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BACK TO BASICS: Back to Basics: Holiday PPC Campaign Planning

by Virginia Nussey, August 17, 2009

It's August and we'll soon be trading sun-kissed summer days for the sparkling holiday season. Gift giving and round-the-clock Frank Sinatra tunes are still off on the horizon, but there's no time left to put off holiday PPC campaign planning. In fact, as far as a holiday Internet marketing campaign is concerned, SEMs can take a tip from Santa. Start making that list, and checking it twice!

While the winter holidays themselves only last a few days, preparing and managing a seasonal SEM campaign takes much longer - as long as six months or more! A seasonal PPC campaign calendar might look something like this:

4 Months Out 3 Months Out 2 Months Out 1 Month Out Month of the Event Month After the Event
Set campaign goals; research your target market and competitors Optimize landing pages and on-site content Develop keyword lists; set campaign structure, bids and budget; begin advertising promotions Set up bids and budgets for the final-push campaign; monitor and manage live campaign Continue to manage the rush; prepare for post-event sales Analyze results; use findings to improve future campaigns

Read on for an in-depth exploration of the goals and tactics that can help guide an effective search engine marketing holiday-planning strategy.

Understand the State of the Market

Few have escaped the harsh realities of the troubled global economy. The recession has caused some understandings of shopping behavior to be thrown out the door. But by keeping up on the latest trends and reports, marketers can analyze and make decisions based on information both innovative and traditional.

Past trends tell us when shoppers traditionally begin the holiday shopping season. A quick search for "gifts" in Google Trends shows us that searches for the term typically start to rise during the first half of October. Armed with this timeframe, marketers know to launch targeted holiday campaigns at that time.

The Google Trends data also highlights the role of search in consumer shopping behavior. According to comScore's State of the U.S. Online Retail Economy in Q1 2009, 74 percent of consumers reported that they would likely shop online before making an offline purchase. From an understanding of the overall market, one can begin to understand the target market.

Study the Target Market

An easy trap e-commerce businesses can fall into is failing to identify their true target market or audience. In order to address the needs and expectations of consumers that are most interested in the product or service, marketers can research current customers. From that information, they can create several personas to represent the various customer types interested in their product or service.

It's a good idea to survey customers about their demographic information, online behaviors and consumer motivations. From that information, marketers can create personas by identifying common groups that best represent the customer base.

Each persona should paint a clear picture of that person's personal and professional role in life, where they live, how much time they spend online, where they go online, what deals or special offers they appreciate most, and what problem they want the product/service to fix. Special attention should be paid to how they phrase their own needs.

A marketer can then map out consumer paths and conversion funnels. What search queries are they using for their initial research? With these broad terms in mind, the marketer can guide their product or service into the early considerations of consumers. What long-tail terms are consumers using later down the conversion path? Knowing these terms helps to engage potential customers with a message that speaks to their fine-tuned, long-tail queries.

Study the Competition

Before one can enter the holiday search marketplace informed, a marketer must research competitors. Understanding the marketing strategies of those businesses competing for the same customers is helpful for several reasons. Initially, it can validate or void assumptions about the target market. If competitors' messaging is aimed at a substantially different persona type, it's useful to consider why that might be.

Furthermore, understanding competitor strategy is the first step to differentiating ad copy and the overall marketing message. By considering why a consumer might click on one ad instead of a competitor's, search engine marketers can develop unique selling propositions.

Define KPIs and Internal Goals

As bid costs rise sharply during the holidays, it's critical to have established goals and clear metrics of success before launching a PPC campaign for the holiday season (pdf). SEMs can find out from merchandising and finance departments what the high-margin products are and what products have high and low stock in the warehouse. They can talk to the marketing manager to learn what the top revenue-driving keywords have been in the past.

And of course, it's critical to determine and monitor the key performance indicators of the PPC campaign, including: the revenue per customer, the average order value per customer, the average profit per click, the cost per conversion, and the percent of converting keywords.

Create a Seasonal Campaign Strategy

From data comes wisdom. With an informed background in place and clearly defined goals and metrics in mind, an SEM can develop holiday-specific strategies and offers for the campaign.

According to the comScore report released in April, consumers consider the most important features of online shopping to be: incentives, site navigation and product reviews. Buying incentives like free shipping can help drive conversions. Coupons can be another incentive. The use of coupons is up across the board, year over year; plus, coupons offer the added benefit of conversion attribution by tracking the coupon code's point of origin.

Site navigation is an element that should be optimized on landing pages and throughout the site. In ad copy, special offers and user reviews stand out to an audience sifting through a number of offers.

Also consider what other channels will be directly integrated with the PPC campaign. Tying social media channels together with search advertising tactics and on-site optimization can have an enhanced effect on a holiday marketing campaign. For instance, Twitter can be used to publicize time-sensitive offers and drive potential customers to search and find out more.

Finally, one of the biggest differences between a seasonal PPC campaign and a general PPC campaign are the keywords being targeted. Developing a keyword list is a continuous process that involves ongoing research, selection, testing, analysis and refinement.

As the two-month mark draws near, it will be time to make sure landing pages are polished and ad copy is live. If advanced planning occurred, a marketer will ideally have had the opportunity to test beforehand.

Test Early and Adapt

The holiday sales season makes up a critical portion of the annual sales cycle. Because so much is riding on sales generated at the end of the year, all marketing campaigns must be fine-tuned and up-to-speed by the time October comes around.

It's advisable to use the months leading up to the holiday sales period to conduct planning, research, goal setting, and testing. Experienced search marketers typically recommend that a testing cycle last for 60 days and take up a single-digit percentage of the holiday PPC budget. By measuring performance early, a marketer may refine ad groups and replace poorly performing ad copy.


While no one's in a rush to put away the barbecue and cover up the swimming pool, the holidays are fast approaching. An uncertain sales environment will couple with relatively new online shopping behaviors, which means that marketers will have their work cut out for them this year. Be prepared for the coming season by developing a holiday PPC strategy, setting clear goals, researching and testing early, and creating stand-out incentives.

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