When it comes to holiday marketing, advice and general best practices are everywhere.
But, the right advice from the right people on how they’re planning to dominate the biggest online shopping season of the year is rare.
What if you could look inside the holiday marketing plans and strategies of ecommerce businesses operating at or above $10 million in annual revenue?
Now, you can …
We collected proprietary data from more than 50 high-growth merchants on eleven of the toughest questions for ecommerce’s busiest season of the year.
- Black Friday Cyber Monday Planning
- Top Holiday Ecommerce Concerns
- New Customer Acquisition
- Existing Customer Acquisition
- Holiday Offers, Deals, and Discounts
- Sales Channels for Direct Purchases
- Inventory Planning and Management
- Navigating Amazon
- Seasonal Sales by Quarter
- Holiday Sales Projections
- Analytics to Monitor and Optimize
Want access to the full study, all the data, and every direct contribution from ecommerce leaders like you? Download it here …
1. Black Friday Cyber Monday Planning
“When do you typically begin planning your Black Friday Cyber Monday marketing campaigns and strategies?”
Top five months to begin holiday marketing planning
- September: 25.5%
- October: 19.6%
- June: 15.7%
- July: 9.8%
- August: 7.8%
While it’s true that the holidays seem to come faster every year if you’ve put off your 2018 planning … you’re far from alone. September is the number one month when planning begins, followed by October.
- Q3: 43.1%
- Q4: 25.5%
- Q2: 21.6%
- Q1: 6%
Only 6% of large merchants are early birds — i.e., they start planning in Q1. And, surprisingly, over 25% start inside of Q4.
2. Top Holiday Ecommerce Concerns
“How concerned are you about the following for Q4’s holiday?”
Top five concerns for holiday ecommerce
- Rising ad spend: 80.4%
- Customer service needs: 74.5%
- Inventory: 72.5%
- Shipping and fulfillment: 64.7%
- Returns: 56.9%
Despite paid ads being the top-ranked “very effective” channel for new customer acquisition, merchants identified “rising ad spend” as their number one concern for the holidays.
It’s a telling disparity that places a premium on optimizing both off-site advertising and on-site strategies. Unfortunately, there’s one more piece of bad news we need to get out of the way.
While total revenue, conversion rates, and ad spend all skyrocket … average order value does not:
Most likely, this is due to (1) increased competition, and (2) deal hunters taking advantage of one-off sales and deep discounts. The solution lies in three strategies.
How to boost AOV for ecommerce holiday marketing:
One, new customer acquisition through paid advertising that begins building audiences before costs soar (i.e., a delayed-attribution model and heavy emphasis on retargeting).
Two, existing customer re-acquisition through segmented email marketing before and during the big days that majors on past-purchases and real-time personalization.
Three, offers and deal structures like product bundling, tiered discounts, and shipping based on spending thresholds.
What about the second-biggest concern: customer service needs?
When we asked Romain Lapeyre, CEO at Gorgias — one of two Shopify Plus Partners specializing in customer service — for recommendations on how to handle the looming influx, he offered this advice:
“Our data shows that support volume requests increase by 65% during the holiday season. Make sure to staff accordingly.
“In addition, prepare canned responses for the top three questions: (1) How fast do you ship? (2) How to return my order? (3) How do I apply a promo code?
“Include coupon codes in agents’ signatures, add a live chat to your checkout page, and set up chat popups to initiate conversations. This will dramatically help with sales.”
For the third biggest concern — inventory (72.5%) — the study posed this question: “What advanced inventory procurement methods are you using to prepare for the holidays?” You can read a sampling of the merchant contributions in section seven here (or, download the full report to get all the answers).
In addition, we put the same question to TradeGecko, an inventory management system and Shopify Plus Partner. Andrew Bowden, Sr. Manager of Product Marketing, provided this guidance:
“We often get approached by medium-to-large merchants whose processes are incredibly labor intensive. This ranges from teams fighting their way through ‘spreadsheet Olympics’ to those dependant on legacy systems that simply weren’t designed to handle multi-channel and multi-location sales.
“For them, the flood of orders that accompany the holidays is one part blessing, two parts curse.
“To plan ahead, I always recommend leveraging tools that will allow you to build a demand forecast to make data-informed procurement decisions to avoid both over and understocking inventory. Make sure lead times are included in this as well.
“To stay on top of inventory and orders as they pour in, I can’t stress how important it is to leverage a connected platform that integrates your entire commerce and supply chain ecosystem in real-time.”
