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.

Holiday tip #10: Elevate review content for the Black Friday blitz

When it comes to social content, nothing beats the old standby of customer reviews — especially during the holidays, when shoppers research heavily and rely on the testimonials of other buyers to inform their gifting decisions. Merchants should put reviews front and center and let shoppers’ picks guide merchandising and promotions.

The facts

Consumers report that customer reviews play an important part in the purchase consideration process. More than half of participants in the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey reported that writing reviews was somewhat or very important, and 49% said receiving product referrals from friends via social channels influenced their spending.

Further data demonstrates just how influential review are during the holidays, on Black Friday and Cyber monday in particular. According to reviews provider Bazaarvoice, traffic to user reviews spikes during the sales extravaganza the weekend after Thanksgiving, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2013 beating the November daily average review pageviews by 77% and 84%, respectively. Overall in 2013,  review pageviews for the months of November and December exceeded that of all other months by 38% and 48%, respectively.

Data about reviews from Bazaarvoice

The action item

To capitalize on consumers’ usage of and trust in customer reviews, merchants should spotlight them prominently in campaigns that draw on the latest top picks to create shopper-centric product categories. Use reviews:

    • On the eCommerce site for mobile and desktop. “Top rated” categories should be a featured component of holiday gift sections.
    • In email campaigns. Featuring five-star gifts and excerpting review text gives shoppers access to relevant, authentic product information they can trust.
    • On social media. As discussed in Monday’s tip, a Pinterest pinboard showcasing customer favorites can spur repins and purchases.  And enabling brand followers to view and contribute reviews directly from within Facebook increase the engagement power of review content, as Figi’s does with its “Ratings and Reviews” Facebook page. Both customer favorites and featured products are spotlighted, along with the most recent reviews.

holidaytip10_reviewsfigisWatch for 2 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #9: Optimize Pinterest for peak social engagement

We’ve already discussed the steps merchants can take across all their social networks to ensure that followers find their way to relevant products and content. But when it comes to choosing which social networks deserve special focus, one stands out: Pinterest.

The facts

Facebook wins when it comes to overall users, with 71% of online adults using the network as of a year ago. But Pinterest has experienced a meteoric rise since its debut in 2011, and by several counts contends with LinkedIn for #2 social network status. Moreover, when it comes to all-important mobile engagement, 92% of all time spent on Pinterest comes from mobile users — surpassing Facebook at 68%.

Specifically when it comes to holiday shopping, consumers say that Pinterest plays a key role. Close to one in five shoppers — 18% — say that looking for gift ideas on Pinterest is “very important”, and 17% said pinning items on Pinterest is a key activity, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey.

Statistics from the MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey

The action item

Given Pinterest’s influence over gift purchasing, merchants should allocate significant resources to creating engaging pinboard content — and encouraging pins on the part of shoppers. Tactics to deploy:

  • Add “pin it” functionality to the eCommerce site — for desktop and mobile. Enable shoppers to share items to their pinboards with minimal friction.
  • On the branded Pinterest outpost, mix products with aspirational, inspirational content. Make your boards more than just a product catalog by repinning value-added content, whether from your own site or not, to draw in those who share similar interests but may not yet be familiar with the brand. Holiday tips and favorite recipes attuned to the tastes of the target audience are especially apt right now.
  • Don’t forget the video. Pinterest enables posting video directly onto pinboards, and given that video viewing is a top social and mobile activity, merchants should take advantage of that capability to the fullest extent possible.
  • When it comes to products, escape the category replication trap. Instead of simply re-posting items from the holiday gift guide to a board, merchants should mix it up with innovative categories that put customers front and center.

MarketLive merchant Design Toscano presents a variety of innovative product pinboards. “Five Star Products” showcases items that have won top ratings from customers. “DT’s Favorite Entertainment” includes video clips and other media mentions of products, while “Fan Favorites” spotlights customer-submitted pictures of products in use.

Pinterest example from Design Toscano

Watch for 3 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #8: Make mobile tools prominent across touchpoints

With mobile poised to play a dominant role in holiday shopping, merchants should maximize visibility of their mobile offerings by promoting at critical junctures across touchpoints.

The facts

Proof of the power of mobile is everywhere. Statistics show that not only are shoppers using their mobile devices to consult product information and look up store hours, but they’re increasingly making purchases on the go, with 24% of total revenues now attributable to mobile, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

The holidays present an especially ripe opportunity for mobile engagement, as shoppers are bustling to physical stores to take advantage of seasonal deals as well as intensifying their online purchasing. Last year, mobile visits grew 34% and mobile sales grew 43% on Black Friday alone, and all indications are that this year will see even greater gains.

