Why “Christmas in July” is just the beginning of holiday optimization

Once upon a time eCommerce sites went into “lockdown” mode in September or early October and nothing fundamental changed until after the holidays. Indeed a survey by Internet Retailer magazine showed just 35% of merchants last year made changes frequently in response to consumer behavior/trends. But as “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” nearly half reported that when rare changes were made they were required to address a major issue.

In preparing for holiday this year, brands will be forced to be more responsive and dynamic to meet expanding consumer expectations for granular personalization and marketing brought on by big data, as well as for flawless, fast performance and uptime.

The concept of agile computing, a term once reserved for software development teams, now finds itself an essential piece for planning holiday. Merchants must adopt an environment of continuous improvement and encourage rapid and flexible response to change.

Not there yet? Here are some ways to appear agile without endangering basic functionality:

Feature user-driven content as a source of up to the minute info and ideas for promotions. To build synergy between its website and social media buzz Helzberg Diamonds promoted a Twitter hashtag on its homepage and featured a gallery of customer images.

helzberg-hashtag-2014-holidaySuch user-generated content is always changing, is often on the forefront of cultural trends and memes and can provide an endless supply of value-added bling to your web site. It can also help you triangulate your store’s commerce site with the brand’s social media properties providing the heat necessary for better SEO.

Build campaigns around top sellers and trending items. Use the data about most-desired items collected by user-generated content and shared wishlists to build campaigns around top sellers and trending items. Or better yet, beyond static categories or hand-merchandised gift lists, seek out advanced technology partners.

Gone are the days when integrating advanced web features required a team of dedicated internal development staff. Merchants should be on the look out for platforms and plug-ins that can automate the parsing of the myriad data into usable and dynamic marketing tools. Employ on-the-fly generation of new site pages based on your site’s popular search terms. Bloomreach’s tool parses popular search terms and dynamically generates new site content organizing pages around what customers are actually actively looking for.

Get grassroots feedback from store staff throughout season, adjust content and customer service offerings accordingly. Close the information gap. Forge pathways for store personnel and customer service staff to communicate with business, merchandising and technical teams about what they are hearing in the field. Big data notwithstanding, no one has a better pulse on what customers are experiencing in their brand interactions than the humans you have hired to guide them through the buying process. Find a way to collect and act on their recommendations.

Conversely, provide front-line staff with the all the necessary tools and training to navigate online resources and guide shoppers to purchase. Be sure to empower associates to acknowledge and reward loyal customers, facilitate smooth returns, or ameliorate bumpy customer experiences with coupons and discounts.

You don’t want social media to become the de facto disgruntled customer service forum. Don’t let yours be the brand that requires multiple emails, phone calls and a social media post to extract customer satisfaction. Note the customer frustration in the posts on Pottery Barn’s Facebook page below.

Pottery Barn Facebook Customer ServiceWhen it comes to customer service, get your yoga on. Small to medium-sized merchants have an advantage here. Think contortion.

Its easier to balance on solid ground. Evaluate the role your technical partnerships played in 2014. Take a hard look and ask these questions. Is your cloud or Web hosting and e-commerce platform provider reliable? Do they have the expertise — including mobile? Are they responsive?  Can they handle the traffic? Are they agile enough to react to customer feedback or are they resource-strapped from fall onward? Now is the time to make necessary adjustments to your team.

Can you handle mobile? Mobile is playing a dominant role in holiday shopping. Make sure your site is optimized for the small screen. This step is not optional for the holiday win. 24% of total revenues are now attributable to mobile, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

Strive for real-time inventory across touchpoints and make live order tracking available to your entire team. Study cloud services and benefits and dynamic load handling options to ensure your site stays up during traffic spikes/big sales events. Performance (speed and uptime performance) and the ability to quickly employ updates will win the season. Investment in technology that assures site performance and stability is critical. Look for technology and merchandising automation solutions that allow for quick response to market signals.

The takeaway. Don’t wait and see what might happen, prepare well and early for commonplace failures and be nimble enough to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. Those who invest in the right tools and technology will be able to make the most of Holiday 2015. What are your priorities?

How to focus holiday priorities (and the input to ignore)

With the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror, it’s time to realistically assess the status of new features merchants planned to roll out before the holidays, and to put the final touches on holiday campaigns. Choosing the right priorities for the remaining weeks before holiday kickoff is crucial — and too often, merchants are looking in all the wrong places for guidance.

