2016 Holiday Advertising Checklist

This is an updated version of our original 2014 holiday checklist. We've added some new items and refreshed it for this holiday season. This is written with a focus on Google AdWords, but the tactics can be applied to other ad networks too. So let's dive right in.


Where to Start: Review prior holiday data

The first thing you need to do is to understand how your accounts performed the last few holiday seasons. What worked? What didn’t? What did you intend to do differently this year? Go back through your old reports, emails, and notes. This would also be a good time to check in with other key stakeholders so they can start thinking about Holiday 2016.


Check in with your IT department

There always seem to be some last minute holiday emergencies that could easily be avoided if Marketing and IT departments communicate frequently and early on. Make a point to schedule some time now with your IT department to understand what they’ll be working on in Q4, and what sort of contingency plans are in place if things don’t go as planned this holiday season.


Communicate with your stakeholders

It’s important to communicate your plans with key stakeholders – whether that’s your internal merchandising department, your in-house marketing team, or your agency. Set up check-in meetings as we get closer to the holiday season so everybody can share their learnings along the way.


Analyze key products

Next, start looking at which products drove the bulk of your revenue last year. Are those going to be available again this year? Have you added new products that are expected to do even better? Have prices decreased or increased? Has the value of competitive products changed?


Map out key dates

Shoppers have already begun looking for their holiday gifts. But you probably won’t see a huge spike in conversions until Black Friday. It’s important to understand how much you want to spend in the meantime to generate brand awareness and build your remarketing pools. It’s also important to understand your order cutoff date, effectively marking the end of your holiday season. This year, Black Friday is on November 25th. That leaves four solid weeks until a Friday, 12/23 order-by cut-off. Christmas is on a Sunday. Remember also that we've been seeing a ton of Black Friday shopping start on Thanksgiving, so you should plan to have pre-Black Friday ads running running then.


Map out key promotions

Now it’s time to figure out what you’ll be offering promotion-wise. Will your offers last the whole holiday time period or certain days only? Will you offer % off deals, $ off deals, BOGO deals, etc.? With AdWords, changing ad copy frequently to match short-burn offers can slow your momentum. It's generally better to have longer-running offers that require fewer ad copy changes. You can also use the ad customizers feature to minimize some of the downtime when frequent copy changes are unavoidable.


Map out shipping rates

It’s important to understand how much you’ll be charging customers for shipping as we move closer to the holiday. Shoppers expect free shipping, but at some point most advertisers start charging for shipping, especially for guaranteed holiday delivery. Expect conversion rates to drop when shipping rates start to increase.


Map your ad copy testing plan

Smart advertisers plan out their copy tests early, and sync them with their promotional calendar, so that one week after Black Friday you’ve selected your winning ad copy and riding that home through the remaining holiday weeks.


Map out your holiday landing page strategy

Will you be deploying any holiday-specific landing pages this season? If so, share that info with your agency so they can plan accordingly.


Fine-tune your branded/non-branded strategy

Savvy online marketers know they must invest in non-branded keywords to grow their brand, even if they don’t appear profitable on a first-order basis. Think about lifetime value — how many more times will this new non-branded customer come back to shop? When you look at it that way, non-branded search is a lot more exciting as an acquisition channel. Many advertisers plan to correlate their non-branded investment with conversion rates.


Fine-tune your online/offline strategy

If you have brick-and-mortar stores too, then you need to think about how you’ll use mobile ads to drive (and track) foot traffic in those stores. Ensure your Google Maps account is up to date with correct store locations and hours, and then ensure you’ve synced that data with Google AdWords. Many advertisers double-down on mobile once order cutoff gets close, in an effort to encourage offline shopping. Google also has a couple new beta programs to measure in-store purchases that originated from online advertising.


Set revenue goals and ROI targets

Now that you have some context and understand your prior year’s performance and have a good idea of what you’ll be doing this year, it’s time to set some realistic revenue goals and ROI targets. We estimate, on average, that search revenue will be up about 20% from last year, and ROI should be as good or better. Think about what’s different this year: have you optimized your checkout process? do you have a new mobile website? have you recently scaled up dynamic remarketing campaigns? All of these can factor into how this holiday shapes up.


Perform a landing page URL audit

This is such an important step, yet is often overlooked. At least quarterly we recommend advertisers review the final URLs of their keywords, ads, and ad extensions to ensure (1) they’re using the most relevant landing page possible and (2) they’re not pointing any ads to dead pages. Magnifi Online has a tool to assist with this task, which checks each keyword, ad, and sitelink URL every day, and pauses any that lead to 404 or out-of-stock pages. This can save you thousands of dollars during a hectic time like the holiday season. When inventory moves fast, it can be difficult to keep up without an automated tool like this in place.