The action item

Mobile offerings are increasingly integral to merchants’ online offerings — so integral that many brands don’t even promote them separately. But merchants who’ve worked hard to optimize their mobile offerings should promote them as a brand differentiator, and even those with basic mobile sites should let holiday shoppers know they can at least look up store hours and reach customer service on the go.

The key is to place mobile prompts in spots most likely to reach engaged shoppers looking to stay in touch. Top locations include:

  • Black Friday preview pages. Shoppers already scoping out deals are likely to appreciate the opportunity to check in on the go throughout the season.
  • Store locator pages. Let shoppers know they can access the product information and buying advice on the eCommerce site when on the go.
  • Social media. Well over half of all social media consumption occurs on mobile devices, so merchants should promote mobile offerings to brand followers.
  • Mobile sites. It may seem redundant to promote mobile offerings on mobile, but merchants with apps should be sure their mobile Web sites point visitors to the download.
  • Welcome emails. New subscribers who’ve signed up to receive holiday seals should be introduced to all the brand’s offerings, including the availability of mobile purchasing or apps. MarketLive merchant Design Within Reach promotes its iPad app prominently in the first email new subscribers receive, listing the mobile feature alongside shopping categories in the message body’s top navigation.

Example of mobile promo in email from DWR

Holiday tip #7: Win the email engagement battle

With more merchants competing for holiday shopping dollars using more frequent email promotions than ever before, the quest to earn opens, clicks and conversions has never been tougher. An obsessive focus on relevance can help merchants score inbox wins.

The facts

Shoppers’ attitudes toward email are largely positive, with one in four consumers saying email is a great way to find out about offers and promotions, according to technology researcher Forrester. Perhaps surprisingly, email even performs well among younger shoppers, with 9% of 18-to-34-year-olds saying they’ve clicked on an email to purchase featured items, versus 7% of consumers overall.

But there’s a limit to shoppers’ goodwill. More than 71% of consumers say they start ignoring emails when multiple messages are sent per day from the same brand, and close to 60% say they often delete emails as soon as they’re received, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Half of shoppers say emails rarely get their attention, and 38% admit that they scan most emails on their phone rather than read them carefully on the computer. Fully 37% of consumers told Forrester they’ve unsubscribed from an email list, and 24% wish it were easier to unsubscribe.

Data from the ML Consumer Shopping Survey about email

The action item

To prove that they deserve a spot in shoppers’ inboxes, merchants should adopt a “less is more” attitude and deliver only the most relevant offers possible.

While merchants who’ve deployed personalization services can most easily fulfill this goal with individually-tailored messaging, brands with less-sophisticated implementations can still deliver relevant experiences and earn subscribers’ goodwill. All merchants should:

  • Up frequency only when justified. Merchants planning “12 Days of Christmas”-type promotions have a built-in reason to send daily updates. By contrast, sites whose offerings change less frequently through the season should scale back email accordingly.
  • Display geo-relevance. Including region-specific shipping deadlines or local store hours can boost convenience for shoppers.
  • Use social ties to drive interest and clicks. Engage shoppers with messages tied to their social recommendations or shared products, or use participatory social campaigns to trigger shopping invitations, as MarketLive merchant Modell’s is doing with its season-long social sweepstakes campaign. The Subject: line “Pick-Em Week 2 Results Are In!” spurs recipients to open the email to see if they’ve won the weekly contest; the message contains a 20% discount offer for everyone, redeemable in-stores or online.

Holiday email example from Modell's

Watch for 5 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #6: Present out-of-stock alternatives that work

During the holidays, merchants will inevitably face situations when their eCommerce site visitors can’t buy the items they want immediately. With time-pressed shoppers seeking instant gratification, merchants need on-the-spot solutions to the “out of stock” conundrum.

The facts

Despite forecasting a 4.1% uptick in holiday retail sales overall, merchants are being cautious when it comes to inventory. According to BDO USA, 55% of merchants are stocking inventory at close to 2013 levels, and inventory levels overall are expected to rise just 1.1% — making the “out of stock” scenario a real likelihood.

The bad news is that an email notification letting shoppers know items are back in stock, while a common solution, isn’t the most popular one with consumers. Just 28% of shoppers will sign up to receive a notification when an item is restocked — but 41% will visit a competitor’s site or mobile app for immediate gratification and 21% will visit a competitor’s store, according to a study by comScore and UPS.

