The 10 Q4 Commandments – Ecommerce Edition
I want to dive into a topic that is both incredibly stressful and near-and-dear to my heart: Q4.
Let’s dive in!
1. Think Holistically About Q4
Far too many brands – and far too many marketers – think about BFCM as the Superbowl of Ecommerce. I think that’s wrong. To me, BFCM is the halftime show. Sure, it’s cool. Everyone loves to watch. But the real action – the make-or-break, shiny-silver-trophy-deciding stuff – happens around the halftime show.
Every conversation I have with clients about BFCM begins with this principle. And my rationale for it is simple: customers have one bucket of money for Q4. I’ve done thousands of customer interviews over my career, and I can count on two hands the number of people who have told me they have a separate Black Friday / Cyber Monday budget.
The simple reality is this: customers have a “holiday shopping” budget. And your entire Q4 strategy should revolve around this simple principle: capture the share of that budget you need. A customer who spends $1,000 of their holiday budget in October doesn’t magically get another $1,000 come BFCM. Condition yourself – and your stakeholders – to think about Q4 holistically. It doesn’t matter when you get the dollars in; it matters that you get them in, at or below target cost.
2. BFCM Is an Outcome, Not a Driver
This is a relatively unpopular take that I’ve become more and more convinced of the longer I work in ecommerce: Black Friday / Cyber Monday themselves are the *least* important components of your Q4 marketing plan.
Why? Because customers are conditioned to expect the best deals – and make their purchases – on those days. The impulse has already been established. If you want to find the alpha during Q4, you need to zig while everyone else zags: which means playing the other 90 days, not just the big-2 (BF + CM).
80% of the outcome is an inevitability when those days begin; the remaining 20% you can impact, but to a relatively minor degree. If someone hasn’t heard of your product, they’re not going to buy it just because it’s on sale. If no-one trusts your brand, you could offer stuff for free + people still wouldn’t take you up on it.
BFCM is a lot like a successful marathon: sure, there are things *that day* you must execute on in order to be successful. But if you haven’t put in the weeks/months/years of preparation ahead of the day, none of what you do on marathon day will matter. You will lose. And you will lose badly.
3. Preparation Is Everything
For most of our brands, Q4 prep has been underway since the beginning of August. I break our prep into four buckets:
- Planning: A core tenant of my Q4 strategy revolves around creating three (or more) purchasing moments during the quarter. Executing against that requires a LOT of planning – everything from inventory to logistics to retention to marketing must be working in lock-step in order to execute successfully. It’s a LOT of work – but it’s much, much better to get it done during Q3 than it is to rush through it in Q4. A day of planning in Q3 saves a week of stress in Q4. experienced (“merchandising”) is queen. And the only way for the kingdom to thrive is for both to be in lock-step. Aside from planning your Q4, this is the single-most-important thing you can do to set your brand (or your client’s brand) up for a successful Q4. It’s that important. Do not just assume that doing what you’ve done for the other 9 months of the year will work in Q4. You need a dedicated, end-to-end experience for each offer – including creative, messaging, emails, SMS, landers, etc.
- Assets: However much creative you think you need for Q4, you probably need more. More variety. More iterations. More hooks. Your assets are one place where quantity does drive quality. If you’re curious about what kinds of assets to create, check out Issue #23 here.
- Executions: Finally, there’s where the rubber meets the road. These should be built well in advance of each moment, with assets loaded up + pre-approved (run with a tiny budget to get your assets approved). One of the biggest mistakes I see brands making is waiting until the day of their sale to push campaigns live, then losing hours (or days) waiting for Google + Meta to approve their creative. Having every aspect of your Q4 plan built, tested + ready to go weeks before it needs to be is the gift that keeps on giving.
4. Forecast First
There are two ways to lose Q4: to overspend + to oversell. A well-designed forecast that you continually update and stick to will prevent both. Odds are, you’ll spend more in Q4 than you do at any other time of the year. And you’ll be spending more during times when competition is higher than it is at any other time of the year.
To be blunt, Q4 is a tempest. And if you’re going to survive – or thrive – you need a tool to avoid disaster while progressing toward your destination (a profitable end of the year). Your forecast is that tool.
A well-designed, cohort-based forecast won’t just help with your advertising/marketing, either – it should also inform inventory orders, offers, etc. Everything you do in Q4 should be grounded in a forecast. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to throw caution to the winds, loosen the cost caps, change the tCPAs, lower the ROAS targets, and pour more money into your campaigns. But that is exactly how you’ll lose. And when those impulses hit, you’ll be glad you have a well-designed forecast.
