The effects of seasonality on your PPC plan

"Every day feels like a month. The stakes are higher." 

Beyond the Cart Lightburn Podcast - Ecommerce
Person relaxing near a pool, shopping on their phone

In today's episode, we're talking about the effects of seasonality on your PPC plan, how we approach seasonality as it relates to paid advertising, and the unique challenges of running campaigns for clients with extreme seasonality.

Hosted by:

Andy Winthieser
Partner
Nora Lahl
Partner

Today’s Topics:

  • Advertising highly seasonal products
  • Customer engagement
  • Following your audience (1-800-FLOWERS)
  • How weather can affect your product sales
  • Your first year of digital ads
  • Revving up digital ad spend
  • Communicating with operations

LOOK & LISTEN

Welcome to Beyond the Cart, presented by Lightburn. This is a podcast all about ecommerce. Where we share some of our experiences building, managing, and promoting direct-to-consumer brands.

I'm Nora. And today we're talking about the effects of seasonality on your PPC plan, how we approach seasonality as it relates to paid advertising and the unique challenges of running campaigns for clients with extreme seasonality. And because I'm not a PPC expert, I'm joined by my illustrious colleague, Clay Patterson, Lightburn’s director of digital marketing

Welcome, Clay! Hi Nora. Thanks for having me. Thank you for joining us on beyond the Cart. It's nice to be in this closet with you guys. I know it's very intimate. Isn't it? Is intimates a good word. It's fun.  

As you know, this season, we're diving a little deeper on certain topics. Last season, we took a kind of higher level view. And so today we wanna talk specifically about products that have strong seasonal trends. And I think, you know, you and I were talking about this earlier that seasonality can mean a lot of different things. Like a lot of ecommerce sites have some level of seasonality. Right, Right. Yeah. You know, let's talk about like, what do we mean by like a typical seasonality versus what we'd consider more extreme?

Yeah. I liked this topic because I think in a nutshell, everyone understands like what seasonality is as a base level of like, yeah, I'm slightly busier at certain times of year than others. But why I liked diving into this was that, you know, from our perspective, one of the cool things about working agencies is you you're just exposed to all these different kinds of businesses and, and brands and industries and markets.

I think it's been interesting that we have that historic, you know, experience with some of those extreme, extremely seasonal clients. Yeah. And we've learned over the years, how that affects the other, wait, I'm doing the math, like, you know, let's just say it's all in two, three months then what are you doing? The other quarters. Yeah. Right. To Prepare. Right. Yeah. It it's really tough because I mean, it's exciting. I would say on the pro side, it's an exciting to work on those highly seasonal clients, because it's just like, oh my God. Look at the traffic in orders. They're getting every day, like every hour, but on the flip side, it, there's obviously an added stress level just cuz the stakes are higher. 

What to expect when advertising highly seasonal products 

Yeah. You just like every day feels like a month in terms of like how critical it is. And if a, you know, if a site goes down for a day, it's like, no, it's much more important than a day because this is such a critical day or critical time, time of year. So stakes are higher. Makes it more exciting. And then I think the other obvious challenge is that, you know, compared to what we're used to with a more linear business throughout the year is that instead of this kind of gradual comfortable pace of learning and optimizing and like taking lessons from March and applying 'em in April or whatever, it's, it's just so fast and furious and you have to learn from the prior year and then like really be ready to apply that the, the following year and just be ready. Everything's just a little bit different. Like my whole mindset has to change of, I have to be less patient right with. Yeah. And I think. With paid initiatives that aren't working for a non-seasonal client, it might be like, you know, give it a few more weeks. Yeah. And you know, let's not do anything drastic. That's kind of, my Mo- usually is let's not knee jerk react or, or just totally pivot. But with these highly seasonal clients, I have to force myself to think differently and say, no, we don't have time. I have to be less patient. I have to be, you know, have more urgency. Yeah. Which is a little bit unnatural for me.  You're more of a slow, you know, I want, I want a big data, Intentional, Growth sort of, I want big sample size always. So a campaign has a rough couple of weeks. I always am trying to preach to clients, preach patients and . but I can't do that with a couple bad days and I really have to have a good case for keeping it up a third day, you know? Yeah. So it's, it's, it's definitely a mindset adjustment from that. Like that's a big challenge, especially because I might go from a, in a single day working on one of these highly seasonal clients to then working on another client that isn't that way. So it even more interesting. This is my radar within. A day or a week. In, I mean that's agency life, right? Yeah. The in and out and the, the getting your mind to the right place for what you're working on and making sure it's appropriate for them. 

