” that they are now focusing more on pre-holiday clicks that are cheaper and have a better ROI.

When they run Shopping Ads, including a price drop in the feed draws more attention from price-sensitive consumers. They’re also experimenting with the new buy buttons available on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google.

When running online ads, remember that digital influences offline sales, so take advantage of new formats like Local Inventory Ads, a variation of Shopping Ads. Sears saw 30 percent more clicks when they ran these ads, and Sprint saw five in-store transactions for every online transaction.


For me, the biggest takeaway was that holiday shopping starts very early — long before the two hyped shopping days of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

This means that advertisers should take advantage of early shoppers as much as they can before the CPCs start to rise closer to the days the media hypes up.

Because things change more rapidly during the holidays, it’s harder to rely on what you know from the rest of the year to make the right decisions; success during the holidays is mostly a factor of having the right tools that help advertisers monitor things quickly and respond to new trends in near real-time.

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