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The holidays are a critical season for Google Media Lab. We’re the team that plans, buys, runs, and assesses media on behalf of Google’s brands. As head of performance media for North America within Media Lab, my team focuses on how to best position direct response campaigns to maximize sales of Google products.

To ensure we were ready for 2021, we started by exploring behavioral shifts observed in 2020 and listening to what people were saying about how they intended to approach this year. Based on our findings, we rallied around a three-rule strategy that perhaps might help inform your own holiday retail plan.

Rule No. 1: Be ready for an earlier holiday season than in past years, and be present throughout the shopping process

In 2020, 42% of people said they started their holiday shopping earlier than in prior years.1 Yet while we saw more consumers begin their shopping as early as the beginning of October, core purchasing still aligned with key “sales holidays.” In fact, 2020 Black Friday sales hit $9 billion and Cyber Monday reached $10.8 billion, a record for both sales holidays.2

Two wrapped presents and a snowflake appear inside a blue circle graph. 42% of people said they started their holiday shopping earlier than in prior years.

We’re seeing that trend play out this year too, as almost a third (31%) of people surveyed in the U.S. have already started their holiday shopping.3 With shopping underway, we recognize that people will be in different stages of the process, so providing them with the right experience at the right stage is important. For example, we plan to ramp up our Search ads earlier in the lead-up to big holiday sales events (think Black Friday and Cyber Monday) than in previous years. Search is the second most popular way (just behind TV ads) that tech shoppers find out about holiday sales and promotions, and we want our ads to be present and top of mind when shoppers are hunting for deals.

It’s also important to ensure potential customers get the product information they need before making purchases. For instance, our intel tells us that for Pixel, it takes 21 days, on average, for customers to make their purchase decision. And during that time, more than 80% conduct research online. Once our brand is in consideration, we lean in to video and image-rich ad formats, like those on YouTube, to promote our product features and benefits, and showcase how our products are helpful in everyday life. Plus, we know that 70% of shoppers surveyed said they bought from a brand after seeing it on YouTube.4

We also use video ad sequencing where we are testing narratives that help move customers faster down the path to purchase.

Rule No. 2: Measure total sales while enabling people to seamlessly buy online and in-store

It’s important to remember that while U.S. online holiday sales grew 24% year over year in 2020, in-store purchases made up approximately 73% of all 2020 holiday sales in the U.S.5 These numbers help prove brick-and-mortar shopping isn’t dead, and people increasingly want the options of online, in-store, or even hybrid buying.

In fact, purchases made online that were then picked up curbside or at the store increased by 52% last year.6 And while this growth was fueled out of necessity due to the pandemic, people enjoy the convenience, cost, and time-savings benefits.

A storefront appears inside a blue circle graph. 73% of all holiday sales last year in the U.S. were in-store purchases.

In June 2021, Google opened its first-ever physical retail store in New York City, where shoppers can experience an extensive selection of products made by Google. For Media Lab, this marks the first holiday season in which we’re able to direct people to a physical store. We’re excited about offering our customers the options of completing their transactions at, going to a local store with available inventory to complete their purchases, or shopping online and picking up their orders in-store.

Brick-and-mortar shopping isn’t dead, and people increasingly want the options of online, in-store, or even hybrid buying.

But measuring the impact of our advertising becomes much more difficult when the path to purchase diverges in so many different directions. It’s important for us to understand the full impact our ads have across online and in-store. We use store visit conversions to measure the foot traffic driven by our ad campaigns in a privacy-safe way, and to improve our overall campaign performance.

Rule No. 3: Apply automation to respond in real time to changes in shopping behaviors and sales trends

Throughout the holiday shopping season, we’ll be closely monitoring our campaigns to adapt to any changes or capture unexpected opportunities. Automation helps us make informed, real-time decisions.

Smart Bidding technology enables us to react quickly to changing consumer behaviors and sales trends. We simply define a performance goal for our online campaigns. Then, Smart Bidding automatically adjusts our bids in real time based on the predicted likelihood of a conversion. Considering store visits alongside Smart Bidding lets us take this a step further and optimize for both in-store visits and online sales.

Smart Bidding technology enables us to react quickly to changing consumer behaviors and sales trends.

Plus, with other tools, like data-driven attribution through Search Ads 360, we’re able to create a multitouch attribution model that properly attributes credit to our ad campaigns and moves us away from a last-click-only model. This allows us to understand the impact of our upper- and mid-funnel campaigns, and it informs us how to best invest our advertising dollars. We incorporate these models into Smart Bidding as well, which again does the heavy lifting to automatically adjust our bids to maximize on our ROI target.

For more about how we’re planning for shopping’s busiest season, check out Think Retail on Air 2021 to hear Janell Fischer, VP of customer experience, further discuss Google’s 2021 retail holiday strategy.