Yeah. And so I think one of the things that, that I see, you know, I'm, I'm not on the, you know, marketing side, as much as the production building the sites and maintaining 'em. One of the things that, that we try to do to prepare for that is make sure that anything that could go wrong is prepared for yeah. So we can, you know, like you said, we cannot.  Oh, contingency plans and yeah. Yep. We can't risk a site being down for even a day. Right. Or a few hours in that, you know, microcosm of a whole year's worth of revenue or 80% of your revenue in eight Weeks. Right.  You know, every day counts. So, you know, we do things like Jack up your like server bandwidth. Right. So that we can handle that higher traffic or have redundancy plans so that if something goes down, we can get it up more quickly than if you had, you know, less risk involved. Totally. That supports your effort so that you don't have to worry about that.  Exactly. And I would say, I mean, this is probably true for any type of client that year two is easier and better than year one just cuz you, you know, you know, a lot, you have a lot of Intel . I think that's even more extreme with seasonal though. Like going through a crazy hectic peak season really makes the next year a lot more like all at least we know the ins and outs of like what to expect. Yeah.So it helps, you know, that so many of our extreme seasonal clients were, you know, we've, we've been with for five or six years now. Yeah. That lowers the stress just a little bit, a little bit. A little stress during that time is, is good. Good motivator, right? Yeah. It's healthy. Exactly. 

Keeping customer engagement during the off season 

Yeah. So what, what are some of the things that you're doing to prepare like as we're entering, especially if you've got something that really like ticks over, let's say black Friday is the kickoff. Yeah. Or, you know, Memorial day might be a kickoff or something. That's more, you know, summary. What are you, what are you, what are you doing in the, in the weeks and months ahead of that? Yeah. It's a great question. Cuz it's kind of another one that is so different from a non-seasonal that that, that off season, if you will, whatever that is. However long that is, is so important for like laying a foundation, building, building out campaigns or at least campaign shells or like getting set up on ad platforms. Like that's helpful to do six months out because just everything has to be finally tuned, ready to go to like flip this on switch and have everything in place. Yeah. Now would you say, you said flip on, do we, sometimes campaigns are totally flipped off. Would you recommend that in? Yeah, I, I guess that is specific to like paid advertising initiatives. Maybe it doesn't have to be an on, off switch as much as it's running at five to 10% and then it gets switched up to 90 to a hundred percent. Yeah. So it's valuable to introduce 'em to your brand at any time. Yeah. And try and get 'em into your ecosystem and get 'em on your newsletter list and just, just get them in your world, whatever, like I'll, I'll take that anytime a year, even if we're not getting that purchased right away. Yeah. And so that messaging might be different over time, whether it's in the ad itself or on the site, like you said, like, let's say we wanna build up that email marketing channel. Yeah. then maybe those campaigns that are running throughout the rest of the year are driving you more towards signing up for news, you know, that's, that's gonna be a shift in the advertising and the messaging.  The other thing I think about with like off season strategy with these highly seasonal clients is, is incentivizing becoming a customer in that off season in season. The incentive is that it's topical. It's like fitting for that time of year. 

That's the incentive to shop and buy. Then outside of that, you have to find some other incentive to get 'em in. You have to give them a deal, a discount, something that's like, this is why you'd be buying from us. Now, even though this may not make logical sense based on the calendar and where we are in the calendar.  Yeah. So would you say maybe going a little heavier on promotions discounts just to get 'em in the door? Yeah. I think that's a totally why. I mean, I think about like I've never bought a lawn mower. I have a hand me down lawn mower, but I think the smartest time to buy it is like, I like fall right. When it season's over. Yeah. And get your snowblower in April and you're probably gonna get a better deal. It's not exciting. Again, people, you know, people want to be part of the, that season. Like they want, they want at a time. That makes more sense when they can use it. Right. Yeah. So that's why you have to kind make up for it. It's like, Hey, we know that you're gonna buy this and not use it for a while, but here's, here's a good reason to do that. Yeah. We're always thinking about those kind of things.