The stakes are higher than ever when it comes to holiday sales. Online holiday sales accounted for more than 16% of all retail sales in 2014, according to the National Retail Federation. With double-digit eCommerce growth once again expected for the holidays in 2015, merchants stand to win big — or to suffer repercussions for missteps.

That’s why, when it comes to paring down the final list of holiday to-dos, we advise merchants to focus squarely on their own unique business needs, and to tune out hype and conjecture in favor of solid data. To determine which priorities are worth pursuing, merchants should:

Mine the right analytics data for guidance on site tweaks. Site usage data can be a gold mine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate. Among the data to study:

  • On-site search logs. “Zero results” logs can reveal gaps in content and discrepancies between merchant and shopper terminology. Searches for specific brand names and product types can suggest new categories to create or at least attributes to tag for guided search. And searches for customer service-related terms can suggest what service content to elevate and highlight throughout the path to purchase.
  • Mobile vs. desktop discrepancies. Comparing popular site paths, fallout analyses and product page performance reports on mobile and desktop sites can illuminate where mobile versions are falling short and need further optimization — and where it can be useful to encourage (or at least support) screen switching with features such as “save for later” or “save cart”.
  • Usage of online/offline features. Identifying where shoppers hesitate when using features such as “buy online, pick up in-store” or even registration for in-store events can help merchants smooth the transition from screen to store. And close analysis of how shoppers access content promoted within stores on mobile devices — and what actions they choose to take after viewing that content — can give merchants a more complete picture of cross-touchpoint activity.

Double down on social networks with engaged followers. While merchants should be prepared to provide responsive service via all the brand’s social outposts, they should focus their most creative holiday efforts on the networks where followers are more likely to actively respond, share and contribute their own content, versus passively scrolling past brand offerings. In addition, merchants should use their attribution model of choice to determine which networks drive the most direct revenue and consider experimenting with new “buy” buttons to further motivate purchasing.

Consult store staff for online content gaps. Amidst the chatter about beacons, facial recognition, dynamic shelf tags and other whiz-bang technology surrounding the digital store, we’re fans of old-fashioned human interaction and believe store staff are the most important asset for supporting online/offline brand interactions. Not only can store associates help shoppers navigate online resources and complete transactions, but they can gauge consumer sentiment and identify gaps in brand content, whether for products or for services such as in-store pickup or ship-to-store. Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations.

Invite existing customers to drive holiday promotions. For guidance on promotional strategies, merchants should look to customers themselves — whether by studying purchase patterns of loyal buyers and loyalty club members or by explicitly asking shoppers to choose which items they’d like to see featured on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, as Target did during “March Madness”. Users of the Target Cartwheel app could vote on which items to discount for the basketball tourney’s kickoff weekend.

Example of voting on a promotion from Target

And just as these sources can provide reliable guidance, there’s plenty of input that merchants should ignore. Two of the biggies:

What the competition does isn’t relevant. This advice may seem counterintuitive. On one level, it’s useful to know what other merchants in the industry are offering shoppers.  But merchants shouldn’t strive to keep up with the features another site offers without knowing whether those strategies are actually delivering results. Even if they have access to such intelligence, merchants should recognize that even within industry sectors, differences between individual brands’ audience demographics, product offerings and price points, and the number and locations of stores, among other factors, mean that a true “apples to apples” comparison simply does not apply.

That hot new social network doesn’t matter. With the ROI of even established sites like Facebook being difficult to justify for most merchants, they should be leery of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest social network just for the sake of “being there” — especially during the holidays, when consumers are likely to have heightened expectations for responsive and savvy customer service on social outposts. With the number of social networks proliferating, merchants should select social opportunities based on where their audience already gathers — or where a specific target audience can be tapped, such as for new international markets — rather than launching new outposts willy nilly.

How are you prioritizing holiday strategies, and what will you forgo?

Performance Index: Why smartphone optimization is a top 2015 priority

Final results are in for the fourth quarter of 2014, and a clear priority has emerged for merchants: smartphone optimization.

Data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that year over year mobile usage surged by close to 50%, with fully 44% of all traffic to merchant sites and 25% of all revenues derived from mobile visits.