ComScore data on consumer responses to out of stock items

The action item

The good news is that email alerts aren’t merchants’ only option; they should deploy a range of tactics to keep shoppers who’ve clicked on out-of-stock items in the loop and engaged with their brands. To save sales, merchants should:

  • Present alternatives on the spot. Merchants should alert shoppers to other gift possibilities on the site right from the sold-out product’s page, whether via a modal window or in the cross-sell positions.
  • Promote new arrivals. Email and social media alerts highlighting new shipments of best-selling items can prompt a visit from the 40% of shoppers who say they’ll check back with a merchant’s site to see if items have been restocked.
  • Make in-store inventory access a snap. Merchants who’ve implemented in-store inventory lookup on their eCommerce sites are well-positioned to serve the 30% of shoppers who say they’ll seek items in a brand’s physical outlets if they can’t purchase online. But all merchants can make store connections easier by providing quick access to customer service via live chat and on the phone.
  • Preempt the problem with “in-stock” product categories. Especially late in the season, grouping and promoting items that are in stock and ready to ship boosts convenience for time-pressed shoppers.

Late in the 2013 season, MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds showcased a “last-minute gifts” category guaranteed to be in-stock and delivered by Christmas.

2013 holiday example from Helzberg

Watch for 6 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #5: Connect social networks to drive holiday engagement and sales

For the holiday season, some merchants are launching elaborate and extensive social campaigns, while others are keeping it simple with basic updates. But all merchants can benefit by enacting simple tactics to ensure social followers find their way to the products and content most relevant to them.

The facts

The percentage of direct sales attributable to social media remains extremely low, and engaging followers to click on items from their crowded feeds can be challenging. The latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that social media still only accounts directly for 2% of traffic and 1% of sales.

At the same time, many merchants intuit that social media plays a much bigger role in influencing purchases, and consumers freely acknowledge that social media plays a part in their shopping experience. Close to one in three participants in the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey said that they’ve made purchases as a result of social media interactions. During the holiday season, half of shoppers rank social activities as somewhat or very important to their gifting purchases.

Data on social media from the ML Consumer Shopping Survey

The action item

Whether their social media plans are grandiose or simple, and whether their social media staffing is deep or bare-bones, merchants should grab the low-hanging fruit to ensure that social media followers and visitors have access to the holiday resources they need. Social outposts should highlight:

  • Customer service resources. In addition to providing “social service”, merchants should give followers easy access to other options by listing their customer service phone number and email address prominently, and offering a link to live chat as available.
  • Gift card information and purchasing. Merchants should spotlight the availability of gift cards, which are set to generate $126 billion in sales this holiday weekend, a 9% year-over-year increase, according to CardHub.
  • Email and mobile alert signups. Followers may or may not spot a merchant update in a crowded news feed — but if they sign up for email or mobile updates, they’ll receive messages directly, boosting chances of engagement.
  • Coupon downloads for in-store access. The majority of social activity now occurs on mobile devices, and fully 55% of consumers set to look for coupons on their phones while in stores, according to the MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey.
  • Other social content. Merchants should use plugins to display Twitter and Pinterest content from within Facebook, or at least link to other social outposts.

MarketLive merchant Peruvian Connection’s interconnected Facebook page promotes a Pinterest contest, $250 drawing for those who sign up for email updates, and other social media outposts as well as featuring links to the eCommerce site.

Holiday example from Peruvian Connection

Watch for 7 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #4: Treat on-time shipping as your top product

When it comes to earning eCommerce customer satisfaction, the basics are crucially important, starting with on-time delivery of holiday gifts. The campaign can’t begin too soon to set appropriate shipping expectations that merchants can fulfill — and thereby earn brand credibility and loyalty for 2015.

The facts

In 2013, close to a third of leading eCommerce merchants missed delivery by Dec. 24, thanks in part to a glut of last-minute shipments that caused backups at UPS and FedEx. Prominent retailers such as Barnes and Noble were put in the awkward position of emailing customers with the news that Santa would be late.

One way to avoid the possibility of blown deadlines is to move shipping cutoff dates earlier — and, in fact, the National Retail Federation reports nearly eight in ten merchants will set their cutoff dates for guaranteed delivery via standard shipping at least a week before Christmas, compared with just 73% who did so last year.

But with 78% of shoppers saying they won’t finish holiday shopping until December, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey, merchants are unlikely to cede last-minute sales to competitors by closing the door on last-minute shipments. More than half of shoppers say they’ll take advantage of Free Shipping Day promotions on Dec. 18, just four business days before Christmas, according to the survey.