Following your audience (1-800-FLOWERS) 

Total tangent, but I was just reading this story of edible arrangements. Oh yeah. Which is just like a really Ion dollar company now. Well, It's gone up and down. And so like in 20 17, 20 19, I think they were kind of struggling. It's a franchise and they were getting their lunch eaten by. They just weren't on for digital marketing. Like they were people would search edible arrangement and get a 1-800-FLOWERS. Yeah. And they weren't prepared for it. Sure. And so they were really struggling and then the pandemic hit and they became an outlet for people who couldn't get an Instacart, you know, slot. Sure. But could get a basket of fruit Delivery. Oh, I bet they crushed it during the Pandemic. Yeah. They really found a way to become less seasonal. I think. And become, you know, follow their customer yeah. To where their customer is leading them. They're an interesting one too, cuz it isn't necessarily, they're seasonal for sure. But that's not one season. I can just imagine the unbelievable peaks and valleys of like every holiday getting ramped up for like, oh it's mother's day . now it's not mother's day. Oh it's father's day now. It's not. Yeah. Oh it's you know, Christmas. Yeah. Well, and that brought up something else that I wanted to talk to you about is that, that seasonality, we, we do have a, a client that is like an edible gift. And so we do see some of those peaks for- Yeah. Every holiday on the calendar is good for them. What's it's just nothing's as good as Thanksgiving. Christmas. Yeah. Thanksgiving, Christmas is always gonna be the big one. Yeah. But you know, mother's day we always see it. A little jump Easter For sure. Easter. Yeah. And one of the things about looking at historic data, which is so important when you're talking seasonality is that host dates change and so like Easter, especially. Yeah. But no, yeah. That's a, that's a crazy one that we see that in the numbers of like, why was this spike three weeks off from the prior year? It Throws off your whole cause it'll hit in March or April changed. Yeah. And the, the holiday timing changes. 

Weather-driven seasonality 

So I think that's probably gonna happen too with seasonal products that are more based on weather. So like if you've got something that's really like a summer . product, if you, if your summer isn't starting until later- You're in Wisconsin, Wisconsin. There is no summer. Yeah. Well, no spring, like, yeah. I bet there's lots of stuff that people usually start ramping up buying in the spring to prepare for summer. Yeah. That they're just not thinking about this year because it's just so dreary different geographically. Yeah. I'm not buy, I'm not buying shorts for my kids yet. Right. Last year I might have been by this time. Yeah. And so that's a real challenge is like taking that historic data. That's so important and laying the context of like what's happening in the real world. When did Easter hit? When, when did the weather change? Oh yeah. And using that, you know, you, you may see an opportunity that, okay, well then we're really gonna have to crush it in June. Right. If we didn't make as much in may because the weather right. Was crappy. Well then we're just really gonna have to hit it. Yeah. Yeah. And hopefully it'll be warmer in the fall, you know? Hopefully it'll pass your fingers even out somehow. Or I we've even had if black Friday is late, that's such a kickoff and we can lose. A whole, it's enormous. DNCE for our clients when Thanksgiving falls. Yeah. Like that's, that's just another thing that's been so interesting is getting into these meetings and it's like, well, Christmas is on a Friday this year. So that's great news for shipping. And I'm like, oh, okay. It makes sense. I never thought about it a few more days. Yeah. Four or five more days in this critical season is a real thing that I point to for why one year might have been better than the next . I'll just be like, how, how dare Thanksgiving be the 28th instead of the 23rd, that's a killer for us.  

