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Planning Your Holiday SEM Campaign

By: Nick Guastella, Bruce Clay, Inc., July 2006

For many e-commerce sites, and especially for online retailers, the year-end holiday season is the most critical six-to-eight-week selling period of the entire year.

Each year, planning your holiday search engine marketing (SEM) campaign becomes more competitive and increasingly challenging as marketers realize the effectiveness of online advertising. The two most successful online advertising strategies are SEM and display ads. Marketers gain an advantage when they conduct both SEM and banner ad campaigns concurrently.

Display Ads plus Search Ads Yield More Conversions

Atlas Institute reports that displaying banner ads alongside your SEM listings will improve your campaign results. The study tracked 1.8 million users who were exposed to SEM ads and display ads from eleven advertisers. Of the eleven campaigns, eight saw a 20 to 65 percent lift due to the combination of search and display ads. The average lift in conversions for all eleven campaigns was 22 percent.

Rise in Keyword Prices

Come autumn, keyword prices will begin to rise. Historically, prices start increasing slightly in September, with the crest of the curve coming about the second week of December. By late October or early November, many marketers begin to realize how important holiday sales are and will start frantically buying keywords through Google AdWords, Yahoo Search Marketing and Microsoft AdCenter, as well as many of the second tier pay-per-click (PPC) search engines.

One of the reasons for the sudden rise in keyword pricing is that smaller companies that do not advertise regularly throughout the year concentrate the bulk of their ad budget on the winter holiday season. These marketers typically do not test their ads or analyze results. They simply hope for the best by throwing money at PPC advertising, believing that it is an easy way to get instant sales. Never mind that they may not get the best ROI.

Savvy marketers know better--creating and following an orderly SEM plan is the only way to get a good return on your ad spend.

Plan Early

Smart marketers start thinking about holiday marketing plans in August. It is easy to put this off because you know it's still early, but you don't want to wait too long. When you don't plan in advance, you can end up spending too much for traffic that doesn't convert well. Thorough, advance planning will give you a well-tested campaign that will generate maximum profits during those six to eight weeks when it matters the most.

Create a Holiday Schedule

Starting in August, create a holiday schedule that fits in with your day-to-day operations. Guidelines are suggested below.


Define your goals and establish the metrics for success. This process is crucial for any marketing campaign and especially for a seasonal SEM campaign.

Conduct research to identify the terms that will deliver prospects motivated to convert. Then, set up your analytics tracking to show results down to the keyword level. Start testing the first round in August; that's when the early birds begin searching for the perfect gift. You can use this preliminary data to start fine-tuning as the pre-holiday season gets underway.


Continue implementing campaigns, testing and conducting research with a focus on your brand. Try different keyword groups, develop a bidding strategy and produce different ad creatives and landing pages. Begin identifying the most profitable keywords, ads, ad groups and landing pages with your analytics program.

Your research will center on the quality and quantity of keywords for your entire product line. Retailers should ensure their entire catalog is posted online, as people will search for everything you sell during the holiday season.

Develop and leverage your brand terms. Use seasonal messages with your brand, knowing that people typically search by brand just before they buy.

Develop bidding strategies that line up with your budget goals. Determine your positioning goals, performance targets and audience segmenting strategy.


Now you can expand to multiple paid search options. Add shopping comparison engines and third-tier search engines to your campaign. Explore contextual advertising with Google AdSense and Yahoo Publisher Network to expand your reach. Closely monitor and test your bidding strategies.

Implement and test these campaigns for keywords, creatives and messages the same way you did earlier for campaigns on major search engines. Continue to adjust your bidding strategies to coincide with your predefined goals.


Your campaigns will already be paying off before competitors start their frenzy of bidding without prior planning. It takes careful monitoring of your bid targets and strategies to ensure you stay within your CPA (cost per action) thresholds.

Continue monitoring all aspects of your campaign(s). Review metrics to ensure plans are working. Refine your campaign by deleting keywords and creatives that aren't working. Set up keyword categories based on what's working, what should be changed and what should be deleted.


Keyword pricing will crest in about two weeks. Your SEM campaign should be running full speed ahead. Now is the time to emphasize free shipping or overnight delivery. As always, continue refining and monitoring your campaign to meet predetermined goals, deleting keywords and creatives as needed to maximize results.

This is also the time to develop your post-holiday campaigns. Research keywords and prepare keyword groups. Create your sale ads, offering bargains on items that will likely still be in inventory.


Post-holiday sales mark the tip end of your holiday season campaigns. Every year, many shoppers have holiday money to spend and are looking for after-Christmas sales. You have already shifted from pre-holiday promotions to holiday ads, now you're ready for the post-holiday sales. Shoppers are looking for specials. Change your message and make bargain offers.

In-House or Outsource

You can be prepared for the 2006 holiday season by following a schedule similar to the one outlined above. Better still, you can hire an SEM agency to do it all for you; it takes a major chunk of time to accomplish the tasks described above and with this strategy; you're going to be too busy making your customers happy.