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Is Black Friday already DEAD?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

I remember, just a few years ago, sitting on a cold and gloomy November day watching news clips of people fighting over TVs and Barbies, thinking to myself this is insane! It was, of course, Black Friday – the last Friday payday before Christmas where retailers offer hefty discounts.

At the time I thought the phenomenon was simply ‘too American’ to catch on in the UK, that our sense of decorum would never allow us to punch a mother in the face over a half price Xbox while her two kids looked on. It seemed I was wrong.

…well, half wrong.

With the shopping holiday moving increasingly online, the battles for discounts are being waged digitally. This is something the British public can get behind – some passive-aggression from the safety of their own home. Sure enough, sales went through the roof, breaking sales records every year since around 2011.

But were the retailers actually making more money?

Sure, sales volume increased dramatically, but with those deep discounts and additional marketing budget I wonder whether retailers have made more money. That’s without even considering how Black Friday sales might have cannibalised sales for the rest of November and December.

It’s probably these considerations that have inspired some retailers not to take part in Black Friday this year. In the UK, Asda has said that they will provide discounts throughout December rather than offering Black Friday deals. In the US, sports retailer REI has grabbed headlines by saying they will close their stores on November 27th.

So, is Black Friday already dead? Should it even have been born in the first place? Or did retailers create a monster they can no longer control?

It's alive!!

It’s alive!!

The Data and Analytics

The data around the overall profitability of Black Friday is mixed. Some retailers report overall growth, others don’t. Profits have tended to rise steadily for most retailers anyway, so it is also difficult to pick out sales volumes and basket values from general improvement and inflation.

According to figures from the ONS, sales volume went up by 6.4% year-on-year between November 2013 and 2014. That’s far above the yearly trend in other months and higher than City analysts predicted.

However, the differences in volume between different companies varies massively. Google Marketplace (which you’d expect to be at the top of its game) grew sales on Black Friday by 8.73% YoY, while Amazon sales grew by a whopping 76.91%.

This indicates that, for those doing Black Friday well, there are huge opportunities to increase revenue. But, given the average growth (including outliers like Amazon), the increase seen by the majority of retailers will be far more muted.

Doing a bit of analysis on the data from one of our retail clients, we can see a marked growth throughout the Christmas shopping season from 2012, when they first started running Black Friday campaigns. But interestingly, Black Friday didn’t cannibalise sales for the rest of the quarter – they actually rose year on year. This indicates that, if you’re doing Black Friday well, it will actually enhance your sales over the period, rather than cannibalise it.
Black friday stats

As the graph above shows, Black Friday kicked off the Christmas shopping season earlier, but there is no huge trough in sales in the weeks following, which some might expect.

One reason this could be is due to the clever implementation of paid media.

Paid Media / Digital Advertising

To make the most of Black Friday advertisers should be utilising RLSA, or Remarketing for Search, around Black Friday weekend. This means you can target people who have already visited sections of your website and bid on quite generic or competitive keyword specifically for these audiences.

Search remarketing


For example, bidding on “Christmas gifts” or “stocking stuffers” for your usual broad audience would eat your entire budget in about 48 hours with very little to show for it. But by targeting only those people who have already visited your site with these competitive search terms, you have a far better chance of converting, reducing your cost per acquisition and delivering great RoI.

You should also have a remarketing strategy across the Google Display Network. Ideally you’ll be using dynamic remarketing which serves up ads based on the specific items that shoppers were viewing but haven’t yet purchased. For example, if you viewed a new frying pan on Amazon, the ad would show that specific frying pan (or perhaps the most popular pan in that category).

Advertisers shouldn’t just focus on Adwords either. A combination of Facebook Retargeting, ads in the News Feed, and sponsored content / boosted posts would go a long way towards supplementing the activity on social media.

Highly visual and holiday-themed Facebook ads with the relevant promotions make your offers really compelling and easy to understand. Also the Facebook carousel / multi-product ads are ideal for e-commerce. Depending on the products available, advertisers can also consider Instagram ads (which can now be built in Facebook) and promoted pins on Pinterest.

Read more about Facebook Dynamic Ads.

With these Retargeting strategies in place, you can improve sales figures throughout December, even if the customer bought nothing from you on Black Friday but only visited the site. In this sense there is very little downside to running paid media on Black Friday weekend, other than the higher than usual bid costs.

However, these costs have been slightly offset by the ease of setup for Black Friday advertising. There are some brand-new extensions that Google have launched which basically add new headers and additional information to your ads. When set up, the extensions will run only during the designated time period (e.g. Black Friday) so you can make them incredibly specific without the worry of switching them all back at midnight.


These new formats can be a great way of highlighting opening times, discounts, special offers, shipping, availability and other promotions – a quick and easy win for advertisers.

Heavily promoting deals and promotions will be critical to gaining new traffic. Beyond the new structured snippets, advertisers should be incorporating special offers into the ad copy itself, callout extensions, and landing pages.

Additionally, advertisers will want to ensure that only their top-performing ads, as well as those which incorporate relevant promotions, are running on Black Friday weekend.

A good ad format to consider would be Countdown ads which make use of ad text that updates dynamically such as “Sale Ends in 2 Days!”. Even little things like changing up the Display URL to www.example.com/Black-Friday could have an important impact.