2014q4_index_mobile

What’s perhaps surprising is the marked surge in smartphone contributions specifically. Not only did smartphones’ share of revenues surge close to 125%, but conversion rates on smartphones jumped as well, by 88%.

Tablet growth, meantime, was more moderate, with traffic actually dropping year over year, share of revenue increasing by just under 12%, and conversion by 21%. While these numbers are solid, they represent a marked slowdown from just a year ago, when tablet traffic and revenue both grew by more than 50%, overshadowing smartphone activity.

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Now the situation is completely reversed — and the trend is set to continue. Indeed, MarketLive forecasts that smartphone contributions to the bottom line will overtake tablets in the second quarter of this year.

2014q4index_mobilerevshare

In the past, tablets’ relatively large form-factor compared with smartphones allowed merchants to skate by with near-replicas of the desktop experience — if not with sites that failed to optimize for mobile altogether. With tablet conversion rates edging close to those on the desktop browser, and with order sizes and overall revenue contribution higher than smartphones, predictions were rife (including on this blog) that tablets were the key to achieving mCommerce success.

Now, though, merchants can no longer be complacent and rely on tablet performance to shore up mobile sales. Instead, they must re-imagine their businesses to cater first and foremost to smartphone shoppers — and confront and master the challenges of delivering a user-friendly, secure and context-aware smartphone experience for both research and purchasing. In so doing, merchants will be positioning themselves well to take advantage of two key trends driving smartphone primacy:

The tablet plateau. Forecasts call for tablet penetration to plateau in coming years, with growth in the number of worldwide users set to dip below 20% this year and into single digits by 2018 as the market for tablets matures and stabilizes in the U.S. and other developed regions. With tablets perceived as an optional second device after the mobile phone, their penetration into emerging — and high-growth — markets is in doubt. By contrast, smartphones are poised for worldwide ubiquity, with some forecasts calling for fully 90% of the world’s population over the age of six to own one by 2020. Even within the U.S. smartphone ownership has the potential to growth significantly, with ownership hovering just below 70%.

The seamless store. As discussed in our 2015 trends  webinar, the surge in smartphone usage is leading more and more shoppers to consult mobile devices in physical store outlets. During the 2014 holiday season, more than 45% of shoppers said they planned to consult price and product information in-stores, as well as access promotional offers and coupons, according to the MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. That usage is paying off for brick-and-mortar retailers: Performance Index data shows that merchants with physical store outlets saw the percentage of revenue from smartphones jump from 5.02% to 13.18% — a whopping increase of more than 162%.

Our trends presentation outlined a few of the ways merchants can cater to smartphone shoppers — digitized store experiences, adoption of responsive design, and platform-agnostic loyalty rewards. We’ll explore each of these topics in greater depth in the month to come, as well as dive deeply into mobile KPIs and best practices and further emerging trends influencing smartphone usage.

Meantime, consult the official Performance Index press release and download the report with data tables for more in-depth analysis of Q4 performance.

MarketLive Performance Index: Holiday season finishes strong

The 2014 holiday season has drawn to a close, and the initial results from the MarketLive Performance Index are promising. From the period beginning the Monday before Thanksgiving and ending the Sunday after New Year’s Day, revenues are up 11.7% compared with the corresponding timeframe in 2013, and traffic grew 13.3%. The average order size grew a substantial 4.2%, suggesting that Index merchants held the line when it came to pricing and devised creative promotional strategies that succeeded while maintaining margins.

Mobile shopping made its mark, with fully 46% of all eCommerce site traffic generated by smartphones and tablets. And more than a quarter of total online revenues were attributed to mobile devices — with smartphone revenue in particular growing exponentially, at 111%.

But the surge in mobile usage proved a double-edged sword. Overall conversion rates for the season dropped by 4.8% and cart abandonment rose by 3% due to mobile users either consulting sites and adding items to the cart purely for research — or, worse, finding mobile usability impediments too great to continue with their purchases. With mobile poised to make an even greater impact throughout 2015, improving the mobile site experience should remain at the top of merchants’ priority lists.

