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Why “Black Friday” Search Terms Slumped & Other Cyber Weekend Trends

7 MINUTE READ | December 2, 2020

Why “Black Friday” Search Terms Slumped & Other Cyber Weekend Trends

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

We just wrapped up Cyber Weekend 2020, and we’ve all seen the headlines: Two record-breaking sales days with Black Friday pulling in $9 billion in sales and Cyber Monday driving $10.8 billion in online orders, a feat that pushed ecommerce adoption to new heights. But beyond those (albeit staggering) numbers were demonstrable trends that signify changes to holiday shopping behavior and marketing strategies that are worth taking note of. 

While Black Friday and Cyber Monday performance was certainly strong, the bigger story is that retailers successfully capitalized on pulling holiday demand forward throughout the entire month of November and as early as October. Many brands in PMG’s portfolio experienced record-setting monthly performance, driven by promos kicking off earlier than ever before and shoppers taking advantage of those early deals, days and weeks before Cyber Weekend began. Moving into the holiday, many retailers even experienced a noticeable lift in Thanksgiving Day site traffic (19 percent YOY increase), with 1.5 million more site visits than forecasted. Americans ended up spending $5.1 billion on Thanksgiving Day alone, according to Adobe Analytics. 

For Black Friday, PMG’s client portfolio saw revenue up 26 percent YOY, with traffic increasing more than 30 percent YOY, largely consistent with forecasts. A majority of retail brands saw surprisingly strong demand throughout the weekend and benefited from reduced competition as a result of competitors investing heavier on Black Friday and Cyber Monday than the Saturday and Sunday in between. This was further evidence that holiday shopping is not limited to a single-day or hallmark cultural event but instead, the holiday season in its entirety. On Cyber Monday, PMG saw a four percent revenue increase and 13 percent YOY boost in site traffic across our client portfolio, a positive metric but softer performance than we anticipated, all but confirming that customers had their shopping complete before Cyber deals hit the virtual shelves. 

Related: The use of in-store and curbside pickup rose an impressive 52 percent YOY during Black Friday, according to Adobe Analytics. 

Searches related to Black Friday were all over the map — and calendar — with “Black Friday” interest peaking on the Sunday before Thanksgiving versus a surge in searches for “Black Friday deals” on the Wednesday right before Thanksgiving, as seen in 2019. While brand search impressions were consistently up 50 percent YOY during the Cyber Five (Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday), searches that included “Black Friday” were down substantially leading up to Black Friday 2020. 

Brands that were experiencing strong search volume and performance leading up to the Cyber Weekend continued that trend, but retailers that saw noticeable softness in the days prior largely weren’t able to make up for it over the Cyber Weekend. In other words, the historical and cultural significance of the holiday weekend (a time for big sales and a holiday shopping bonanza, etc.) didn’t drive incremental search volume for clients that were already experiencing softness, particularly in brand search; another indicator that reinforced a successful pull forward effect. However, “cyber” terms increased in both awareness and volume, peaking in interest over the weekend after Black Friday, almost as if consumers associated online shopping moreso with Cyber Monday than Black Friday this year due to the shift from physical stores to ecommerce.

Related: Analysts and measurement firms reported that foot traffic to stores on Black Friday fell roughly 50 percent YOY, though PMG recorded a 70 to 90 percent decline in Google My Business listing activity. Consumers who did venture out reportedly opted for big-box stores that offered a one-stop-shop retail environment

Consistent with past years, brands saw an increase in CPCs for both search and shopping tactics due to the elevated competition levels. Key department store competitors were also bidding aggressively against multiple clients’ brand search terms throughout the weekend, likely to make up for declines in in-store foot traffic and sales. Generally speaking, advertisers who leaned into more visual assets like Shopping units and Discovery ads, saw stronger returns on those particular ad units, a trend consistent with consumers’ desire for more visual online shopping experiences. 

Because many retailers began seeding holiday brand campaigns and messaging in early November — almost two to three weeks earlier in 2020 than that last year — brands ended up layering a mix of both promotional and awareness campaign messaging versus heavy promotional advertising leveraged in previous years. A large majority of brand media clients launched campaigns during the first week of November to help pull traffic and demand goals forward before shipping costs became heftier, reducing the reliance on Cyber Weekend to deliver holiday sales. 

Brand media impression levels were up over 50 percent on Black Friday as brands used high impact takeovers and a blend of messaging (promotional and awareness) to drive traffic. Many retailers even successfully layered in consideration tactics to help harvest demand through publisher partnerships, including BuzzFeed, theSkimm, Apple News, and Uncrate throughout the month of November. 

In social, PMG brands advertised on an average of four platforms, with a few retailers active across six or more. In doing so, brands took a full-funnel approach to social advertising by diversifying their media mix to ensure they were capturing not only high-impact impressions through platforms like TikTok, Reddit, and Twitter, but also closing the deal with lower-funnel tactics in Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. These full-funnel strategies helped mitigate competitive CPM and CPCs and drive huge volume for Cyber Weekend, with social continuing to be one of the highest revenue-driving tactics across the media mix. In fact, social spend was up 50 percent YOY for Black Friday alone, representing PMG’s biggest day of social spending to date. 

Shopify saw $2.4 billion in sales on Black Friday, an incredible 75 percent YOY increase. Similar to Amazon and other commerce platforms including eBay and Etsy, there’s little doubt that independent and DTC businesses on Shopify benefited from tailwinds brought on by the pandemic and the public’s hyperfocus on shopping small this holiday season. To mark the importance of the occasion, The New York Times published an extensive analysis of Shopify’s business model and how it powers commerce for independent and DTC businesses without offering an actual marketplace as Amazon does. The ecommerce platform listed that top categories included apparel and accessories, health and beauty, and home and garden goods. New York, London, and Los Angeles were reportedly the top-selling cities worldwide on Black Friday, as top-selling countries included U.S., UK, and Canada. Over two-thirds of all sales on Shopify were made via mobile. 

On Black Friday, a subset of popular retailers released purpose-driven anti-consumerism messages focused on climate change and fighting pollution of all kinds, urging shoppers to buy less and opt for a Green Friday. Patagonia, Allbirds, and Public Fibre were among the brands that used ad spots to challenge retail’s role in the climate crisis and the impact of hyper-consumerism. This trend started in 2011 with Patagonia’s ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket,’ and has only grown in the time since, especially on the heels of REI’s widely successful #OptOutside Black Friday campaign. 

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In apparel, comfort clothes including athleisure and sleepwear were front and center on retailers’ sites and in-store layouts. Search demand for “cozy” items continues to rise while demand for “wear to work” fashion remains low, indicating that consumers remain in a WFH mindset. This trend also carried through from a gifting and brand content curation perspective as cozy styles have been the top-performing product category within our retailers’ gift guides this year. Styles such as sherpa-lined boots, PJs, and sweatshirts are top hits in preparation for casual and COVID-safe holiday celebrations versus previous years when trend-forward, fashion products typically drove engagement.

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