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Online to offline: Supporting store re-openings through paid search

As we find ourselves approaching the four-month point since the national lockdown was introduced in the UK, it is interesting to consider just how much the population has adapted to the restrictions imposed; cluttered kitchen tables have transformed into office spaces, re-arranged living rooms into stay-at-home workout areas and Zoom chats have come to substitute, well, pretty much any social event that we can virtually re-imagine!

In a similar way, digital platforms became almost the only way for brands to maintain engagement with their consumer base after the closure of high street stores on the 24th March. Uplifts in the number of consumers exploring e-commerce made these platforms more valuable than ever to brands, evidence of which can be seen in many cases through increased investment in digital development and advertising.

Some brands adapted to these changes in consumer behaviour like ducks to water whereas others faced immediate challenges, at times attracting un-wanted media coverage in the process. Limitations of platforms came under increased scrutiny and issues at production level were exacerbated by social distancing measures, but overall, digital has stood up well in these testing times, and now provides businesses with a path for growth.

Prior to stores re-opening there was a feeling of ambivalence towards the predicted number of consumers feeling comfortable enough to visit them, and concerns around how this would affect in-store performance. However so far, the signs have been positive in favour of a high-street recovery; store footfall jumped up by 38.8% on the 15th June as non-essential shops re-opened and footfall on England’s high streets specifically measured 50.5% higher than the week previous (econsultancy.com). These statistics suggest that consumer confidence hasn’t been hampered as severely as first thought, and the demand for physical stores still holds viability for brands.

Nevertheless, recent events have no doubt led to a further blurring of the lines between online and offline retail, making it now an important time for brands to re-evaluate the ways in which their online activity can complement their offline strategy. The role of online activity within the consumer journey is highly regarded by many marketers, and a publication from JRNI reported that 73% of users in the UK say that they research digitally before going on to purchase in store.

Bridging the gap between online and offline retail was a developing area within Google paid search long before the days of toilet roll shortages and Tiger King-mania, which began with the introduction of Google My Business to help drive footfall to stores via maps and directions. In reaction to widespread adoption and strong performance, advertisers now find themselves with an ever-increasing arsenal of technologies becoming available.

One of the first Google Ads features to appear in support of physical stores was the location extension, which has since been utilised by many brands. Featuring across the Google search network, these extensions commonly appear beneath paid search ads to provide information about stores local to the user. When delivered on a mobile device they can also display a “call” button, making these extensions a particularly useful feature for businesses that rely on real-time conversations, or apprehensive shoppers wishing to check stock availability before venturing out.

‘Local campaigns’ were another evolution of Google’s online-to-offline offering when they were introduced last year, allowing advertisers to dedicate budget entirely to the pursuit of in-store footfall via paid search platforms. These campaigns use a combination of text, image and video assets to reach users across Google search platforms and give brands more power to communicate with consumers at the right time. As stores can appear to users within Google Maps without actively searching for them (in the form of a branded drop-pin), local campaigns can hold value in supporting upper funnel tactics.

Online and Offline Paid Search

Figure 1: Example of a branded drop-pin and ad within Google Maps (Google)

Conversion tracking is also available to advertisers that meet Google’s eligibility criteria, the requirements of which include sufficient store locations and traffic amongst other attributes. Once set in place, conversion tracking allows advertisers to see within Google Ads exactly which campaigns, keywords and devices drive the most store visits. These metrics are extremely useful in understanding return on investment and better evaluating the effectiveness of your messaging.

As well as providing geographical information about store locations, Google also make it possible to integrate the availability of in-store stock via the use of local inventory ads (or LIA for short). Working in a similar way to shopping campaigns, these ad formats require the set-up of a dedicated feed into the Google Merchant Centre and give users the ability to browse products local to them within a Google-hosted virtual shop called the ‘Local Storefront’. With a reported 50% of shoppers globally checking online before considering an in-store purchase (Google), this feature holds a great advantage for brands looking to create synergy between their online-to-offline shopping experience and provide a seamless user journey.

Online and Offline Paid Search

Figure 2: Example of LIA on a mobile device (Google)

Aside from the many inherent benefits they offer to consumers including added convenience and avoidance of delivery charges, click and collect services have provided an attractive prospect for brands wanting to turn online traffic into physical store visits for several years. The availability of click and collect through Google as an accompaniment to LIA now means that more and more brands can implement this tactic as a part of their online-to-offline strategy.

The features covered in this blog are only a handful within Google’s current repertoire, and the tech giant have made no secret of their plans to expand this area of paid search significantly over the coming months. With so many options available for brands looking to bolster their online-to-offline strategy, understanding how each can support your business objectives is conducive to a successful strategy. Just like many marketing exercises, testing offline campaigns in unison with your existing digital activity is the best way to gauge their impact upon your performance. Starting out with a small, focused strategy around a few stores before slowly scaling up can be a good way to gain valuable insights without spending a fortune.

Early adoption within fast-developing areas such as online-to-offline can often hold advantage for brands willing to dip their toes in the water. It could also prove instrumental in building consumer relationships and driving performance within a post-Covid world.

 

Rick Hewitt, iProspect

This article was written by Rick Hewitt. Rick is a Paid Search Executive with over two years’ experience at iProspect and a prior background within the advertising and marketing industry. His current role specialises in the planning and activation of paid search strategies for an international fashion brand across EMEA markets.