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Hello Vaccines! Managing Paid Search during the Next Phase of COVID Recovery

With vaccination rates increasing across the US, many marketers are on the edge of their seats preparing for the next phase of pandemic recovery. While much is changing, there are also some paid search practices that warrant revisiting, or exploring for the first time, as consumers become comfortable with going back into stores and public spaces.  

Continue to Lean into Auction Time Bidding

As Merkle’s Egle Mazonaite mentions in her blog post on 2021 digital strategy, leveraging automated bidding strategies allows marketers to be as flexible and responsive as possible regarding shifts in device, time, and audience trends. As warmer weather approaches, vaccination rates increase, and people begin to venture out again, automated strategies can help with being proactive to these changes, as opposed to reacting after the fact. Automated strategies can also help identify new audience types and customers who may be eager to shop with your business, both online and offline.

Understand What’s Happening from an Omnichannel Lense at the State Level

During the pandemic, 52% of US adults shopped more online than they had pre-pandemic, shifting demand away from traditional stores and in-person events. However, increasing rollouts of COVID vaccinations have shown a corresponding increase in demand for in-person experiences that have been put on pause for more than a year. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, states are moving at varying rates – for vaccinations, regulations, guidelines, re-openings, and personal comfort in re-entering public spaces. Because of these variations, advertisers should continue to review, understand, and optimize performance at a granular view to assess the impacts of these changes to their performance. Below are several views our team has pulled together for clients:

Sample Reporting View #1: This view for a US-based national, omnichannel retailer showcases the percent of offline revenue by state. This view should be customized to account for the natural spread of demand captured offline by store location. The graph showcases a heavier concentration percentage of offline revenue in Texas, Florida, and Nevada, three states with COVID restrictions fully lifted or significantly eased.

Percent of Offline Revenue by State

Sample Reporting View #2: This view for a US-based online retailer showcases a comparison between a specific group of states compared with all other US states for a given metric. Specifically, this looks at Texas and Florida to see if relaxed statewide COVID restrictions impacted online performance, with the hypothesis that with these changes, online traffic and sales may decelerate compared with other states that have maintained COVID restrictions. For advertisers who want to monitor a group or set of states based on physical presence in that area, competitor activity, or state guidance in place, this comparison would be helpful.

State tracking

Sample Reporting View #3: This view across Merkle’s clients from the Merkle Digital Marketing Report showcases how daily in-store visits paced for advertisers who have location extensions enabled and store visit tracking in place in their Google Ads account. The below shows a peak in-store visit rate over the Q4 holidays, with a similar volume of daily store visits in Q1 2021 as compared to January 2020. Set up this view with a state specific toggle to continue to monitor this trend within your own data.

Daily store visits

Sample Reporting View #4: This view for a US omnichannel retailer compared publicly available COVID vaccination rollout data with online performance– predominantly clicks, orders, conversion rates, and sales per click. Advertisers should assess this across metrics and states to see if there’s a higher/lower impact in states with stronger vaccination rates within their target audiences and demographics.

Non-brand search data

Back to Basics with Offline & Omnichannel Support

As many advertisers have pulled budget and focus away from offline support over the past year, it’s good to revisit paid search local basics in preparation for this summer’s expected rise in offline interest:

  • Refresh Google My Business listings (GMB)for updated store status, location, operating hours, and curbside/pickup (if applicable)
  • Keep Local Inventory Ad feeds fresh to reflect in-store inventory availability
  • Use localized keywords (ex. “near me”, “local”, or “store” keywords) and update store location geo targeting
  • Feature any in-store offers in ad copy around stores using ad customizers
  • Enable location extensions to more readily showcase local information on search ads and track store visits
  • Consider setting up store sales for more accurate in-store revenue attribution
  • Incorporate a rise in expected offline sales into budgeting for upcoming quarters
  • Incorporate offline value of store visits/store sales into bidding ROAS calculations
  • Account for changing behavior, by device, by incorporating cross-environment conversions in bid strategies
  • Test into local search ads for premium listings on map results

Prepare for an Onslaught of Pent-Up Demand for In-Person Experiences

A worldwide survey found consumers have a strong desire, once vaccinated, to return to malls and shopping centers. With vaccinations rising, stimulus checks in hand, and state restrictions relaxing, retail sales were +9.8% in March 2021. However, not all consumers plan on abandoning the convenience and variety of online shopping. 20% of respondents stated that they plan to continue shopping primarily online once vaccinated, but also expect to buy items in-store much more often.

US Retail Sales

For ONLINE ONLY companies, work on the following to keep consumers engaged:

  • Focus on the value propositions of shopping online – Businesses looking to retain newly engaged online shoppers should highlight the convenience, selection, and contactless nature of e-commerce.
  • Where possible, mitigate the drawbacks of ecommerce – The shipping delays and long wait times associated with delivery over the past year are one of the strongest incentives for consumers to go back into brick-and-mortar stores. Help to mitigate these effects where possible by offering free shipping, maybe in exchange for asking members to sign up for emails or a loyalty program, and when shipping is heavily delayed, offer a discount for a future purchase.
  • Invest in technology to replicate the advantages of in-store – The wonderful thing about brick-and-mortar is being able to see for yourself how something looks on you. Historically, this has been difficult to replicate in an online environment, but augmented reality, particularly with virtual try-on, has been embraced by many brands that are looking to help consumers have a better sense of how much they’ll like a product in person. Additional benefits include decreased return rates, especially during a time when many businesses have extended return windows. 

For OMNI or OFFLINE ONLY businesses looking to support offline efforts:

  • Highlight safety –Cleaning and sanitizing are nothing new for retailers, but, with the pandemic, consumers are expecting more details and extra steps to be taken. Nordstrom has done a great job in spelling out all steps taken in stores on its website. Other retailers or experiential locations are installing and promoting additional safety-focused value props, such as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) lamps, as a differentiator in their market.
  • Ensure and highlight in-store vale propsEcomm is still only 19.5% of global retail sales, because in-store experiences are often much better. You can see a product, try it out, and immediately take it home. No shipping delays, lost packages, return labels, or going to the post office. Businesses should tout these benefits in areas where they have a store presence and on site when someone interfaces with the brand through store-driving ad units.
  • Surprise and delight consumers“Consumers crave rewards that they don’t expect.” We’ve all heard about the Trader Joe’s employee culture and how they’re able to give flowers to customers to make their day brighter, or opening up a package from the shelves and allowing browsers to sample it. This environment of surprising and delighting shoppers cultivates a strong brand loyalty.
  • Ensure a seamless online/offline UX – Keep accurate in-store inventory online, noting store location (if in a mall) and store aisle number. This ensures customers can avoid wandering once inside while frustratingly trying to locate a product. Make sure Google My Business (GMB) pages have updated store hours, in-store/curbside pickup notations, and prominently feature safety precautions to build consumer trust.
  • Differentiate the in-store experience – Brands like Nike have worked to bring successful elements of ecomm into the brick-and-mortar experience. By providing instant checkout, localizing store design, and connecting store functions with the Nike app, this standout in-store experience draws shoppers into stores, helping to take the features they expect from the website and app into the in-person experience.