The action item

Whatever shipping calendar merchants have set, they must  promote it relentlessly via every available channel, starting with concise, easy-to-scan content. They should consider a one-stop shipping resources that displays:

  • key cutoff dates, including a map if they vary by region
  • links to additional customer service resources, such as information on returns and exchanges

Also relevant to promote alongside shipping information:

  • Services such as free site-to-store delivery
  • The ability to check in-store inventory online or reserve in-store items online
  • Virtual gift cards as an 11th-hour solution

Shipping content should be promoted via social media, on mobile apps and sites, and in email.

Finally, merchants should update shipping content as cutoff dates pass, so that shoppers see only what options remain to them. In the third week of December 2013, MarketLive merchant Modell’s clearly delineated what options were still available for shoppers wanting Christmas delivery.

Modell's holiday 2013 shipping example

Watch for 8 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #3: Reward store staff for going online (really!)

Merchants may fear “showrooming,” the practice of touching and trying products in stores and then buying elsewhere online. But there’s little they can do to prevent shoppers from whipping out their mobile devices in stores to inform their purchasing decisions — and a growing body of research shows it may actually pay off to encourage such behavior. One great way to start: store associates.

The facts

We’ve mentioned before the value of savvy in-store staff. More than half of shoppers report they’re more likely to make purchases from stores where associates are knowledgeable; at the same time, 59% of consumers believe themselves better connected to shopping information than store staff — making well-trained associates a potential brand differentiator.

The 2014 MarketLive Consumer Survey gives deeper insight into the information sought by consumers. The good news? Shoppers prioritize access to pricing and product information over technologically-tricky services such as roving checkout via tablet POS. The ability to locate and deliver products in-stock elsewhere tops the list, with information gathering rounding out the top three desired services.

Statistics from the MarketLive Consumer Survey

The action item

Merchants should brief holiday sales associates about the brand’s online resources, including:

  • Coupons and promo codes
  • In-depth product information
  • Customer reviews
  • In-store events and store-specific promotions
  • Customer service information such as ship-to-store availability and return/exchange policies

Associates should be encouraged to access this information freely during customer interactions, whether using their own mobile devices or via store computers. Finally, they should be empowered to use tools such as ship-to-store to speed delivery of items from other locations, and to arrange complimentary home shipping at their discretion.

To inspire and acknowledge staff efforts, merchants can spotlight stellar store service via online channels. MarketLive merchant Francesca’s features individual stores on the home page of the eCommerce site, giving prominence to front-line store staff and also differentiating the brand in the process.

Example from Francesca's

Watch for 9 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #2: Tailor mobile images for lightning speed

Another year of explosive growth is on the horizon for mobile holiday shopping. But merely having a mobile site isn’t enough: merchants must deliver lightning-fast response times or risk losing their opportunity to grow mobile engagement and sales.

The facts

When it comes to mobile shopping, consumers’ expectations are high, with 85% expecting mobile pages to load as fast or faster than a desktop site, according to Radware. Close to three-quarters of consumers expect mobile pages to load in five seconds or less, according to performance monitoring firm Gomez — but retail mobile site response times currently average more than 13 seconds as measured by the Keynote Index.

Failure to meet these expectations isn’t merely a matter of consumer frustration; performance impacts revenues, too. A one-second delay in mobile page-load time produced an 8.3% increase in the bounce rate and a 3.5% reduction in conversion rate, Radware found.

The action item

Even at this late juncture, merchants can make changes to improve holiday mobile site performance by focusing on the top cause of performance slowdowns: images. With pages averaging more than 1.9 MB, close to two-thirds of that weight — 1.2 MB — comes from images, according to the HTTP Archive. To drive down image size:

  • Study analytics to identify which devices are driving up load times and use a testing tool such as SizerSoze to test pages using those devices’ breakpoints. By identifying specific problematic image/device combinations, merchants can pinpoint solutions without rewriting all their code.
  • Prioritize static image content. Merchants should ensure that featured product images load first, while resource-heavy content such as video calls, animated .gifs and embedded social media video or images are downpage and load in subsequent server calls.
  • Use progressive .jpgs. With perception as well as actual load time being a crucial factor in how consumers rate mobile page speed, using a progressive .jpg — which loads the whole photo at a lower resolution, then sharpens it, as opposed to loading image fragments one by one — can boost shoppers’ satisfaction with site performance.

MarketLive merchant Cost Plus World Market strikes a balance with image rendering on its mobile site by featuring a rich primary image on the product page and making secondary images available via a slide show shoppers can swipe through. By comparison, on the desktop site thumbnails of each image are loaded.

World Market mobile example World Market exampleWatch for 10 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.