Seasonality and SEM Campaigns

Wednesday, October 27, 2004: The Boston Red Sox win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Boston goes berserk. Fans flood into the streets. Strangers hug. People literally cry tears of joy.

It was jubilation, pandemonium… and opportunity.

With the official start of the baseball season this week, let’s recall a search engine marketing (SEM) lesson we learned at the end of last season.

As millions of viewers watched the Red Sox victory unfold on their TV screens, an SEM campaign was poised to capitalize on it.

As the game ended, one of our paid search specialists turned from his TV and logged into the company extranet. A client of ours sells sporting apparel, and he knew there’d be a run on the online store.

From his home computer, he doubled the client’s bid prices on all Red Sox-related keywords in the client’s paid search ad campaign. He had to do it quickly, because people would be shopping for Red Sox-branded gear for Boston’s rolling rally, to be held in the team’s honor in a couple days.

From experience, he knew conversion rates would increase enough to justify the increased bids. He guessed right. In the next seven days, the campaign broke all records. The client sold thousands of Red Sox hats. The campaign’s return on investment (ROI) went through the roof.

Good fortune was on our client’s side that night. A quick check of Google found them listed in the first position on a query for “red sox hat” in the natural search results, ranking higher even than, the official Boston Red Sox site. When a dream came true for the Red Sox, it also came true for our client.

About a week later, these keywords’ ROI drifted down to breakeven. We lowered all the bids to their previous levels.

It happened in the blink of an eye. The campaign’s volume and conversion rate increased suddenly and in lockstep.

Seasonality’s Effect on Conversion Rate

Most people think of seasonality spikes just in terms of increased volume. We regularly witness conversion rates skyrocket with seasonally. Seasonality requires a new bidding strategy, not just a larger budget.

Increasing a budget in advance of seasonal traffic spikes is important, but be sure to raise your bids in anticipation of a conversion rate increase, too. Historical campaign data maintained by you, your SEM firm, or your bid management tool, should anticipate this for you.

In the absence of a long track record and its accompanying data, improvise. The Red Sox campaign had no historical data (it had been 86 years, after all!). An experienced paid search specialist guessed at doubling the bid prices, and he was right. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. Be prepared to make adjustments based on performance.

Better to aim higher and adjust downwards than to miss the wave. That next wave may not come for another 86 years.

For a natural search campaign, anticipate a three-month delay between optimization and pages moving into Google’s top rankings for searches on your targeted keywords. Yahoo’s paid inclusion channel is faster; it can display your listings within 48 hours.

Don’t redesign your site within six months of the high-volume season, no matter what. With every redesign, every ranking is at risk. Be careful and allow plenty of time to correct mistakes or regain lost ground before you risk your top rankings during high season.

Plot Your Seasonality

Different companies experience very different seasonality. Our client scored big along with the Red Sox. Each sporting season has highs and lows, often related to playoffs, championship games, team performance, and the intensity of various rivalries.

Gift and flower retailers know they must ramp up in advance of Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Retailers’ most eagerly anticipated seasonality begins in early November.

Seasonality isn’t just about retailers.

For whatever reason, many insurance companies see conversation rate and volume increases in January. Financial institutions that offer college loans see campaign ROI spike in July and August, as kids get ready for college.

Generally, business-to-business (B2B) sites spike at the start of each month; we have no idea why. The same sites see ROI improvements at the start of each calendar year as budgeted funds become available.

Capitalizing on seasonality requires careful planning. In natural search, advance preparation must precede the expected peak by several months.

Execution, Not Just Budget Growth

Each industry has its own rise and fall curves, and that’s the challenge. You may have to guesstimate your boost in advance of the peak and factor it into a bidding strategy.

If you stick with your year-round bidding strategy during peak seasons, your campaign will suffer because the conversion picture changes dramatically. Make sure bids stay closely related to the conversion rate, and anticipate an increase with seasonality. Monitor conversion rates and be prepared to make changes on a dime. Anything less and you could risk a once-in-86-years opportunity.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies in Toronto, Canada, May 4-5, 2005.

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