Perform a URL tracking parameters audit

Similar to a URL audit, you should also check to ensure that (1) you’re correctly and accurately using all the tracking parameters you’re supposed to be using on all URLs, and (2) you’re not using any unnecessary tracking parameters that could be cleaned from the URLs. Remember that on AdWords, tracking parameters can be set at the keyword, ad, ad extension, ad group, campaign, and/or account level. You need to check all of those and ensure none of your tracking templates counteract one another.


Perform a conversion tracking audit

Next you’ll want to check your conversion tracking setup. Things to consider are:

  1. Are conversion tracking pixels placed across all necessary pages, and not placed on any non-confirmation pages?
  2. Are conversion tracking pixels firing 100% of the time or are they being constrained by firing rules?
  3. Is revenue data accurately flowing through your tracking pixels?
  4. Have you set your view-through conversion window to a reasonable amount? (The default is 30 days, we recommend reducing that to 1 or 3 days at most.)
  5. Have you set your click-based conversion window to a reasonable level? (We recommend the 90-day maximum to get a fuller picture of attribution.)
  6. Are you properly tracking and attributing “soft conversions” from purchase-intent actions such as newsletter signups, account creations, phone calls, etc.?
  7. Have you enabled cross-device conversion tracking from the Tools > Conversions > Settings menu in AdWords?
  8. Have you ensured you're counting every conversion and not just one conversion per ad click?
  9. Have you reviewed the new attribution data and confirmed that the default "Last Click" attribution is appropriate for your business? (We see a lot of retailers switch to "Linear" or "Data-Driven" models.)


Tune up your PLA campaigns

We still recommend labeling your best selling products accordingly in your data feed, and creating a “Best Sellers” PLA campaign that bids more aggressively than your “all products” campaign. How granular your campaigns are depends on how broad your product offering is, but within each campaign we like to see one product group for each sku for better control of bidding and search term/negative keyword sculpting. You'll want to message your promos in the PLA special offers text, but that feature can be touchy. We recommend you set up a promotion feed early on so any kinks are worked out before key shopping days. 


Tune up your remarketing campaigns

Are your remarketing campaigns running on full steam? Are you dynamically retargeting shopping cart abandoners with ads featuring the products they’ve left in their shopping carts? Do you have a robust “all buyers” list so you can serve ads this holiday season to your best non-holiday customers?


Tune up your ad extensions

Now is the time to make sure you’re taking full advantage of every applicable ad extension. Here’s a quick list to consider:

  1. Sitelink extensions. To provide additional links to deeper pages of your site.
  2. Call extensions. To provide searchers a way to call your business from the ad unit.
  3. Location extensions. To drive foot traffic to your brick-and-mortar locations.
  4. App extensions. To drive searchers to your app download page.
  5. Review extensions. To highlight positive reviews and PR about your brand.
  6. Callout extensions. To highlight key differentiation points under your ad copy.
  7. Structured snippet extensions. To highlight specific brands carried or product features.
  8. Price extensions. To highlight price points for specific products or product categories in "card" format (on mobile devices only).
  9. Message extensions. To allow searchers to send you a text message by clicking your ad.
  10. Affiliate location extensions. To help searchers find nearby stores that sell your products.
  11. Automated extensions. To allow the AdWords algorithms to crawl your site and dynamically create certain ad extensions (such as the coveted star ratings).
  12. Visual sitelink extensions. To include images in your search ad that link to your website. 
  13. Promotion extensions. To promote %-off and $-off offers in search ads, similar to Promotions for Shopping Ads on PLAs.


Finish building out expanded text ads

Hopefully, by now you've tested and proven that Expanded Text Ads, or ETAs, perform better than the old standard text ad format. Buh-bye, 25 x 35 x 35. Hello, 30 x 30 x 80! The deadline to switch to ETAs is now Jan 31st, but we think you should do it now if you haven't already. We recommend 2-3 ETAs for most ad groups (more for higher volume groups), and keeping only one single best-performing standard text ad per ad group (keep this as a safety net as Google's not serving ETAs for 100% of searches yet).


Figure out which betas make sense to test

There are a ton of cool beta features in the works right now. We can't publish them here due to our NDA with Google, but contact us and we'd be happy to discuss them with you.


Map out your post-holiday strategy

The holiday season is not over at Christmas. Consumers do a lot of shopping the week after Christmas too! Make sure you have a strategy in place to capitalize on post-holiday shopping.


If this list is daunting and you need someone to guide you through the pre-holiday audit and planning process, please give us a call. We'd love to help you achieve a record-breaking Q4!