5. Do Your Homework
One of the great things about BFCM is that most brands do prepare (not as much as they should, but c’est la vie). And if some of your competitors are doing smart things, like building landing pages, or getting ads pre-approved, you can often get some inside intelligence.
For instance: if your competitor runs their landing pages through a subdomain, lookup the sitemap (sub.domain.com/sitemap.xml) + monitor it for changes (we use ChangeTower, but there are plenty of alternatives). Even if they noindex the page, it will still appear in the sitemap + you’ll get a sneak peak as to what your competitors are doing.
If your competition typically runs their landers on their own website, fear not:
- Most competitors will use the same page (i.e. brand.com/blackfriday) OR the same pattern in their landers (i.e. brand.com/BFCM202X)
- You can also just sort the newest pages added to the sitemap. If you don’t know the pattern, just look at the pages changed last year in Q4.
- If you don’t find anything (perhaps the brand is moving to a subdomain), check out Google Ads Transparency Center and/or Meta Ads Library. If they’ve pre-approved ads, you can find them, follow the links + voila!
On the flip side, if you want to keep your offers close to the vest:
- Set up Google Alerts on your landing pages – if you start seeing visitors you don’t recognize, that’s a good indication your competition might be sniffing around your pages.
- Hide your Q4 landers using different slugs (i.e. /old-home-page-2 or /lorem-ipsum are ones no one wants to look at).
- Move to a subdomain (see above)
- (Really insidious): create a fake lander with a far inferior offer, and use that on all of your pre-approved ads. Then switch before going live with the real campaign. If you do it well, you’ll have yourself an Operation Overlord moment.
6. Create (At Least) 3 Buying Moments
I think this is the secret to a successful Q4. Brands that can effectively do this win. Those that can’t, don’t.
My goal for every Q4 is to create at least 3 buying moments – whether those are broader holiday tie-ins (Giving Tuesday, Small Business Saturday, Halloween, Festivus, whatever), brand-created moments (i.e. “BFCM pre-sale day”), or something else entirely.
The idea is simple: create time-constrained points of leverage to drive action + capture Q4 dollars. Far too many brands put far too much pressure on one moment (BFCM), which results in overspending + a “do-or-die” mentality.
By creating multiple moments, you reduce the pressure on each one – and give yourself the freedom to pick-and-choose where you’ll compete and on what terms you’ll compete. That, in turn, drives profitable growth, because you’re no longer forced to deploy staggering sums when CPMs are at their highest and your target audience’s wallets are under siege.
A great general wins the battle before it’s ever fought. You can do the same, by creating those moments throughout Q4. For example:
- BFCM Sale Announcement / Exclusive VIP Deal – I’m a HUGE fan of rolling out a “VIP-only” sale in October. Yes, October. Send it to your top customers via email a week or two in advance, and be honest about it. It is your best deal of the year. It’s for 24/48 hours. And it’s only open to you. The only reason we’re able to do this is because we’re not paying to advertise it – so all the money that would have gone to Google + Meta, we’re giving back to you.
This achieves four core objectives:
- Lock-In Your Customers – ask any great GM, and they’ll tell you the #1 most important thing to do is to lock-in your core players. You don’t want your franchise cornerstones looking elsewhere. The same is true for retail + ecommerce brands. Lock in your VIPs. Don’t even give your competition a chance.
- Creates a Lead-In Moment – you *can* use this as a trigger to drive some good-but-not-VIP customers to buy more between now + your Exclusive VIP deal. If you want access to this, you need to spend $X more between now and [cut off date].
- Immediate Cash Flow – assuming you’ve modeled everything correctly, doing this sale early creates immediate cash flow for your brand, so you now have more resources to deploy for the rest of Q4
- Valuable Data – we all think we know our customers. But even the most astutely-planned offers fall flat. And if your VIP customers aren’t taking an offer, that might be a good indication that your offer either (a) isn’t compelling enough or (b) focuses on a product they don’t want.