Holiday results from the MarketLive Performance Index

In addition, the results suggests merchants should:

Front-load the holiday 2015 calendar.  Despite criticism of stores doing business on Thanksgiving day and hand-wringing over tepid Black Friday sales, Index results show that the first part of the holiday season is crucial, with fully 65% of holiday revenue earned before Dec. 14 and the conversion rate for the season peaking on Cyber Monday, Dec. 1, at 5.2%. Data from IBM Digital Analytics suggests that holiday impacts were felt even before Thanksgiving, with revenues the weekend before Thanksgiving surging more than 18% thanks to pre-Black-Friday and “Black Friday Week” deals.  As merchants look ahead to the fourth quarter of 2015, they should plan to launch and promote holiday initiatives earlier than ever in order to accommodate shoppers who seek to buy gifts early in the season.

Develop a refined promotions strategy to maintain margins. Index merchants successfully navigated the holiday season without sacrificing average order value — but with competition tightening for online attention and dollars, they must deliver ever-savvier promotions to entice shoppers to buy. In 2015, with mobile usage poised to dominate, merchants should focus on relevance as the primary goal of promotions — delivering the optimal pricing, products and information to consumers exactly when and on which touchpoint they need it. Connecting in-store and online promotional strategies is an important step toward the goal; with usage of mobile devices to download coupons, check prices and access additional product information while in-store at an all-time high, the time is ripe to develop messages targeted at these online/offline crossover users.

Stay tuned for further discussion of mobile and in-store strategies, plus a 2015 trends webinar and more resources for planning the year ahead. Meantime, how was your holiday, and how will the results impact your 2015 plans?

MarketLive Performance Index: Holiday sales growth accelerates, with help from social (yes, social!)

With the holiday shopping season entering the home stretch, merchants are on track to achieve solid sales growth. While much media hand-wringing ensued following smaller-than-anticipated increases in revenue on Thanksgiving weekend, results from the MarketLive Performance Index show that once off the starting block, merchants are seeing increased sales growth rates as the season progresses.

For the week that included “Green Monday,” Dec. 8, MarketLive merchants achieved a year-over-year revenue growth rate of 11.5% — especially impressive given that visits grew just 8.6%. With the conversion rate trailing last year’s by more than 5% and abandonment up 6.7%, the revenue growth is likely thanks to merchants holding the line on pricing — and, indeed, average order size for the week was up 4.6% year over year.

greenmonday_flash

Combined totals for the season to date follow the same trend, with revenue up 9.4% on increased visits of 13.5% and average order values averaging 4.1% higher than last year.

 

The increased average order size is especially impressive given the continuing downward price pressure exerted by the largest online mass merchants. The growth in average order value demonstrates that MarketLive merchants are presenting unique finds, relevant promotions for their target audience and stellar service that trump bargain-basement pricing.

In this light, the potential value of social media becomes clear, as it connects merchants with an audience predisposed to be receptive to their products and offers. Although overall, the percentage of visits and revenue directly attributable to social media remains small, a select group of MarketLive merchants have capitalized on the opportunity social media affords to drive a significant percentage of sales and visits from social networking sites.

For the season to date, the merchants with the 15 highest sales figures attributed to social media achieved average social media revenue gains of 212.31% and average social traffic gains of 210.12% year over year — significantly higher than the Index as a whole, which saw gains of 135.7% for social revenue and 113.1% for social traffic. Some individual sites among the top 15 are seeing more than 20% of their traffic and 10% of their revenues originating from social media.

greenmonday_socialanalysis

To maximize social impact in the remaining days of the holiday season — and in the year to come — merchants should:

Display an array of targeted discounts. Merchants can avoid decimating their margins by judiciously targeting discounts to focus on top gift categories, and then promote them socially using imagery that displays the full array of possibilities on offer. MarketLive merchant The Cartoon Network Shop employed this strategy for its extended Cyber Monday sale, offering an array of discounts on top items that were promoted via its Facebook page with a large image showing an assortment of products.

greenmonday_cartoonnetworkshop_social

Showcase social recommendations. Social media is a rich source of word-of-mouth recommendations, and merchants should capitalize on them by boosting visibility of endorsements and reviews. Developing last-minute campaigns focusing on top-reviewed products is one way to go, but merchants should also boost visibility within social media itself using the “share”, “retweet” and other like functions. MarketLive merchant Neutrogena actively retweets posts featuring product recommendations. Not all of them are gift-related — such as a post from BeautyBlitz promoting the opportunity to win makeup removal wipes, which “every girl needs … near her bed,” the post points out, especially during the busy holiday social season. Also retweeted by Neutrogena: mentions in major media outlets such as InStyle, whose feature on celebrity gift picks lends authority to the brand.

greenmonday_neutrogena_social

Watch for our final wrapup of holiday results after the New Year, along with 2015 trendwatching and more.