Well, and that's one of the reasons that we do always try to find ways to ramp up that off season spend. Yeah. So how can we start helping grow the business for, you know, like maybe we're growing Easter a little bit more so that it we've got a little bit more opportunity outside of that small window. Yeah. Part of it for our, I mean specifically for our mail order, pastry client, is, is it like a thing of, we just need to, people obviously love this product. We need to just convince them there's nothing wrong with loving it at different times of years,  like, it's there's, you know, there's certain seasonal products like Adirondack chair to say, oh, Hmm. Where, what an odd reference  it came out of the blue where that's like an actual in this kind of climate. That's an actual hard product to use in certain Ones here. Yeah. Yeah. Whereas delicious, you know, pastries cakes. It's like, I, I understand why it's always going to be a Christmas tradition always gonna be, but there's that one it's harder to make the case of why can't this be popular in the summer, in the spring and whatever. 

What to expect during your first year of digital ads 

So we've talked a lot of different, you know, things to consider for extremely seasonal products. Let's, let's assume that Bilberry West is gonna have some of that. I don't think it'll be quite as extreme as some of our, you know, all year revenue in eight weeks At the end of the year. Yeah. It won't just be July Let's hope not. It'll Be pretty signal. Yeah. But you know, we're, we're preparing to, you know, get things turned on as soon as we can, but that there would probably be a pretty significant peak in the spring as people are, you know, pulling out their patio furniture and know that they need to replace something. Yeah. Or, you know, looking at that. So Everyone gets that first like warm breeze that they're like, let's sit outside. . like everyone, it is gonna hit everyone that mindset. Yeah. So what would you, you know, let's, let's step through, what, what would that look like? What are we, what's the plan for Bilberry West? Because we're gonna be scheduling a meeting with you pretty soon. I would say the plan is in progress, but as far as I do know what our general approach will be and a, a big part of it is, is the mindset that we all need to have. 

Especially like from the paid advertising perspective that year one, this is going to be a year of learning and that's gonna be the first priority is like learning as much and collecting as much data from this first season as we can to, to make great decisions moving forward. Obviously we want to have great sales and, and have as, you know, good, an ROI as we can from these initial campaigns. But that's a difference that I know I would have from a few years ago is like priority number one, can't be like this just has to return X amount. Yeah. Or else we, we really just need to prioritize learning this, this first year and testing as many different things as we can just to, to lay that great foundation as we go. So yeah, to me, it starts the plan with that, that approach of like, let's learn as much as we can with these dollars and, and make the most of it from a experimentation and, and testing standpoint.

Yeah. Yeah. And I, one thing that you always do that I, I really love is that you, you follow what works really quickly. Like you're willing to switch on a dime. If you had a plan, there was a mix of, you know, Google shopping and paid search and social, and then you see all of the, you know, revenue is coming from that, you know, Google shopping. Yeah. You follow the money and you don't let that stop us. 

Especially if you have something that's really seasonal, you don't have time right to waste. Yeah. I, I appreciate the compliment. The funny thing is so much of that comes from being wrong so many times. Like, I'm just, I'm just so conditioned now, so you can have a great plan, but it's so hard to predict mm-hmm, what the internet at large is going to do. Yeah. And how they're gonna react to your brand and, and how your message is gonna resonate with all these different types of people. So yeah. You have to be nimble. You have to be humble that the best laid plans can shift quickly and, and really should, based on the, the numbers that you're getting. Yeah. You embrace that change. Yeah. And the, you know, being wrong. Yeah. It's like, we look at a lot of numbers before we start, we look at like search volumes and like, you know, expected click costs and like all this data that's predictive. It just doesn't mean nearly as much as the actual raw data that starts coming in. Yeah. Like I, I put more stock in like, you know, a few dollars of spend worth of data. Once we're live with actual human beings actually searching and actually clicking our ads and getting to our site, then like all these forecasts from all these great tools. It's just, it's so much more real once it starts happening all, you know, so much more emphasis goes into the, the real numbers once they start coming in. Yeah. So we are gonna do that planning and, and expect that we put more into that spring season. Yeah. Probably all hands, you know, the whole group comes together yeah. To kind of kick that season off. How far in advance of you know, a season E- even within, within a client that we have more experience and, and data for, would you suggest that that conversation start?