- Pre-BFCM Holidays – Halloween is always a good one, but it’s not the only one. For instance, the following holidays occur in October & November:
- Cookie Month (October)
- National Vegetarian Month (October)
- Get Organized Week (1st Week of October)
- International Coffee Day (October 1st)
- National Boyfriend Day (October 2nd)
- National Techie Day (October 3rd)
- National Golf Day (October 4th)
- It’s My Party Day (October 11th)
- Friday The 13th (October 13th, 2023)
- Sweetest Day (October 21st)
- Smart is Cool Day (October 22nd)
- Make A Difference Day (October 28th)
- National Cat Day (October 29th)
- Real Jewelry Month (November)
- Peanut Butter Lovers Month (November)
- National Sleep Comfort Month (November)
- Book Lovers Day (1st Saturday of November)
- Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th)
- Forget-Me-Not Day (November 10th)
- Veteran’s Day (November 11th)
- World Kindness Day (November 13th)
- Great American Smokeout (November 16th)
- Have a Bad Day Day (Yeah, that’s’ real – November 19th)
Along with ~100 more. I’m sure you can find one that ties into your brand + product. And the best part of piggy-backing on an obscure holiday is that most other brands don’t do it – giving you an easier route to earning your target audience’s attention (and wallet share).
- BFCM – While I don’t think it should be the be-all, end-all of your Q4 strategy, BFCM is still important. And by following the principles I’ve outlined in this issue, you can de-risk your BFCM + become more opportunistic – grabbing share where it makes financial sense because you’ve *already* captured so much revenue via your other moments.
- Christmas Cutoff – This one is tricky – on one hand, this is an IDEAL time to push last-minute gifts + squeeze the last drops of value out of customers; on the other, it’s often saturated and expensive. I’ve found that relatively low-consideration, high-impulse offers work best during this time – think sub-$75 items. Most people won’t bat an eye at going over their budget by just a little to impress colleagues or friends, and $50-$75 is barely a sit-down lunch for 2 at this point.
- Q5 – If you’re unfamiliar with the term “Q5”, it refers to the ~10 days between the Christmas shipping cutoff (usually 12/20 – 12/21) to the end of the year. I LOVE Q5 for three reasons: (1) competition is low – most brands have blown their entire budget, which means CPMs during this period tend to be lower; (2) the bank is re-filled – most of your audience will get money during Christmas – either in the form of gift cards, actual cash/check, or money from returns. Psychologically, your audience wants to use that money – it feels like “found” money, so spending it isn’t as painful. What better place to spend it than on your “Treat Yourself” Q5 sale?
- Small, Time-Bound Sales – if you don’t love the idea of tying into a larger moment, treat a period of Q4 as a decathlon of commerce. Each day, you can run a different offer against a different bundle/SKU/product set. This allows you to sub-in different products using the same overarching themes, while appealing + attracting different buyer types based on the individual offer. For instance:
- Day 1 = Best Offer on Engagement Rings
- Day 2 = Best Offer on Sterling Silver
- Day 3 = Best Offer on Diamond Necklaces
- Day 4 = Best Offer on Earrings
- Day 5 = Best Offer on Rare Stones
If you plan it well + have done your homework, you can run this across BFCM to acquire wallet share while keeping costs in-check. Each sale will naturally draw in a separate buyer type, and because each is self-contained, you can more effectively build audiences for later AND not worry about competing with everyone else on everything else – you’re squarely focused each day on the product/bundle/SKU set of the day.
7. GA4 Can Be Your Best Friend – or Worst Enemy
Let’s be blunt: 2023 will be the first year when Google Analytics 4 is the default web analytics tool in use. And no-one knows how it’s going to hold up. What we do know:
- Most brands have (at best) a patch-work GA4 setup that may (or may not) be tracking correctly.
- Most marketers still aren’t comfortable using GA4.
- GA4 data is delayed by up to 48 hours (aside: this was also the case for UA, but was rarely an issue in UA; that’s not the same for GA4).
- Less than 10% of brands I’ve audited or worked with have set up GA4’s BigQuery integration, despite this being the single-best way to ensure that near-real-time data is available to them.
To cut to the chase: the #1 tool most brands will be using to evaluate their BFCM performance + direct their BFCM spend is untested, uncomfortable to use, and lags by up to 48 hours.
And while that may seem bad, I think it’s a HUGE opportunity. If you (as a marketer/business owner) invest the time + resources NOW to get your GA4 house in order, configure your BigQuery integration + build redundancies (like alternative analytics, or nailing your ad platform coefficients), you’ll be able to make much better decisions than your competition.
To go even one step further: Google Analytics 4 is not a sufficient solution for most brands at this point. Between data lags, user data retention being limited to 14 months, and sampled data, I think successful brands will move to BigQuery (Google Cloud Platform) sooner rather than later – both from a data retention standpoint, along with a data velocity standpoint. It simply isn’t viable to wait 48+ hours to understand what’s happening on your website.
