What do retailers need to consider ahead of Black Friday?

We ask the experts about strategy, search, content and more. Thanks go to Dan Barker, James Gurd, Stuart Rex and Guy Levine.

Why not take the time to have a leisurely read through the whole post. Or, if you're in a hurry, you can jump straight to an individual question using the links below.

  1.  Do you expect any notable changes by big retailers this year, either in strategy or UX?
  2.  Last year we saw John Lewis add Black Friday terms to its homepage meta tags. Can temporary fixes help with SEO?
  3.  It’s a big time for email. What tactics are important before and after the day?
  4.  Retailers still seem to have archaic keyword-rich Black Friday landing pages. Is this really necessary? What content approach should they take?
  5.  How can retailers with smaller paid media budgets compete at this time of year?
  6.  Any other advice or predictions?

1. Do you expect any notable changes by big retailers this year, either in strategy or UX?

Dan Barker, independent consultant:

Black Friday falls at a slightly strange point this year, on the 24th. The years it really took off in the UK it fell on the 28th & 27th, meaning the bulk of people would either have been paid in advance, or would be paid over that weekend/Monday. This year it means many won’t be paid until a few days after. That may dampen things a little.

Here are my expectations:

  • I expect some retailers will opt out of Black Friday again this year – probably a few more than last year.
  • Some will go with alternatives – eg ‘every £100 you spend, we give X to charity’.
  • There’ll be quite a lot of ‘20% off this niche range’ checkbox campaigns, to avoid not doing something when it’s a perceived expectation.
  • And a few clever retailers will do really well using it to pick up new customers at a discount on their normal cost per new acquisition; some will use it cleverly to shift overbought stock; some will use it to remove potential sales from their competitors; and some will push quite big in a not particularly refined way and make a lot of sales taking a bit of a hit on margin without fully thinking through why.

Last year, Black Friday started around a week in advance from a retailer point of view – with emails, flyers, etc all dropping quite early. Amazon started their deals particularly early. I expect that will stay similar this year.

Some will try to pull sales forward ahead of Friday, expecting that will mean they can ‘steal’ sales from competitors, and the weekend itself will be big. There’s been a bit of a push around the phrase ‘Cyber Weekend’ over the last few years – it’s never quite taken off, but Cyber Monday is pretty established & Monday will be a big sales day (for many it’s bigger than the Friday).

James Gurd, owner at Digital Juggler:

I expect a longer burn but not such aggressive discounts over Black Friday weekend. This isn’t new, some retailers have been starting the week before for the past two years but I’m expecting more to do it this year as the weeks prior to Black Friday are hugely competitive for ad space.

Build the mindshare and then use more sales-led marketing tactics as the weekend approaches, with a strong focus on remarketing to ensure you maximise ad potential for people who have visited but not bought, as well as those who have bought once but could be tempted to repeat purchase with a strong promotion.

Guy Levine, CEO & founder, Return:

Brands should have a clear strategy of the return they want from their Black Friday campaign. Is it clearing old stock, bumping revenue figures, acquiring new customers, winning market share or generating cash flow? Each will have a slightly different timing, activity and metric set attached.

Stuart Rex, new business development manager, Ridgeway:

Following a few high profile rejections of Black Friday over the past couple of years (Selfridges, Asda, Homebase, Ikea etc) we’re expecting a mixed bag of strategies from retailers. Any brand or agency who has supported a major ecommerce store through Black Friday will know all too well the amount of preparation and pressure that is placed to have a strong peak sales period.

Those looking at the technology side of things will be pressing to stretch out longer sales periods to reduce spikes in website traffic, and therefore mitigate the risk of a site failing on performance terms. Many organisations are pushing credit in some form and we expect this to be a continuing trend for this year. However, as many will be aware, more forward-looking organisations have been planning for this event for months. They have been building SEO equity in the background for key pages ensuring that at the time of the sale going live all their comms channels will be driving consumers to those hot deals. 