On shipping and fulfillment, which 64.7% of respondents said they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about, we reached out to ShipBob’s CMO Casey Armstrong. ShipBob helps over 2,000 businesses — 60% of which are Shopify merchants — outsource their warehousing and logistics needs:
“To plan ahead for holiday fulfillment, we recommend sharing your anticipated increase in order volume with your 3PL, including dates of your planned marketing and social media blasts. Even if you are unsure of the volume spike, you should talk to them about how they will manage the inevitable bump.
“For example, earlier this year Bathorium sold 12,000 units across 4,800 orders on a single day, which we were able to fulfill and have delivered within 72 hours of purchase. When vetting your 3PLs, make sure they can handle unforeseen success spikes such as this.
“If you manage your own logistics, ramp up staffing now so you have enough time to train seasonal staff. Keep track of cutoff dates for each carrier and service in case you need to alter the shipping options you offer.
“Above all, communicate any changes to all parties in your fulfillment network and be transparent with your customers.”
Lastly, given how profit-crushing returns can be — fifth on the concerns list — Shopify Plus and Return Magic created an extensive guide: Ecommerce Returns: Policy, Rates, Best Practices & Statistics (2018 Holiday Ed.). There you’ll find detailed instructions and lessons from other merchants on how to make returns a competitive advantage.
3. New Customer Acquisition
“What cold-traffic (e.g., new customer) acquisition channels do you plan to use and how would you rate their effectiveness?”
Top five “very effective” new customer channels
- Facebook paid: 72.5%
- Instagram paid: 58.8%
- Search paid: 56.9%
- Instagram organic: 41.2%
- Search organic (SEO): 35.3%
If you want new customers over the holidays, you’re going to have to pay for them. No surprises there. What is surprising, however, is that Instagram outranked organic search (SEO) as the number one most effective non-paid channel.
Given that rising ad spend was the number one concern among participants, how can you be sure you’re getting the most out of the money you put in?
First, buy your traffic early to build audiences on social.
This can be done through engagement ads during the weeks leading up to Black Friday, in order to create product-aware audiences — i.e., custom audiences — for your holiday ecommerce campaigns to target when the big days hit. It can also be done by running click-through ads to build retargeting audiences.
Black Friday Facebook Ads Guide from $6.8M in Ecommerce Holiday Spend is a must-read on this topic.
As Andrew Faris, the genius from Common Thread Collective responsible for the insights and data contained there, explains:
“Underpriced traffic bought early + AOV-focused offers + an irresistible site-wide offer = maximum paid-traffic profitability.”
Second, focus the lion’s share of your Black Friday Cyber Monday budget on high-intent keywords.
With AdWords — and its equivalents — narrow your ads to phrases like “buy [blank product],” “best deal on [blank product],” and detailed product queries: branded terms — for you and your competitors — as well as product-specific searches (e.g., women’s red canvas flats).
Third, optimize your holiday marketing ecommerce from the ad to the product to the checkout.
Axe Bat earned 11.49 ROAS, 18% increase in AOV (despite the sale), and 193% increase in conversion rate by combining advertised product bundles with a custom Black Friday landing page.
Top five “will not use” new customer channels
- Television: 88.2%
- Radio: 86.3%
- Print media: 86.3%
- Content discovery (e.g., Taboola, Outbrain, etc.): 82.4%
- Podcasts (paid): 82.4%
Among the leading channels enterprise merchants don’t plan to use, “old” media tops the list. This is likely due to two interlocking factors: prohibitive cost and the difficulty of attribution.
Still, 2% of respondents said that TV and radio are “very effective” for them, indicating that — while unlikely — it is a fit for some businesses.
4. Existing Customer Retention
“What existing (return) customer acquisition channels do you plan to use and how would you rate their effectiveness?”
Top five “very effective” existing customer channels
- Segmented email offers: 80.4%
- General email offers: 74.5%
- Facebook retargeting for general site visitors: 64.7%
- Facebook retargeting for pages or products: 62.7%
- Instagram retargeting: 51.0%
Behold, the almighty power of email: number one and number two.
Segmented email offers beat out the nearest non-email competitor by a full 15.7%. These responses are corroborated by revenue data as well. Last year, across Shopify, email was the number one source of conversions during Black Friday Cyber Monday.
Of course, knowing you should segment for the holidays and knowing how to segment are two very different things. To maximize your email marketing, Klaviyo’s Senior Marketing Manager, Alicia Thomas, recommends at least six segments for Black Friday Cyber Monday.
