As an advertiser, it always feels like the holiday season is abnormally long. It starts in August when I’m initiating conversations with our clients about the upcoming holidays and what it means for them. The majority of my clients are small businesses with small budgets, making this an important time of year. Not only do we have to be careful with our spend, but the revenue that is generated during this season is crucial. A lot of the accounts I work with will feel a strain in their business if they don’t earn enough during the holidays to help them make it through the slower months.
The unique constraints that small businesses face with advertising carry over to the holiday season, which is why planning your calendar, knowing what you’re measuring and being intentional with your budget are so important.
One of the challenges of running a small account during the holiday season is planning out exactly which campaigns you will run when. There are three main ways I approach the calendar.
Use historical data
First, use all the data you have access to in order to identify what worked last year and what didn’t. We have a client that is in the hospitality space and has been with us for three holiday seasons. We have a lot of data about what has worked in the past, and we use it to identify the platforms we want to use as well as similar campaigns that we want to run every year. If you don’t have data from last season, use what you do have to make an informed guess.
A caveat here is to ensure you aren’t looking only at last-click data or return on ad spend at the campaign level. Looking at purchase path and assisted revenue is important when identifying what you deem successful. If a specific campaign plays an important role at the beginning of the purchase path, cutting it is going to affect overall revenue.
Another important item to keep in mind is any major changes in your audience or offerings over the course of the year. Ask yourself if you can really make the assumption that what worked last year will likely work again if there have been major platform or audience changes. This also applies if a new competitor is in your space.
Trim it down
Chances are, you don’t have the budget to do everything that you want to do. It is the reality with small accounts, there isn’t enough money to go around. The last thing you want is to end up with a low performing holiday campaign because budget was spread too thin.
There are three things to keep in mind when trimming your campaigns down – budget, capacity and creative.
First, score your ideal campaigns according to priority. For us, high priority campaigns are those that have played the biggest role in affecting the overall bottom line – a combination of direct and assisted revenue. Look at costs from the season last year, take into account rises in cost-per-click (CPC) and the typical length of the season for the business. Some of our clients only run holiday ads from Nov. 11 through Dec. 10, and others run from mid-October through December. You additionally want to take into account any extra budget you may need for Black Friday or Cyber Monday, assuming you participate. Assign your campaigns their ideal budget alongside their priority and look critically at what does and does not fit.
Second, look at the business’s overall capacity. We have clients who are two-person businesses, and although demand exists we know that once they hit capacity, they physically cannot create or sell any more stock. Take this into account when allocating out what you will and will not run. Is there a point where this will happen for you during the season?
Finally, there is a chance that some of your top-performing and ideal campaigns will require new creative for this year, or even midway through the season. Some creative can be reused year-over-year, but you generally want something new to avoid ad exhaustion, as small businesses can have small audiences. If a high scoring campaign that you really want to run needs new creative, chances are something else will have to go, especially if creating that asset costs additional budget.
Chart it out
Once you have a plan ironed out, create yourself and your team a GANNT chart with details about execution. We have clients that add our digital marketing component into their larger GANNT charts and while it is excellent to see where digital fits in the overall picture, we find it extraordinarily helpful to maintain our own copy.
This is also important as with smaller clients, they will typically have one point of contact, one team member who is going to be helping with their whole holiday campaign. I’ll hop in for strategy discussions, but the implementation and actual running of the campaign is up to a single person. That can leave a lot of room for error, and an individualized GANNT chart combined with Asana tasks detailing starts/stops/finishes helps us run smoothly throughout the season.
- Use historical data to figure out what campaigns you want to run
- Look at overall contribution to revenue, not just last click ad spend
- Trim it down according to budget, capacity or creative
- Chart and task it out
When evaluating the success of your campaign, we stick with the metrics that were used the year prior in order to evaluate year-over-year growth, which is our biggest KPI within the holiday season. While we will look at return on ad spend (ROAS), increases in overall revenue generated is our primary goal. There is an exception to this, we will use ROAS as a success metric if a client sells out of inventory each season. If we helped them sell out faster while spending less on ads, then that is a success.
One note about analytics is that it is so important to tag and name your campaigns properly. Use UTM tags that align with not only the platform and type of ad, but the holiday season. You’re doing future you a big favor by tagging your campaigns and naming them in a way that allows for easy future comparisons.
- Stick with similar metrics year-over-year
- Look at overall growth/revenue increase instead of campaign level ROAS metrics
- Tag and name your campaigns properly to save future you a headache and allow for easier reporting
Budgets are a hot topic these days. From stories about Google Ads not respecting their own twice a day budget rule to increasing CPCs across the board, there’s always something to be thinking about.
One of the best ways to ensure that you don’t spend all your budget is focusing on smaller audiences that you hypothesize will drive revenue. If you have a limited budget for the season, focus spend on proven remarketing and email lists. This is especially important during the sale periods, where customers who know you and have previously engaged with your business are more likely to purchase. This is a great way to approach Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
You can also use lookalike audiences of people who have purchased in past years to narrow down your targeting for top of funnel campaigns.
Know your best performing days
If you have historical data from last season, use it to determine the start time of your holiday sprint. If you’re seasonal, when did traffic return last year? When did purchases rise? Are there certain days of the week or hours of the day that are more profitable? To maximize your budget, look at all of this information and determine when to start your holiday campaigns, whether or not to advertise seven days a week, and where you should be using bid adjustments to maximize revenue.
An example of a seasonal client analytics is below. The holiday traffic came to their site this year earlier than we anticipated. We were going to run ads beginning Nov. 12 but looking at the rise in organic traffic in early October, we decided to run an early bird campaign and have seen a jump in year-over-year revenue as a result of paying attention to the early spike.
Use a script to help you manage
The final budget tip for the season is to avoid that pesky overspending in Google Ads by using a budget script. This piece of advice comes from Duane Brown of Take Some Risk, who recommends this script to limit overspending. The one caveat is that you do have to remember to re-activate what gets paused the next day, either through another script or a rule.
Using a script to ensure your daily budgets don’t get out of control is a helpful way to maximize results throughout the season and prevent Google Ads from taking away your budgetary control.
- Limit big sale days to your most qualified audiences
- Know what days and times you should be loading your budget for
- Pay attention to seasonal traffic and adjust accordingly
- Use a script to prevent overages
One of the best things that you can do for your future self is to make notes as you go. What worked, what didn’t, what UTM tags you used, your GANNT charts, and why you made the choices you did.
We always think we will remember what we did with our calendars, how we managed success and what budgets we used and why, but instead of starting over every season, keep notes so that when you’re planning your 2020 campaigns you have something to refer back to.
More about retail for the winter holidays
- Holiday shopping in-depth: News, stats and strategies
- 5 key ingredients for omnichannel success for the 2019 holiday shopping season
- Paid search trends to watch for the 2019 holiday shopping season
- Pause out of stock products with this Google Ads Script
- Gifter CX: How to make a play for gift givers this holiday shopping season
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.