That’s not to say that GA4 is all bad – it isn’t! I think it has a massive role to play in a successful Q4. If there’s interest, I share a few actionable ways GA4 can be integrated into your Q4 planning.
Shameless Plug: if you need help setting up your GA4, or training on how to make it work for you, drop me a reply to this email.
8. Email & SMS Will Make – or break – your Q4:
The secret weapon that separates winners from losers during Q4 isn’t advertising. It’s your owned, direct communication channels – SMS & Email.
There’s no better way to clear your funnel + activate your latent audience members than via those two channels. Every customer you can bring in via owned channels represents incremental dollars in your pocket – especially if you have tight exclusions and data-pass-back, so those audience members are then excluded from your prospecting campaigns (after all, why spend money advertising something they’ve already purchased to them)?
The second core function of your Email + SMS should be driving incremental AOV. The name of the game for Q4 prospecting is rapid revenue acceleration. No matter when in Q4 you acquire the customer, your contribution dollars are likely to be lower than the rest of the year. That’s just how advertising during the most competitive time of the year goes – even when you play smart, create multiple moments and have killer offers, you’re still going to pay through the nose to get those customers – either in the form of higher CACs, higher discounts or higher COGS (if you run a free gift with purchase or buy-one, get-one deal).
The key to making Q4 work for your brand (or your client’s brand) financially is using your owned channels to accelerate revenue through the rest of Q4. This means designing custom flows and triggers (which is a GREAT use case for ChatGPT or Recart’s AI-driven SMS) to upsell + cross-sell those new customers on more of your products. For instance, if a new customer buys a polka-dotted rain jacket on October 30th, you should have an email flow to sell them accessories to complete the look – rain boots, a backpack, a water bottle, an umbrella, whatever.
The same is true for anything else. If you buy a Big Screen TV, you 100% need a surge protector, PS5 and collector’s edition of the Godfather (ok, maybe that’s just me). If you don’t have supporting products, consider pushing total sales in return for a reward: “You’re only $127.25 away from a free [whatever] – see what other gifts we can help you cross off your list” or giving them a limited-time gift (“We’ve added a $50 credit to your account, available through 11/15”) – psychologically, this triggers a sense of loss aversion (“I don’t want to LOSE $50 – so I should shop! After all, I have X more gifts to get, anyway!”), and can often lead to substantially higher total spending.
In fact, I’m going to end this by going one step further: email is table stakes this Q4. You must do it, and you must do it well. SMS is where brands will find incremental value. If you don’t have an SMS strategy that complements + supports your overall email & advertising strategy (and no, copying your emails into SMS is not a strategy, it’s a cop-out), you will fall short of your Q4 goals.
Ultimately, the brands that win this Q4 will be the ones that earn the attention of their audience, and there’s no better way to do that than by being relevant on the screen they check first thing in the morning and while they fall asleep.
9. No Deal Is Better Than a Bad Deal
This is one that I think every brand should hammer into the heads of every media buyer they have. It is better to not spend than it is to spend poorly.
Why? Simple math:
If you have a $100,000 ad budget, and you need to acquire 1,000 customers, that’s a cost per customer acquired of $100. If you spend $250 to acquire your first 100 customers, that’s a total spend of $25,000 – leaving you $75,000 to acquire the remaining 900 – or a CAC of $83.33, 16.67% lower than your initial target.
So, by spending poorly (above your target), you’ve put yourself in the position where either (a) you need to be increasingly more efficient just to get back to square 1, (b) you risk re-entering the learning phase by progressively tightening cost caps or tCPAs (or increasing tROAS) and/or (c) you now need to add more money to the budget in order to hit your customer acquired goal, which directly (and negatively) impacts your bottom line.
This is why your forecast is absolutely critical – the clearer you are on your acceptable cost per customer acquired, and how many contribution dollars you have per bundle/SKU/etc., the better you can manage your campaigns.
10. Always Remember The Broader Economic Context
Q4 2023 is going to be the most difficult Q4 in recent memory. For the first time in 3 years, ~45M Americans will be paying back their student loans, at an estimated ~$503/month (a cumulative hit of $22.8B to consumer discretionary spending). Couple that with interest rates rising at record rates, lower consumer confidence + a volatile stock market, and you have a recipe for substantial headwinds.
From a brand standpoint, these points are easy to overlook – but to do so is foolhardy. Remember that your customers are real people, who have real economic pressures and real economic worries.
Thanks for reading!