MarketLive Performance Index: Mobile sales zoom as holiday season peaks

As the peak holiday period passes the midpoint, the latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that merchants are continuing to achieve year-over-year revenue gains — with the biggest spoils going to those brands who’ve optimized their mobile experiences.

In the week that started with CyberMonday, shoppers flocked to mobile devices to browse deals and make purchases. A whopping 43% of all online traffic was on mobile devices, and those visits generated 24% of total online revenues. While tablet revenues increased year-over-year by an impressive 42%, smartphone revenue growth was even more impressive, at 107%, accounting for $1 out of every $10 spent online.

cyberweek_flash_mobilebreakout

Overall, seasonal growth remains steady, with merchants seeing revenue gains of more than 9% on increased traffic of more than 18%. But while the add-to-cart rate is showing a modest year-over-year increase of 1.3%, the conversion rate has slipped by two-tenths of a percentage point, for a drop of 5%.

The gap suggests that merchants are missing the opportunity to win sales from highly-qualified shoppers who’ve engaged with the site, identified relevant products, and gone so far as to place them in the cart.

Usage of the cart to to research total order costs is likely partly to blame; past research suggests that more than half of shoppers add items to the cart with no intention of buying in the first place, and a similar percentage use the cart to stash items for further perusal later — an activity that has doubtless spiked as shoppers research on phones and complete purchases on desktop or laptop computers, or in stores.

But with the explosive growth in mobile visits and sales, mobile usage is likely contributing to the conversion gap in another way as well — thanks to checkout experiences that are cumbersome on smaller touchscreens. Indeed, half of online consumers say “easier checkout” would spur them to buy more via mobile devices, while a third specifically cited one-click checkout, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey.

While it’s far too late to streamline checkout processes for this year’s peak season, merchants whose holiday mobile numbers are lackluster so far may be able to institute small changes that have big potential to smooth the mobile path to purchase — and salvage sales. Worth considering:

Prominent customer service messaging. The mobile checkout process should include a prominent link to customer service throughout, including a live chat option and preferably with click-to-call functionality built in.  Merchants who don’t already display that information should investigate whether they can adjust their checkout templates.

Promotion of account creation and wish lists. Another way to combat cart abandonment is to offer viable alternatives for researchers who wish to save items for later access across touchpoints. Merchants should consider promoting wish list and account creation, using prominent messaging in the cart, in email campaigns and on social media to get the message across.

MarketLive merchant The Room Place encourages mobile users to save cart contents with a prominent button. Shoppers who click the link are invited to create an account with a streamlined form that doesn’t require entering delivery or billing addresses or other extraneous data.

roomplace_cartsave2

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Watch for more holiday results updates through Christmas and a season-end wrap-up after the New Year.

Performance Index: Cyber Monday gains cap successful holiday kickoff weekend

The results are in for the final salvo of the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend and the results confirm that merchants are off to a strong start — even as consumers appeared to experience promotion fatigue, slowing Cyber Monday revenue gains.

Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index achieved year-over-year sales growth of 7.3% for CyberMonday, driven by an increase in traffic of more than 20% and an increase in average order value of more than 4%. Mobile saw especially strong revenue gains, with sales from mobile devices up 141%.

Both comScore and Adobe reported double-digit eCommerce revenue gains for CyberMonday — but, tellingly, Adobe separated results for the industry’s top 25 retailers, who each generated more than $30 million on Cyber Monday alone, from smaller merchants generating $2 million or less that day. Adobe’s data found that the mega-merchants achieved 25% growth on Cyber Monday, while the smaller merchants saw 5% year-over-year sales gains.

That widening gulf presents a unique challenge for small- to mid-sized merchants. Not only must they contend with the deep discounting strategies of the online mass merchants who are dominating market share, but they must also find ways to stand out among the torrent of promotions offered by those retailers, whose reach is often deep and wide.