However, when we asked her to identify the most-lucrative groups, she boiled it down to just three:
“If I had to choose where a large organization should invest, I’d say that the first and by far most-profitable segment is VIP customers.
“Set a specific dollar amount or number of times purchased that’s 2-3 times your average and send that group an extra-special discount or offer. Make it exclusive and make it big.
“Second, focus on recent openers: subscribers who have opened an email from you in the last 30 days. They’re already engaged so just be clear and blunt about your holiday event.
“Third — and maybe I should have said this first — be sure to set up a cart recovery sequence that only includes the exact products somebody has left behind, your Black Friday Cyber Monday offer applied directly to those items, and a sale extended reminder for anybody that still hasn’t completed their purchase by Monday or Tuesday.”
“As you grow, and your audience grows, they shouldn’t be getting the same messages as everybody else. You should segment certain messages to your VIP customers that are spending more each year. You should be segmenting messages differently to men and women.”
In fact, Fisher revealed a number of the emails that Blenders sent last year, including this Black Friday “extended” email to segments of its lists who had opened previous emails but had not yet purchased:
Immediately after email, comes retargeting.
Because that channel commands positions three through five, we asked Shoelace’s co-founder and CEO, Reza Khadjavi — who manages the retargeting ads for a number of heavy-hitting merchants — how to stand out:
“During the rush, consumers are going to be bombarded with repetitive retargeting ads.
“Stand out from the crowd by making your ad experiences engaging and relevant to each customer based on where they are in their buying journey with your brand.
“We are huge advocates of Customer Journey Retargeting, which is the strategy of telling your brand story and building emotional connections with your customers through more personalized (and less annoying) retargeting experiences.
“This holiday season, take advantage of the influx in traffic to create intent-based segmentation in your retargeting and tailor your ads to speak to customers at different stages of their lifecycle.
“To keep your audience warm and to stay top-of-mind leading up to Black Friday Cyber Monday, we recommend starting your retargeting early to get your audience moving progressively down the purchasing funnel.”
Top five “will not use” existing customer channels
- Amazon remarketing: 84.3%
- SMS: 72.5%
- Direct mail: 70.6%
- Loyalty or rewards program: 58.8%
- Facebook Messenger: 52.9%
SMS and Facebook Messenger can be powerhouses for existing customer engagement over the holidays. Just be sure you treat these mediums as designed.
DMing isn’t the latest or greatest version of email marketing. Instead, use them both sparingly to (1) contact customers for whom you have strong behavioral profiles and can offer logical cross-sell opportunities, and (2) to recover abandoned carts over Black Friday Cyber Monday.
“ShopMessage has been a game changer for Pura Vida,” says Griffin Thall. “The abandoned cart flow through Messenger totally outperforms email and gives us a deeper relationship with our shoppers. I already recommend ShopMessage to every Shopify store owner I talk to.”
Given the difficulty of retaining holiday shoppers, it’s interesting to find out how few respondents plan to use loyalty or rewards programs. Stuart Arsenault, who leads Partnerships at Smile.io, calls attention to this:
“There is a stunning disconnect when we look at the survey results. Businesses list their top concern as rising ad costs, yet at the same time are maintaining dependency on them across the funnel.
“Ad costs aren’t dropping anytime soon and the time to find an alternative — or, at least, a longterm supplement to increase customer-lifetime value — is now. That alternative is to build emotional relationships with your customers.
“While large brands certainly invest in new customers, they also leverage holiday reward program campaigns to keep them around, focusing on things like gamification (Starbucks), personalized extra-point events (Nordstroms), and exclusive codes that change every day (Disney).
“Instead of celebrating the short term win (the purchase), you need to earn customers for the long term as real members of your community. If you don’t, someone else will.”
5. Holiday Offers, Deals, and Discounts
“What holiday offers do you plan to use and how would you rate their effectiveness?”
Top five “very effective” holiday ecommerce offers
- Site-wide discounts: 74.5%
- Specific product discounts: 58.8%
- Coupon codes: 52.9%
- Free shipping on all orders: 43.1%
- Free shipping by order value: 41.2%
Go big or go home. That’s the driving take-away from site-wide discounts dominating the “very effective” holiday offers, deals, and discounts list. Even for companies that don’t normally discount products, Black Friday Cyber Monday gives you a rationale that doesn’t hurt your brand’s reputation.
The question is: why are site-wide discounts so much more effective than codes?
Alex O’Byrne, the President of US Operations at We Make Websites, offered this breakdown:
“A lot of brands opt for using discount or coupon codes to power their BFCM discounts. Offers do often mean codes because during the rest of the year you’ll be running isolated offers to different customer segments. Codes are a great way to distribute an offer without relying on links.
