Having been at eTail Europe this week, and it has got me thinking about the different challenges etailers face, many of which should have been solved by now. One of the things I’ve noticed is how seasonality is a key consideration for all retailers. Online marketers are no exception.

We all know that sales tend to be stronger in the run up to Christmas and slower throughout the summer months and the overall impact of seasonality will depend on what type of products you are selling, but it will undoubtedly affect all retailers in some way or another.

In the article below I will highlight some practical ways that retailers can use paid search marketing techniques, including advice on the use of Google Ad Parameters and the Long Tail, to ensure that the seasonality of the market works in your favour.

1. Google Ad Parameters

 Google’s ad parameters is a relatively new feature that allows advertisers to dynamically insert and update up to two numeric or currency parameters in ad creative.

By linking their database to Google’s API, advertisers can update these parameters in their creative when needed, without loss of history, allowing prospects to see up-to-date information about products. But most importantly, this gives advertisers an effective way to differentiate their ads from their competitors and drive more qualified traffic to their site.

The feature is particularly relevant for retailers with a large or dynamic product catalogue. Specifically, advertisers who promote product prices, discounts, inventories or days left on sale in advertising can all benefit from using ad parameters to dynamically serve compelling and relevant search creative.

With the right set-up and campaign strategy, ad parameters can provide significant value for retailers who launch short term “weekend” or “one-day” sales, providing them with an easy way to advertise and dynamically update their promotional messages to Google searches. Additionally, companies that advertise a multitude of products with specific inventory levels can leverage ad parameters to keep searchers up to date with the number of items remaining in stock.

Fitting ad parameters into the “bigger picture”

From a strategic marketing perspective, ad parameters gives search marketers the ability to engage in “urgency” marketing, a messaging approach that has proven to be successful for advertisers in many offline channels, including television, radio, direct mail and email. Urgency marketing involves creating a sense of alarm within a target audience by presenting prospects with deadline or limited inventory-driven messages to encourage an immediate response.

How to leverage ad parameters to drive urgency marketing

Promote current pricing: internet consumers appreciate transparency. Presenting promotional pricing up-front can increase the appeal of an ad, driving higher click-through rates. More importantly, by presenting accurate pricing to consumers before the click, brands can avoid unqualified traffic from shoppers looking for bargain basement discounts.

Advertise the number of items left in stock: For merchants with unique products or limited-time offers, messaging inventory scarcity can accelerate sales. Try incorporating ad parameters into a product-specific ad group and dynamically updating the quantity of items remaining in stock based on actual availability.

Promote the number of days left in a promotion: Limited time offers are a frequent marketing tactic of television and brick and mortar advertisers. Including a “number of days left” message in your paid search ads can help you align search programs with offline promotions as well as drive urgency in searcher response.

Offer dynamic discounts: Retailers frequently follow a standard discount schedule to ensure sell-through of seasonal inventory. By promoting current discounts in your ads, you can better align paid search with current pricing and capitalise on discounting to increase click-through rates.

2. Long Tail strategies for retailers

The “long tail” is a concept popularised by Wired’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, and is used to describe the large number of keywords available for purchase that individually deliver little traffic, but in aggregate have the potential to be an important source of clicks and conversions for a program.

Long tail strategies are often crucial to retailers and produce great results; it is a way for retailers to ensure some of its less popular product lines and lessen the impact of seasonality on sales.

Companies with catalogues that have millions of SKUs for example, may find it useful to purchase inventory for the various keywords associated with their products. Similarly, companies with content that is exceptionally seasonal or dynamic may need to apply strategies for updating ads for thousands of products that are constantly changing.

Assuming a long tail strategy makes sense for your business, the next question is can it be implemented cost effectively?

To answer this question, first you need to understand the time and effort required to implement a long tail strategy. Expanding your keywords to millions of terms doesn’t happen without cost. To begin estimating the costs, first evaluate the data you have available in-house which can be applied to a long-tail campaign. Do you have a product catalogue? If so, how clean is the data? How many attributes do your products have which could factor into a keyword campaign?

Being able to harvest the long tail at scale requires having a large and clean data set for building out new campaigns and keywords. If your company needs to undergo a sizeable data cleanup effort before embarking on a long tail strategy, you will need to factor this into your costs.

Once you have a clean data set in place, the key to cost-effectively implementing a tail strategy is automation. Tackling the long tail of search without software is at best challenging, and at worst impractical depending on the size of your product catalogue.

Packaged software solutions are capable of delivering automation of campaign creation and management through data feeds. We also see many search marketers building in-house solutions for campaign automation. Regardless of the route you choose here, the costs of software need to be factored into the cost of your long tail program. This includes not only the cost of uploading, formatting and publishing feed based ads, but also the costs of managing more accounts, building larger reports and performing analysis at scale on an ongoing basis.

Once you fully assess the benefits and costs of a long tail strategy, compare the ROI to other possible initiatives and prioritise them. Here are some best practices to keep in mind while you’re building out your campaign.

Data quality is critical for campaign success

By definition, when you scale a campaign to millions of keywords, it’s not possible to review your ads using human editors. As a result, it’s important to focus on data quality up front.

Make sure that data feeds are well structured and that the data is from a reliable source. This will prevent inappropriate words and landing pages from finding their way into campaigns. When you go to build out your keywords and creative, make sure to perform checks to avoid inserting terms that break character limits imposed by the engines. Also watch out for special characters that will result in your ads being rejected.

Test everything at scale

Because long tail terms receive very little traffic on an individual basis, it’s tough to effectively test keywords, creative and landing pages one at a time. As a result, you need to scale your tests to thousands of terms.

For example, if you are testing a creative, try multiple versions of the same ad where you dynamically insert either a price or colour across hundreds of campaigns and ad groups. Assign segments for colour and price to each of these creatives in your analytics tool so you can perform cross-campaign analysis of performance.

Tail terms demand a different approach to bidding

Sparse data in the tail makes traditional rules-based bidding ineffective. Because individual terms have little click and conversion data history, it’s not possible to accurately estimate a bid based on past performance of the keyword alone. Applying a portfolio approach to bidding allows you to leverage data across related keywords to properly estimate bids.

Using a bid tool or methodology that supports portfolio based bidding is critical to success with long-tail strategies. When applying a portfolio approach, watch out for tools that require a “learning” period. Using “test bids” to zero in on the right spend levels can be costly, especially when you are talking about millions of keywords.

Retailers should factor in product margin and inventory data

Because many long tail campaigns are based on product catalogues, you can often get more return on your investment by making a few small tweaks. Clearly when a product is out of stock, it’s probably not appropriate to be advertising for it on Google.

Make sure you are able to automatically pause or bid down keywords based on the availability of the products that were used to generate the terms. Additionally, if you are able to incorporate product cost or net margin data into conversion statistics, it will result in a more accurate picture of keyword value, improving your bids and helping you to hit overall ROI targets much easier.

A correct long-tail strategy can be an important driver of growth in keywords under management, clicks and conversions. More importantly, because there is often less competition for long tail terms, long tail campaigns can deliver a lower cost-per-action than ordinary search marketing campaigns.