Revving up ad spend and daily reporting 

Ultimately, it's hard to actually make the case. It's too early to start planning too early to start writing ads and writing messaging and thinking of our audience, geographic considerations. So certainly, you know, for speaking to our clients as summer turns to fall there that like three months out three months is when you really need to start firming up a plan and having those conversations. And cuz ultimately we want to going back to my point about how maybe it's not going from zero to a hundred, but it is like going from 10 to 90. Yeah. And Ideally you could do that in a couple of steps. You're going from 10 to 40 to 70 to 90 and not yeah, quite overnight having that, you know, not to call out Google like I do all the time, but it, it's never great to go from like let's spend $10 a day to be like, actually now we wanna spend a thousand, like that's just gonna throw their system for a, for a loop there. So you wanna kind of Ram have that be stepping stones to get there. It may happen very quickly. Those steps might be every couple days. Yeah. But I always prefer that over such a drastic increase or, or, or, you know getting all that much more aggressive Sometimes. So that actually leads to another question I have, which is how does reporting change during that time? Like, are we, would you say, are we reporting daily at this point? Yeah. It, yeah, it really is for it. It's just a frequency thing. It's, you know, off season may be very appropriate to report once a month or every other month on how things are going, assuming that it is kind of status quo. And almost a passive approach to things. Yeah. Right. As long as things haven't fallen off a cliff or it's, there's not that much news to deliver just because of the stakes being so much lower in that time. Yeah. But then come, come peak season. It is, yeah. 

It is a daily, a daily thing for us, for these, you know, accounts that 30 or 40 days on that calendar is gonna make or break their year. I think it, it certainly deserves to be looked at all, all 30 or 40 those days. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And you're like in contact sometimes. Right. You know? Oh yeah. You know, a phone call daily getting daily, getting calls to them. Yeah. That's the other thing with, you know, client service is we try to be sensitive that, you know, we think we're stressed because it's our client's peak season. Like what are they going through emotionally? How are they doing? Like, I, I, you know, just like doing those health and wellness checks, if nothing else like, yeah. Can we help with anything else? Even if it's random and not like digital marketing, like how are you, are you getting sleep? Are you you know, taking care of yourself and healthy and doing okay. . so yeah, it, it goes from, Hey, haven't talked to you in two months to, Hey me again, we talked this morning, but I got another question this afternoon. 

Be sure you are communicating with operations 

I think it's important for us to remember that as, as we're ramping all that up, everything on the operation side is doing the same thing. Yeah. So you're, you know, stressed with, there's maybe ramping up hiring . during that period. There's getting your, you know, fulfillment yeah. Ramped up. And so, and Making sure all these teams are talking to another, right. Because often they're, they are like different vendors . or different partners, but there there's gotta be some conduit or liaison, if not all getting in the room together and just, just making sure that it everyone's talking to each other and on the same page with what we're doing, when why, and is this okay for you? Is this gonna have a domino effect and impact some other area of the business? Yeah. And we're not maybe thinking of, we get a little nosy, I think when we're looking, you know, let's say that three month mark before the seasonality really starts we're we're like, what else is going on with your business?- Cause it's nice for us to know, oh, well I'm gonna have hip surgery you know, November 27th. Hmm. Okay. File that one away. Yeah. Well I just scheduled for November 27th. Next question. Separate question. But you know, like knowing about the things that, you know, maybe a client doesn't realize has impact on, on that period for us, it does because that may, that may make them less available to us if they're in the midst of changing their shipping partner or something like that. Right. Another thing that I think you do such a good job of, and our whole team does is not, not letting a bad year dictate the next year.