“However, many BCFM offers are sitewide, so why introduce the coupon code barrier?
“Decreasing friction is a key principle when it comes to increasing conversion. So don’t add friction by forcing customers to remember and type in discount codes.
“You can use Shopify Scripts or a simple CSV product export, price change, product import to turn on and off the discounts.”
Here’s the twist: the only thing more enticing than a great deal … is the fear of missing out on that deal. Along those lines, Dax Young from BVAccel notes:
“It’s a well-known fact that the fear of ‘missing out’ is part of our human nature.
“Luckily, there exists a wide range of tactics that can help you take advantage of this phenomenon in ecommerce and trigger loss aversion by decreasing friction to purchase, increasing desire to purchase, and addressing general FUDs (fears, uncertainties, and doubts) to maximize conversions.
“Use your power of persuasion over the holidays with the following optimizations:
- Deploy a countdown timer with or without a discount code
- Promote early bird pricing for some of your products and services
- Remind visitors that their size may sell out if they wait too long to buy
- Include final order and shipping dates onsite and within emails so users have a clear understanding of when to order
“Last year, Rebecca Minkoff (one of our shared clients with Shopify Plus) did this with class, combining a site-wide discount and countdown timer along with an ‘Exclusives’ collection inside their Gift Guide.”
Top five “will not use” holiday ecommerce offers
- Gift wrapping: 84.3%
- Product bundles: 62.7%
- BOGO: 60.8%
- Discount tiers by order value (spend X, save Y): 54.9%
- Free gifts with purchase: 49%
Two through five are heartbreaking to see in the “will not use” category. Each of these methods led to big return-on-ad-spend (ROAS) wins for multiple Shopify Plus businesses last holiday season by driving up average order value (AOV).
100% Pure, for example, created collections of deeply discounted products, rotated them during the holiday season, and only made them available for purchase past a $45 spending threshold unlocked at the cart-level using Shopify Scripts.
Brooklinen used a free gift with purchase in conjunction with three spending thresholds for $-off discounts.
- Spend $250, get $50
- Spend $500, get $100
- Spend $800, get $200
6. Sales Channels for Direct Purchases
“What sales channels (i.e., for direct purchases) do you plan to use and how would you rate their effectiveness?”
Top five “very effective” holiday sales channels
- Multiple ecommerce sites: 27.5%
- Owned retail location: 21.6%
- Shopping on Instagram (product tagging): 19.6%
- Amazon: 19.6%
- Wholesale (through retailers or distributors)15.7%
Comparing the percentages of “very effective” in this category against all the other questions reveals a startling pattern. Every other number-one ranked “very effective” leader was rated that way by a large majority of respondents.
In other words, there appears to be a sharp divide between businesses that use these channels and find them “very effective” versus those that “will not” — or do not — use them at all.
That divide, even among online businesses operating at or above $10 million in annual revenue, likely indicates how simultaneously difficult and lucrative future-focused approaches to commerce (namely, multi-channel, omni-channel, and online-to-offline commerce) truly are.
Top five “somewhat effective” holiday sales channels
- Shopping on Instagram (product tagging): 51%
- Facebook shop (native): 41.2%
- Wholesale (through retailers or distributors): 29.4%
- Pop-up shop or IRL event: 21.6%
- Buyable Pins: 21.6%
As a channel category, social selling dominated the “somewhat effective” rating. Of the three major networks, Instagram appears to show the greatest promise for merchants with 51% reporting it as “somewhat effective” and an additional 19.6% calling it “very effective.”
What makes these findings even more telling is that social advertising led the way in terms of acquisition.
All this indicates a wide disparity between social media’s ability to drive sales through advertising and its ability to drive sales “natively.”
7. Inventory Planning and Management
“What advanced inventory procurement methods are you using to prepare for the holidays (e.g., formulas based on historical performance, projected marketing spend, pre-selling or initial offer testing, industry projections, etc.)?”
“Across our multiple brands and storefronts, we use an open-to-buy system that tracks sell-through rate, aged inventory, vendor sell-through, category sell-through, etc.”
Alicia Doremus, Ecommerce Manager at Import Image Racing
“Inventory formulas are based on historical performance, projected marketing spend, industry projections.”
Chase Fisher, CEO of Blenders Eyewear
“The top three factors are historical performance, year-over-year growth, and marketing spend. Based on last year’s growth, we’re stocking up. We’re going to be ballsy on our inventory. We’re going into it confident.”