This focus on the end-to-end customer experience is where we expect brands to be making the most notable changes this year, ensuring that the path to purchase is as slick as possible. Over the past nine months we’ve seen increasing investment amongst our clients and other ecommerce brands in better product recommendations and related products, increasing their utilisation of A/B/MVT testing and performance testing their solutions to be stable at increased volumes of traffic.

2. Last year we saw John Lewis add Black Friday terms to its homepage meta tags. Can temporary fixes help with SEO?

Dan Barker:

I think that’s quite a sensible thing to do, as there’s no real harm in it, and there is an amount of search volume for ‘Black Friday [category x]’ so you may pick up some traffic for your niche-specific terms (eg. I remember spotting some search volume for ‘Black Friday lawn tractor deals’).

Ideally though, people would have built some content beforehand, or resurrected last year’s page, or redirected last year’s page to its new location.

News sites have a bit of an advantage, as their AMP pages show ahead of retailer pages for anything Black Friday related. If you’re a retailer of a decent enough scale, making sure all of your deals are featured on the main news sites’ Black Friday Deals roundups is a sensible tactic.

black friday news stories

News content may dominate the organic listings for Black Friday content

James Gurd:

It depends on the domain and page strength. With the move to real-time indexing, it’s quicker now to get changes to content recognised and impacting SEO but you still need the quality signals to ensure it has an impact in SERPs. Just adding terms won’t do anything if the domain/page/content value are all low – search engines like Google are more concerned with relevance and context than keywords.

However, all things being equal, if you have a page optimised for seasonal terms and another site doesn’t, you stand a chance of greater search visibility.

If you search for terms like “Black Friday deals”, there’s not much activity before the second or third week of November, and Black Friday is on 24th November this year, so it will be quiet for direct search queries for a while yet.

Some brands have kept Black Friday category pages alive but interestingly they’re doing nothing with them in terms of content – check out Argos, a wasted opportunity to re-optimise for 2017, especially when the meta description is still "Black Friday 2016 is full of great Black Friday deals. Limited Same Day Delivery £3.95 or collect in-store within 7 days.

argos black friday search listing

So having a dedicated, permanently indexed category landing page with sub-pages is a great idea, both for SEO and for UX, but not having custom content this close to the event is odd, it looks like an oversight.

But I still expect paid media to dominate over organic because it’s more scalable and easier to manipulate visibility through bid management.

3. It’s a big time for email. What tactics are important before and after the day?

James Gurd:

Encourage people to sign up for price alerts. Build a ‘discount’ landing page that links to all products that will feature in your Black Friday promotion, then enable ‘Get price alert’ for each product, so that as a product is reduced, all interested customers receive an email notification. Depending on the systems you use, you can also do this via SMS and look at push notifications (most effective if you have an app).

Targeted campaigns are important as well, no different to any other time of year. For example:

  • For people who have bought more than X times from a specific category or brand in last 12 months, send a focused email with matching products
  • Use affinity segments to cross-promote products/brands to people based on their previous purchase history e.g. If you know people who buy X often go on to buy Y, target all people in X who haven’t yet done this.
  • Use price levers to upsell people to higher ticket items e.g. Customers who have only ever bought dresses <£100, promote the £100 - £200 range that is now heavily discounted – tempt people into higher value ranges as you can then set-up retention campaigns to target future margin improvements.
  • Create special bundles where the customer gets a good discount but you get a much higher average order value.

The most important take away is this – test different ways to segment based on behaviour and look at ways to increase AOV to make up for the margin you sacrifice through discounts.

Dan Barker:

If you’re in a very competitive category, try to figure out when your competitors will mail and do so before them.

If you don’t expect to make a lot of sales in the run up (for example if your business is in an ‘out of season’ category), running a countdown for Black Friday and encouraging users to sign up for email notification may be useful.

On the day itself, email early. It’s particularly controversial, but some retailers will choose to email more than once during the day. If you’re doing this, you may either want to exclude those who’ve opened earlier in the day, or flag to users that you’ll be doing so to avoid them getting the second email and thinking “I didn’t want this!” – a simple way of doing that is literally to tell them “We have so many deals for Black Friday, we’ll be sending you THREE emails full of them throughout the day. Don’t worry, normal service will resume afterward” etc.