Search Optimisation (SEO)

With awareness of Black Friday at an all-time high, if you’re not labelling your sale as ‘Black Friday’ on your website, you’re probably missing out. The search volume for product searches along with the key phrase ‘Black Friday’ shoot up massively at this time of year, and getting good search rankings (and thus more people on to your site) is key for your remarketing strategy. Retailers without a dedicated site section for Black Friday are likely to miss out on a lot of highly valuable search traffic.

The ultimate goal is for properly segmented categorisation, i.e. having the right categories (based on search volume and intent) with the right products on your website. As such, you’ll certainly be wanting to create a dedicated ‘Black Friday’ hub on your site, and sub-categorise it accordingly.

Outside categorising and adding ‘Black Friday’ to relevant page titles, there is a massive cumulative amount of product specific Black Friday search volume, “Black Friday TV Deals”, “Black Friday Laptop Deals”, and “Black Friday Cruise Deals”, for example. Categorising your offers appropriately (and technically optimising for the correct Black Friday search terms) will allow you to get in the running for these more valuable searches.

Once the day is over, just quietly tuck your Black Friday section away for next year. You should keep the page live but change the content to an appropriate message, “Black Friday has now finished for the year, but if you want to take advantage of our year-round deals, drop your email in the box below”, for example.

Content Marketing

Of course, there is an argument that says you can still do all of this activity and not actually offer any Black Friday deals. For example, you could have a display advert using the term ‘Black Friday’ linking to a search-optimised page on ‘Black Friday’ only to talk about how you aren’t running any Black Friday deals.

As I mentioned, this year both Asda and REI have hit headlines for not taking part in Black Friday deals. This means that they are getting far more press than the rest of the retailers that are running deals. No such bad thing.

Additionally, both of these retailers have combined not doing Black Friday with a positive message. In the case of Asda they said they would offer deals throughout December to make shopping easier for their customers. In the case of REI they said they would close stores to give their staff the chance to spend Thanksgiving weekend with parents – a nice sentiment.

Alternatively you could sell a special Black Friday product at full price, as games company Cards Against Humanity did last year. They pulled all their usual products from their website to feature only a limited supply of 30,000 boxes of actual bull sh*t on their Black Friday page. Despite clearly stating and reiterating that the box contained only sanitised faeces from a bull, they sold out of the product (at $6 a box) in under two hours!

CAH poop

Collecting signups and making good use of SEO – far from bullsh*t marketing

However, these anti-Black Friday campaigns only work as a PR story as long as you are bucking the overall trend. If more retailers decided to cancel their Black Friday promotions in 2016, it would be impossible to stand out.

Whether you decide to take part in Black Friday this year or the next, the most important thing is having a strategy in place. Know what you are doing and why!

From a content perspective, this means planning on how you will create great on-page content, what blogs you will write and when, creating a video in plenty of time, or running any competitions on social media, and so on. Firing out a blog post at 3pm the Wednesday before Black Friday isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Email Marketing

Of course, no content strategy is complete without email marketing, and that is particularly true on Black Friday. With the overwhelming majority of retailers offering Black Friday deals, it can be difficult to cut through the noise with your offers. But the people who have signed up to your newsletter or have purchased from you before are the most likely people to take you up on your offers. So make sure you’re emailing them!

Anticipation – It’s worth building up some anticipation around your Black Friday event in the week running up to it. Send out a few emails perhaps showing some of the more exciting offers you have on, or perhaps even just with a small teaser to whet their appetite.

Exclusive deals – Black Friday isn’t just a day for creating sales volume, it can also be a great opportunity to simply gather contact details for potential customers. By offering exclusive deals to email subscribers you can rapidly grow your email database, feeding the funnel of your email marketing strategy. This can be crucial in the run-up to Christmas when you might have more offers or different products in stock.

Announcing – Don’t assume when the big day arrives that suddenly everyone will remember you and come flooding to your website or physical store. Some people will need a reminder. This is your opportunity to really showcase the sales on offer. If you can make some of the sales time-limited (as Amazon do with their ‘Lightning Sales’) then you stand a great chance of maximising your Black Friday traffic.

Closing – A lot of people leave their Black Friday shopping until the final few hours – the time between arriving home from work and going to bed. This is a great opportunity to remind people about your sales. You could perhaps save a few special deals for the last couple of hours, or you could let them know the deals they have already missed to capitalise on their fear of missing out (‘FOMO’ as the kids call it!)

Integrated Campaigns

To really get ahead of the competition you should be looking at running full integrated campaigns. Check out the search volume index to find out when people start researching their Black Friday purchases and make sure your content is being seeded out at least a few weeks in advance. Create your Black Friday content hub, full of rich, visual content to help upsell your products. Start promoting your video on YouTube a week or two in advance. Make sure your paid media is optimised to make the most of the increased traffic. And then get those emails scheduled in.

If you can get all of this in place and optimised, preferably with a strong consistent message, then you will be in the perfect position to make the most of Black Friday both on the day and in the month afterwards.

If you decide to buck the trend, know why, what you message is, and put a strategy in place to capitalise on the increased search and demand around the end of November.
There is absolutely no reason the monster of Black Friday cannot be tamed – it just takes some smart thinking and creative planning.

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