8. Navigating Amazon
“What is your brand’s approach to navigating Amazon during the Q4 holidays?”
Daniel Snow, Founder of The Snow Agency
“Similar to on-site inventory, having allocated inventory for Amazon is crucial for a successful holiday season. We follow the same on-site strategy allocation as we do for Amazon inventory levels.
“Due to increased marketing spend and online customer behavior, Amazon sales volume increases on a correlated scale. Customers will naturally visit your website, then proceed to buy your product from your Amazon listing. As marketing spend spikes, the relative sales of your Amazon listing will spike as well.”
Mark Goetze, CEO of Motion RC
“Our approach is to focus on growing our business rather than helping Amazon reach two trillion in market capitalization. We do not sell on the Amazon marketplace for three primary reasons: (1) fees are extraordinarily high, (2) their return policy is incompatible with our product segment, and (3) Amazon often undercuts sellers with their own lower price Amazon-branded products.”
Ric Kostick, CEO of 100% PURE
“Partnering with Amazon is crucial so that we have control over our brand on the channel. Likewise, so is watching margins closely because it’s much lower margins than your own website. This means, still advertise but don’t go crazy.”
9. Seasonal Sales by Quarter
“What quarter do you experience the largest seasonal spike in sales?”
10. Holiday Sales Projections
“What do you expect your Q4 holiday sales to increase by in 2018 (compared to the rest of the year)?”
11. Analytics to Monitor and Optimize
“What analytics tools do you use to monitor and optimize holiday performance? Check all that apply.”
Top five analytics tools for the holidays
- Google Analytics: 96.1%
- Shopify analytics: 92.2%
- Email service provider (ESP): 54.9%
- Launchpad live dashboard: 19.6%
- Enterprise resource planning (ERP): 15.7%
The vast majority of large online businesses use Google Analytics and Shopify’s analytics. However, if you’re a Shopify Plus merchant, the live Launchpad dashboard comes highly recommended by the businesses using it.
In an interview about the second-highest revenue season of the year — Back to School — Dormify’s Director of Product, Lauren Ulmer, explained:
“I can compare our Memorial Day sale this year versus Memorial Day last year, and get a very nice snapshot in time from running the Launchpad event, which is a great benefit while we’re tracking the live report.”
Likewise, Chris Tran, Engineer at 100% Pure, says:
“It’s like NASA’s command and control center. The live reporting is amazing. It’s a one-stop-shop that offers everyone the same view and keeps us all on the same page.”
Naturally, the struggle most large organizations have with data isn’t data itself, it’s what to do with all the different dashboards, metrics, and numbers rushing at them.
As Eric Keating, VP of Marketing at Zaius — a Shopify Plus Partner that specializes in the collection and application of analytics across marketing activities — explains:
“Just having access to analytics isn’t enough: you have to close the gap between data and execution.
“Unifying your customer data is a great step, but the real value is derived when marketers use it to create detailed segments, personalize content at the individual level, and automate behaviorally-triggered campaigns across channels like email, web, Facebook, Google, and more. This is especially important during the holidays when competition for dollars is at its peak.”
“If you do nothing else, make sure you’re collecting behavioral data during the holidays.
“You’ll see more traffic in the next few months than you do all year, and it’s a huge opportunity to capitalize on that influx during and after the season is over. With the right strategy, you can turn one-time gift buyers into repeat, loyal customers.”
Holiday Pre-Season Playbook
Want to get even more data, insight, and advice? You can … access the full Holiday Pre-season Playbook here:
About the Study
The “Holiday Ecommerce +$10M Merchant Survey” — as its original title read — was conducted between August 20 and September 20, 2018. Fifty-one unique respondents completed the survey.
Eligible Shopify Plus merchants were sent direct invitations based upon (1) total online store(s) revenue (GMV) at or above $10 million USD over the last 12 months (July 2017 to July 2018) or (2) total online store(s) revenue (GMV) at or above $8 million USD over the last 12 months (July 2017 to July 2018) plus supplemental revenue — i.e., brick-and-mortar and/or multi-channel sales — at or above $2 million.
To protect anonymity, the survey contained the following introductory message:
“Your name and company information will not appear in the final version of the Report. By submitting answers, you agree to let Shopify Plus anonymize, aggregate, and publish the data collected herein.”
All questions in this report are presented as they originally appeared to respondents. Quoted contributions within “Inventory planning and management” and “Navigating Amazon” were collected immediately after the initial multiple choice questions and only there were respondents required to submit their name, title, company, and URL.