One approach is to manifest brand identity consistently across touchpoints by presenting products and offers that resonate deeply with the target audience. Among the ways to do so:

  • Offer discounts that support brand identity. Small-to-mid-sized merchants can’t match the deep discounting strategies of mass merchants — so instead, they should use discounts as a means to demonstrate their knowledge of the needs and priorities of their target audience. That can mean offering free shipping or a discount on a particular category of products, or gift-with-purchase incentives that strike a chord.
  • Put the spotlight on exclusive products. 43% of shoppers say they’d pay full price for a holiday gift that perfectly matches the recipient, and 37% say they’d pay full price for hard-to-find items, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Merchants should emphasize unique finds and exclusive sets.
  • Roll out the customer service red carpet. Merchants should strive to provide personal service on a level the big mass merchants can’t match — and to market their customer service offerings as they would a valuable product. MarketLive merchant Title Nine heightens customer service visibility on the all-important shopping cart page with an invitation to engage in live chat and a concise description of the brand’s product guarantee.

cybermonday_brandbuildserviceFor more Cyber Monday and Thanksgiving weekend details, read the full MarketLive press release. And stay tuned for further holiday results next week.

Performance Index: MarketLive merchants see strong Black Friday gains, with mobile leading the way

The numbers are in for Black Friday weekend, and amidst slumping overall sales eCommerce has once again proved a bright spot. Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index achieved year-over-year revenue gains of 16.2% during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend.

That performance trumps the flat online sales growth reported by the National Retail Federation and the 9.48% gain reported by IBM. At the same time, the growth rate for Thanksgiving and Black Friday was slower than in previous years, suggesting that shoppers visiting MarketLive merchant sites weren’t immune to promotions fatigue — or perhaps they expect the near-constant drumbeat of specials to continue, and are holding out for even better deals.

“We coached our customers and cautioned the industry that pre-empting Black Friday with early discounts is not healthy,” said Ken Burke, MarketLive founder and CEO. “This year saw an unprecedented number of retailers ‘jumping the gun’ on holiday sales and discounts which drove pre-Thanksgiving sales.”

Mobile sales jumped by more than 50%, with close to 30% of revenues originating from a mobile device. MarketLive merchants saw fully half of their visits coming from mobile devices, raising the prospect of shoppers on the go using their devices purely for research versus purchasing, and thereby causing key metrics to slump. Cart abandonment rates did, indeed, increase over the holiday weekend compared with 2013. But conversion rates and average order size held steady or increased, suggesting that merchants have improved their mobile experiences to meet the increased potential for sales.

blackfridayflash

The Index and industry results demonstrate that merchants will have to work hard for the remainder of the season if their offers are to stand from the crowd of promotions. Among the tactics to consider:

  • Go for quality vs. quantity with email. As we discussed in one of our recent holiday tips, merchants should aim for maximum relevance when designing email campaigns, and should avoid sending multiple emails per day unless deals really are changing that rapidly. One merchant who shall remain nameless sent five nearly-identical Cyber Monday messages all containing the same content, with only the Subject: line changing — a sure-fire way to irritate consumers and guarantee that future messages will be summarily dismissed.
  • Use social to up visibility of promotions — and monitor their reception. Merchants should go beyond a single status-update post to Facebook and Twitter and find innovative ways to showcase deals via social media. MarketLive merchant Marc Jacobs Beauty promoted its “Blaquer Friday” deals across a range of social networking sites, including Google Plus and Instagram, and even devised a hashtag to increase visibility. And it’s important not to “set it and forget it” when it comes to sharing promotions socially. When a follower complained that exclusive gift packs were sold out by the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a  Marc Jacobs Beauty representative responded within an hour to reassure followers that inventory was still available.

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For more, view the official MarketLive Black Friday press release. And watch for Cyber Monday results and analysis coming momentarily, with weekly updates to continue through Christmas.

Holiday tip #12: Showcase giving to boost sales

Doing good can help merchants do well. By showcasing holiday charitable initiatives, brands can strengthen their identities and create positive connections with shoppers.

The facts

Demonstration of a purpose beyond making a profit is increasingly important to consumers. As of 2012, 53% of shoppers said that if price and product quality are equal, social purpose is the most important factor when evaluating a brand — a 26% increase since 2008, according to the Edelman Goodpurpose Study.

