EMEA Search Trends Amid COVID-19
The world is in turmoil, and as it currently stands, Europe is at the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. With Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the UK implementing increasingly draconian measures to stem the exponential growth in cases, it’s important to remember that everyone is experiencing anxieties. The initial impact of an uncertain world, both economically and politically, is being felt markedly within the retail vertical. Whether it’s consumer financial uncertainty affecting demand, forced store closures, or supply chain challenges in distribution centres, the retail industry is suffering a great suspension — the estimated loss of retail sales in the EU between March 9, 2020 to April 20, 2020, is likely to be 3.26 billion GBP.
As it began emerging that the COVID-19 crisis had gone from a localised epidemic to a global pandemic, brick-and-mortar stores were one of the first parts of society deemed ‘non-essential’ alongside government advice across EMEA urging their citizens to work from home. The societal impact of confining millions to their homes for weeks is still being determined, but the effect on consumers’ online behavior can already be seen. And it’s not quite as bad as the stats may have us think. Retail brands have seen increased interest in home-based clothing; comfortable trousers, hoodies, and products revolving around ‘cosiness’ are spiking in demand throughout recent weeks. As retail brands pivot towards new priorities during this crisis, PMG is partnering with our clients to push informed and deliberate contextualisation of paid search strategy to meet emerging demand trends. We need to flex around society’s ‘new norms.’
At this time, a key driver of brand loyalty is directly related to how companies respond to this crisis. But it is not just impacted by how brands treat their customers; this includes all their actions across the board. For example, some UK businesses have recently come under fire for “playing Russian roulette” with their staff’s health in their warehouses by not adhering to the social distancing measures set out by the British government. This may sound like an isolated PR disaster, but search demand is directly impacted, too. Retaining and winning brand favourability through your actions in the present emotionally-heightened environment has become a more significant differentiator than at any point in recent history. If viewed shrewdly, this could represent a long-term customer acquisition opportunity for brands with a strong set of values and a core brand message they feel will resonate with new and existing audiences.
But whilst the perception of brands may be unpredictable and retail supply chains disrupted, best practice across paid search remains unchanged: make data-driven decisions. The difference is that there is no playbook for this chain of events nor defined end-point, and there’s very little insight into the long-term economic and political implications.
So let’s go back to our brilliant basics at a time of business crisis: assess the changing nature of your demand, consider the flex within your vertical, adapt your supply chain, and present a new, diversified proposition.
For smaller, independent retail brands, relying on an owned e-commerce platform and positioning a specific product poses an issue: First, brands will have limited ability to flex their supply chain to new products. Second, they will experience difficulty shifting their marketing and website to respond to changing demand, especially driving qualified traffic through paid search ads. Third, party e-commerce sites such as Trouva and ASOS Marketplace will become a much-needed channel for them to reach customers.
For more established retailers hosting sites that see high volumes of traffic, a fresh analysis of keywords driving visits to the site is required to reset product priorities. This should be supplemented by a similar analysis of on-site searches for products to truly understand where the initial pockets of demand are stemming from, and which specific product groups are gaining or losing popularity. Whilst there is an inevitable pressure on profitability of distribution centres during a time when many are having to “down tools” for necessary health concerns, this demand analysis is turn-key in informing optimal inventory management (and in turn, marketing focus) for when supply chains become operational again.
First, PMG is analysing how user interaction is shifting between mobiles, desktops, and tablets. With customers confined to their homes, there are more devices readily available to them at new times of the day, where totally different motivations drive their interest and buying behaviour. When once they may have been scrolling through a retailer’s app on their daily commute, they are now using a home laptop to browse whilst watching television. It is vital to observe and understand this shift-in-device preference, subsequently informing strategic pivots that maintain competitiveness on all devices. As a result, this will ensure impression share levels are maintained, and competitors don’t force you out of auctions due to low CPC’s.
Furthermore, we are encouraging retailers to build out specific category pages that complement their customers’ wants and needs.
Consumers are now presented with new ad extensions as brands respond to the changing demand of what people want. Ads are driven to entirely new e-commerce environments meeting this need. For instance, websites have sections geared around comfy trousers and casual home wear to suit the new “at-home everything” environment. We are now providing a tailored experience to new demands and improving bounce rates with new site category pages that engage our evolved consumer.
Tracking store visits have been a valuable addition to marketing strategies across many verticals, especially for those reliant on footfall such as hotels, restaurants, and car dealerships. The data collected from this allows marketers to see how their ad’s impressions and clicks impact offline behaviour. However, due to social distancing measures, businesses across EMEA, which rely on the customer being physically present, have been the hardest hit during the coronavirus outbreak. Where store visit conversion data is used to optimise campaigns, the true impact of its drop-off will start to become apparent within the next month or so, once any new bidding strategies have been established. That said, search traffic is beginning to stabilise across European countries once more, so there is now an added pressure to make those clicks work harder in order to compensate for the non-existent footfall many brands are experiencing. There are certain actions every brand can take to do so, regardless of vertical.
Because the current state of play is one of emotion and anxiety, it is crucial that marketers are paying particular interest to the tone of voice and language deployed via ad copy. Here at PMG, we moved quickly to ensure that our clients’ search ads did not contain messaging related to words that can have double meanings, such as “protection” or “prevention.” It is also important to note that it would be an unfriendly user experience (and likely non-profitable) to push products that are used in activities involving large groups of people in one place, such as festival clothing or ad copy directly relating to purchasing items for traveling abroad. This sensitivity extends into the types of imagery used with Showcase Ads. Deploying imagery that involves groups of people gathering together will feel disjointed to the current situation with which people are faced with.
The key to any good strategy is agility in the face of rapidly shifting landscapes — current events pose the biggest test to this since the dawn of the digital age. In the early stages of this crisis, the focus was damage mitigation, first withholding spend, and carefully funneling only necessary investment into the vital life organs powering a business. As we’ve progressed through this crisis, norms begin to settle, and trends are emerging — trends that we can respond to.
For multinational retailers, it’s a localised challenge —one that comes with understanding what is happening in each region in a digestible way that we can react to efficiently. Retailers want to provide fairness and consistency by keeping the same conditions and methods but must recognize and acknowledge that each area may present different needs. At PMG, we’ve built a tech suite that allows visibility and actions at scale through our proprietary tool, Alli. We are able to aggregate and view vast client, partner, and industry datasets through collaborative dashboards and enable machine-driven insights and alerts by region. So far, this level of data processing, coupled with automation, is proving invaluable in many areas for our clients. Tracking multiple touchpoints like impression share, competitor activity, brand search volume, fluctuations in conversions, and differences in WoW performance have all been crucial insights and capabilities we have leveraged to build all-new strategies and automate paid search workflows at scale in over 30 markets.
Ultimately, we all must recognise that conscientiousness is key. We must stay at home, support our communities, and change our behaviour to a fundamental degree throughout this crisis. Brands across all verticals are recognising and responding to this in unique ways, but all share the same unprecedented detriment to their businesses. However, there is still room to learn, insights to collate, and strategic pivots that can be made to set our clients up for success and respond to what consumer demand is telling them.
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Search has emerged more important than ever — as an enabler for people, an indicator for brands, and a connector between the two. It can be a vital lifeline for businesses in the current climate, allowing them to continue being present for their consumers. For PMG and our clients, we listen, and we learn. We remain resilient as this crisis develops and ready when eventually, inevitably, it comes to its end.