If you’re a retailer who does not want to cannibalise likely sales from existing customers, and therefore are choosing to opt out of most Black Friday activity, you could still use it to send a biggish voucher to your churning, lapsed, or prospect emails to try to convert them into active customers without risking losing margin by moving your core customers from full price to discount.

Guy Levine:

The smartest use of email will come from list segmentation and matching the right offer to the right consumer. One of the most profitable segments should be super customers; they like you, trust you and use you already. As trust is established already, choose more ‘fear of missing out’ or reward-based emails.

Preferential offers to this list could well be your first bump in revenue. For new segments, don’t forget to build trust before offers – someone must believe the product will be delivered and can be easily returned before they will buy.

I feel the missed opportunity with email is in matching the messages across platforms; the strategic use of email and remarketing with matching messages will always outperform standard email campaigns. 

4. Retailers still seem to have archaic keyword-rich Black Friday landing pages. Is this really necessary? What content approach should they take?

Dan Barker:

That type of content has ‘worked’ for a few high profile retailers (and news sites), and therefore it becomes carbon copied. There’s no reason you couldn’t do something a bit nicer.

As lots of news sites are looking for Black Friday content, it’s a nice excuse for retailers with content resource to try and do something ‘nice enough’ that gets coverage itself.

James Gurd:

For most retailers, the content that sells on Black Friday is great deals delivered via the medium of choice. So if people use social to consume your content, put out deals via social posts and social remarketing ads. 

And don’t forget content around service proposition – speed of delivery, free delivery, free returns, click & collect, local collection etc. That content is as important to deal hunters as the products. Get the price and deal right and back up with a compelling service proposition, and that’s the most effective content in my experience.

However, there are exceptions and brands like Patagonia and Rei have done well by doing something different. For Rei.com, what started as a marketing campaign encouraging people to opt-out of spending Black Friday shopping in favour of doing something outside, is now a fully fledged content and community website that extends brand reach.

It’s a great example of how understanding and adhering to your brand values can create something of value, even if at face value you may be losing immediate sales to competitors doing heavy discounting.

REI's opt-outside hub

REI's opt-outside hub

5. How can retailers with smaller paid media budgets compete at this time of year?

Dan Barker:

Brand, creativity, relationships, and product are all other methods to ‘buy’ awareness. If you don’t have budget, using those may be useful. 

James Gurd:

Be smart with organic and owned media – so organic social campaigns and email marketing. You can compete without going head-to-head in a bidding war.

For paid media, pick sensible battles. Remarketing is a must – this is people who have already visited your website, so ensure you’re maximising the potential via search, display and social. 

And don’t forget your affiliate partners. Pick a handful that offer a high value audience and give them compelling deals (both in terms of the offer to their customer and the commission they can earn). Give them a reason to promote you over other brands, it’s often more cost effective than ramping up CPC bids.

Guy Levine:

Convincing new customers to buy and building brand awareness is typically the costliest form of paid media. Now is the time to be building your remarketing lists and segments, developing look-a-like audiences and doing work to increase your quality scores to ensure the lowest costs per click.  

Smaller brands will be taking on high street retailers with their Black Friday offerings this year. To jump on the Black Friday trend and be competitive, we’re seeing more SMEs offer genuine discounts of value to their customers. Smaller retailers are even using the event as a loss leader to build brand awareness and gain market share moving into Christmas.

6. Any other advice or predictions?

Dan Barker:

For retailers who build relationships with their customers, rather than making one-off sales, Black Friday is a good opportunity to make a second sale.

If you can make margin on Black Friday while still offering good deals, it may be a nice opportunity to up your customer acquisition budgets shortly beforehand. What that means is you get sale #1 prior to Black Friday, and make a second sale to top up the margin and grow your relationship with the customer over the busy weekend.

If your usual cycle of sales to customers is once every six weeks, that means rather than making two sales to new customers across the course of a couple of months, you may be able to do so within the space of a couple of weeks or a few days.

Ben Davis

Published 26 October, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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