As online businesses prepare to ramp up their holiday paid search campaigns, it can be instructive to look at insights from the retail’s second biggest season: back-to-school. For BookRenter.com, an online text book rental company, back-to-school is its holiday season. Jean-Michel Boujon, BookRenter’s Marketing Director, discussed some of the paid search challenges his company faced this year and how, despite increased competition and soaring CPCs, he says they managed to grow their search traffic faster than the industry.
When BookRenter launched in2007, the company’s main challenge was that the concept was so new, students didn’t know to search for “text books for rent”. By 2012, however, several deep-pocketed players entered the market including Skyo and Amazon. The pioneer suddenly became the underdog, which forced them to be more proactive and thoughtful about their PPC efforts.
By this August, the new market reality was reflected in BookRenter’s AdWords costs. Their average cost-per-click (CPC) was 20 percent higher than last year, while average positions were 20 percent lower. The keyword “rent textbooks” jumped from a pre-season average CPC of $1.83 to an August 15th peak of $5.63 — a 208% increase. Last year that same keyword maxed out around $2.80.
Still Boujon says, “We had a good season with paid search. Media was more expensive due to competition, but we managed to keep costs down thanks to innovation.”
Here are the key tactics Boujon’s team at BookRenter implemented to work around skyrocketing CPCs without sacrificing volume during its peak season:
1. Proactive Keyword Discovery: Boujon says, “We try to stay a step ahead with keyword discovery because we don’t get the performance we used to from head terms. We lost click share on head terms, but more than made up for it with longtail keywords. It’s about trying to anticipate what people will be searching for each season.”
For instance, his team bid on a set of keywords (and not all long-tail) in a category that accounted for 30 percent of their paid search volume. Their competitors were bidding on just 40 percent of those keywords, so they were able to get more volume at a lower cost. “There are plenty of angles to get people to your site,” he says of testing tangential keywords that his target audience of students may be searching for.
2. Start Retargeting Early: Students begin searching for textbook deals in July, but conversion rates are low because they aren’t ready to buy until class book lists are released in August. Boujon says the company invested heavily in retargeting early in the season to start building lists of browsers during the consideration phase.
“If you’re running holiday campaigns, don’t wait until Black Friday to start advertising and running remarketing campaigns,” advises Boujon. “Consumers are looking for deals ahead of time.” This year, Boujon felt Google’s retargeting capabilities had improved enough to rely on as their primary retargeting vendor. By starting early and with refined list segmentations, BookRenter spent 20 percent less this year than last on retargeting, and saw conversions increase 1,400 percent from last year.
3. Have A Plan For Mobile Even If The Conversions Aren’t There Yet: BookRenter’s mobile traffic has increased from 10 percent of traffic in August 2011 to 25 percent in January 2013, and 52 percent of email opens now happen on mobile.
Like many merchants, however, BookRenter’s mobile conversion rates are half of what they are on desktop. Boujon says he knows students are finding BookRenter on their smartphones and completing purchases on desktop. He adds, “I support the theory that conversion rates on mobile will go up with the better lifetime available on the devices,” states Boujon. “If it is 3pm, you have one bar left and need to organize your night out with friends, you are not going to start shopping on your mobile.”
BookRenter’s goal this season was to apply tactics that included mobile optimized landing pages that they had tested in January to see how high they could get mobile conversion rates with fairly basic campaigns and landing page implementation. “The optimizations triggered a 20 percent increase in conversion but we are still far from desktop experience.” However, he says, “Mobile is relatively cheap, so it’s still good for branding” even if you can’t clearly attribute conversions. BookRenter is planning to continue in its mobile site and testing ways to reduce the friction on mobile devices to increase conversion rates.
4. Identify Cheap Sources For Branding: In addition to using mobile for branding efforts, this season BookRenter ran pre-roll ads on YouTube. “We’re still analyzing the impact on behaviors, but it was a low-cost way to get eyeballs and an efficient way to get branding,” says Boujon. As with retargeting, he recommends starting video ads early. “There are so many competitors; we think this helped us stay top of mind when the season started rolling.”
5. Set Aside Budget To Experiment: “I have a rule. Allocate at least 15 percent of your spend to new programs. You don’t always win, but it is the only way to discover new effective ways to market your audience,” Boujon emphasizes. “Should all your tests bomb, the 85 percent of your spend that you know is effective will swallow the bad performance of the 15 percent.”
This season, the company’s paid search tests included remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA). Boujon says they still need to fine tune their efforts with RLSA, but having tested it this year, they’ll have learnings and benchmarks to measure against next year.
<h6>(Stock image via <a href=”http://www.shutterstock.com/”>Shutterstock.com</a>. Used under license.)</h6>