Yeah. That's been a lesson learned over time for sure. Is that this, the whole digital landscape changes so much that I've learned, you know, maybe a little stubbornly, maybe I dismissed a tactic or a platform, or, you know, I'm done with Google search partners and yeah. Dismiss it as just I've seen enough bad numbers, but that's pretty naive to three years later think that a company like Google or a platform like Facebook hasn't maybe made things better or changed their approach on this ad offering or campaign type or whatever it is that, you know, don't dismiss it forever. . maybe decided aside that year, but be at least open to the possibility that something that maybe didn't work the first time for whatever reason, the circumstances might be different the next year or two years later. And it might work then. Yeah. I'm thinking of, It's kinda just always being open minded, I guess, in a, in a broad sense. Yeah. I'm thinking of LinkedIn. I feel like, yeah, that has really shifted in what you can use. Five years ago, my go-to line, like I, it was a always an impressive ad platform and always offered something that search didn't as far as being able to target companies and target job titles and getting ready front of the right decision makers. But the party line at Lightburn was like, Ooh, it's expensive to advertising. It's Expensive. Is it worth it? Yeah. That's not necessarily true anymore. And I have to just like stop saying the same line. I've said, you know, you just have word association, LinkedIn advertising, that's gonna be expensive. You just have to break that cycle. Cuz now it's, it's just not, you know, compared to how other ad costs have risen on other platforms. It's it's funny. The cycle that we've done on that is we did a lot of LinkedIn advertising for clients five years ago, none, two or three years ago. And now we're doing a lot more again. Yeah. It's you know, and you have to be open to that. Yeah. So then the other thing that we always do that I think is really important is what do you, what happens after that season, that crash that post Christmas crisis,

Like the world's biggest collective exhale is, is the first Day I'll go to Jamaica. 

Yeah. I always hope my seasonal clients have like an awesome vacation plan for, for when the dust settles, but really yeah, a key thing I think is all getting together when the time is right after, while everything's still kind of fresh in people's minds and having that, that debrief that regroup of, and it has to be a candid conversation right. Of what went well, what didn't, what were the pain points? What kept you up at night? And it's not just, you know, for the sake of chit chat, it's, you're, you're hoping to learn. You're hoping to get information from all this that you can apply in the future and remember next year and adjust for notes. And then that, that gives you like a, exactly that gives you like a, a laundry list of off season to dos. Really. You can address all these things that there's no way on December 14th, we were gonna address that like kind of quirky glitch when you do X, Y, Z. Yeah. But February 15th, like let's, let's get to that now. And it'll help us the next year.

There have been some good ones too, where we've noticed, say, you know, a particular user journey that could be improved or, you know, leaned into. And so that gives us some, some production work to do yeah. To optimize something that, you know, maybe that's gonna increase conversions for that type of user. Yeah. I mean, we talked a ton about advertising, but quickly like an SEO tangent would be that off season would be the time to do those technical fixes on the site. Yeah. That are gonna be rigorous and, and you know, alter things on the site that we would never want to do in that peak season. But that's a great time to do that kind of stuff too.

Yep. Yep. That's the, that's kind of the blessing is that you have that like time to make changes and experiment a little bit in the off season. Yeah, Definitely. That goes in the pros column of that extreme seasonal businesses. I feel like only had one pro of like it's exciting   and then there's all these challenges to it, but it's another, it's easy place to Put that stuff. And there are some low stakes, a much longer period of, of lower stakes where you Can yeah. It's a clearer, you know, it's a very, it's a much more clear line of, you know, is this mission critical, this update . or is this something we're gonna file away, put on the list yeah. And save it like that, that list just delineates so much more clearly for sure. With these seasonal clients. 

So man, I think we talked about so much  I think we that set seasonality, what else is It? Yeah. So, you know, what I really take away from this conversation is that you, you gotta, you know, know your data, know, know historic data about your market and do whatever you can to be ready to flip that switch . that's like you can't be too prepared. Yep. Have a different, you know, do your best to change your mindset and, and be willing to break what are customary, comfortable habits. And then also, you know, at the same time it's still about learning and evolving and learning from what you've done. It just happens a year at a time instead of maybe a week or a month at a time.

Yep. And then, you know, being open to what does it, what does your messaging, what does your combination of tactics look like seasonally. and being open to that change. Yeah. Yeah. So clay, thanks so much for coming. Thanks for having me. This was fun.

- - - - - -

Beyond the Cart is produced by Lightburn. Our episode today was produced and edited by our very own Staci Tischer and it was recorded in person for the very first time with our pal Ray Fister at 5th Floor Recording Company. 

Our music is the song Let's Go Go Go by Tigerblood Jewel. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you consume your audio, and you can always learn more about ecommerce at lightburn.co

We'll see you next time on Beyond the Cart.

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