Furthermore, good works translate into more word of mouth promotion, with 72% of consumers saying they would recommend a brand that supports a good cause over one that doesn’t,

a 39% increase since 2008. Similarly, 71% of consumers would help a brand promote their products or services if there is a good cause behind them, an increase of of 34% since 2008.

Shoppers are especially receptive to purpose-driven messaging during the holidays, when they themselves are feeling more charitable. More than a third of all charitable giving occurs during the last three months of the year, with the highest percentage (17.5%) occurring in December — so merchants who showcase their initiatives during the holidays are likely to reach audiences looking for causes to support.

The action item

Merchants should promote any charitable giving initiatives prominently across their sites — and give shoppers the means to contribute. Among the options:

  • Promote a charity “flash sale”. While it may be too late to initiate an extensive charitable giving campaign, merchants can still get in the act by picking a day on which a percentage of all proceeds will benefit the brand’s chosen charity.
  • Build social momentum. As the ALS “ice bucket challenge” proved over the summer, the power of social media when it comes to stoking charitable intentions is considerable. Whether by donating a dollar for every “like” or creating a hashtag meme that encourages brand followers to spread the word and act, merchants should highlight charitable activities via social networks.
  • Go deep with purpose-driven content. Merchants should build and showcase extensive content about their chosen charitable giving campaign, from blog posts to photos and testimonials from beneficiaries of the brand’s largesse. Such content can compel shoppers to join in — or at least support the brand that’s doing the giving.

MarketLive merchant Jane Cosmetics maintains a micro-site dedicated to its charitable giving program, featuring videos and a customer community. The micro-site is accessible from the flagship eCommerce site via global navigation, and a home page promotion further spotlights the program.

Jane Cosmetics micro-site

This concludes our series on holiday best practices. Watch for up-to-the-minute holiday results starting next week with reports on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and meantime you can review the entire Holiday Tips Series and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers. As the high season kicks off, we wish you good selling!

Holiday tip #11: Adjust PLAs on the fly for maximum revenues

Google’s Product Listing Ads have become a leading way to capture attention and convert sales for holiday gift searchers. As the season kicks into high gear, merchants should take advantage of the opportunity to fine tune their PLA offerings on the fly to maximize relevancy and sales.

The facts

For 2014, paid search is the top area for increased investment for merchants, and PLAs specifically are the #3 priority for increased spending, with 74% of merchants telling technology researcher Forrester they’re upping their investment.

Specifically during the holiday season, in the fourth quarter of 2013 investment in PLAs soared 80% year over year. Close to a quarter of total holiday search spend was allocated to PLAs, and that number is forecast to jump to 33% for the 2014 holiday season, according to Marin Software.

And these investments pay off in engagement: Marin Software reported that click-through rates for PLAs soared 20.5% year over year in the 2013 holiday season, compared with just a 4.6% click-through rate increase for text-based search ads.

The action item

While PLAs offer a ripe opportunity to reach shoppers beyond the eCommerce site, budget-conscious merchants must focus their activities to spotlight the most relevant products for the holidays — and use early results to shape late-season bids. They should:

  • Take advantage of a winning streak with multi-touchpoint messaging. Merchants should up bids on top sellers or take advantage of serendipitous PR buzz — and be sure to message in-store availability, if relevant, within the ad copy so that shoppers heading out into the fray know the products are available nearby.
  • Ensure PLA-promoted content is mobile-friendly. Merchants can specify distinct PLA landing pages for searchers on mobile devices, and even those who don’t must ensure that landing pages are mobile-friendly. And merchants should tweak their mobile templates to incorporate holiday offers in central content at the product page level, lest they’re overlooked in the global header.
  • Put promotions front and center.  Listings with the “special offer” tag are especially effective at capturing clicks, so if merchants offer free shipping with a promo code or free accessories or gifts with purchase, they should highlight those offers in the listing format, while at the same time staying within Google’s parameters for allowable offer content.

MarketLive merchant Delia’s includes its free shipping offer with promo code in its PLAs, thereby communicating to shoppers who are hungry to avoid delivery charges during the holiday season.

PLA example from Delia's

Watch for the final tip on the blog early next week, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.