Shopping Free Once Again!

Read Time: 5 mins 30 secs

In a piece last July, I explored how Google was returning to an old system through its Comparison Shopping Services platform. Those with a few years of digital experience will likely see the striking resemblance between CSS click-throughs and the lost world of bridging pages between Google and merchant websites.

Now, Google seems to be making a return to 2012 with the return of free shopping listings – not seen on the platform in 8 years. 

Free shopping listings will come into effect in the US on 27th April and are expected to be rolled out across the world within months. As marketers get ready for this new type of listing, there’s one question that hangs in the air. Why now?

The Timing

It’s a secret to absolutely no-one that the meteoric rise of Amazon as a Shopping destination over the last few years has taken a significant share of the market away from Google – and it’s easy to see why.  Amazon’s wide-reaching product selection is a huge plus for users, and their ranking model – which sees products ranked purely based on certain attributes rather than bids – is reflective of what drew users to Google’s core product in the first place.

With advertisers slashing budgets left and right in response to the current pandemic, we’re seeing fewer and fewer listings on the Google Shopping tab as you can’t be listed without spending. It seems that in response, Google has naturally sped up their timeframes for launching free shopping listings for fear of falling any further behind Amazon as the go-to starting point for a consumer’s shopping journey.

There have also been some reports that, after the initial boom, Amazon is now struggling with its listings and fulfilment for some of it’s largest sellers. Perhaps Google believes that by creating a Marketplace with a low barrier to entry, they can create a larger pool of products than Amazon can at this time. Hopefully, by bringing consumers over now and building a habit, customers will stick with you afterwards. 

The benefits for Google and consumers are numerous, but what about the impact on merchants? How will this change the way we run our paid campaigns; from 3rd-party tracking to measuring performance across both organic and paid shopping. What will this mean for the relatively young CSS program in Europe? In short, how will we have to adapt?

Preparing for Success

If you’ve already opted into the Surfaces Across Google program, you’ll automatically be opted into Organic Shopping. When it comes to measuring performance here, it’s important to note that organic ads will only be appearing within the Shopping Tab, which means they’re going to have a relatively small impact on volumes. Estimates suggest that the volumes coming through the Shopping Tab make up between 5-10% of totals, which is still enough to have an impact on your campaigns.

The actual volumes could be even smaller than that, as current communications say the shopping tab will be “mostly” free. The specifics of this are anyone’s guess, but there are a number of steps you can take to ensure that the impact of this new product listing is measured properly.

To ensure you’re accurately measuring your performance, we recommend that you apply your Google and Adobe tracking parameters to your Merchant Center so you can continue to monitor volumes across all shopping types within your analytics platform. We also recommend that you place an additional level of parameters so you can differentiate between the two sources of traffic; which should mean you can measure the impact of organic shopping on your performance. 

We will also be taking snapshots of the Shopping Tab results on some of our key terms, so we can monitor how changes have affected the results within the tab. This will be a key step in learning how we can influence the shopping tab going forward.

Over time, it will be important to closely monitor your CPCs. Whilst most merchants are already listed in shopping, any new entrants to the space as well as fewer spots to compete for may cause CPC inflation – leading to increased costs within the SERP. Yes, counterintuitively Google’s free Shopping could lead to you spending more overall.

What about the CSS Program? 

While we don’t know specifically when the new system will be coming to Europe, we do know that it will become significantly more complicated. Currently, CSS providers have the opportunity to appear within the shopping tab if they wish to, but this is without the benefit of the 20% discount incentive. Moving forward, there are two main options for how this might work.

Firstly, and most unlikely, CSSs may still appear for their merchants within the Shopping Tab, with the listing that has the best-tuned feed being the one that gets priority. Considering the complications that 3rd-party tracking would cause, this seems like the least likely option.

Instead, I believe that it will mean that all CSSs without the meta tag activated within the Merchant Center will be excluded from Organic Shopping results. This will mean a reduction in traffic from CSS providers that do not operate out of the main client accounts. This would be a fair enough step in my view; after all, we don’t let Google bid within our bybuybye.eu Shopping Tab.

Who Wins Out?

If Google are ranking listings based on all the same criteria as before, without the bid coming into play, then those with the best feeds will have the best chance of winning in this space. Running an audit to understand your current feed, and optimising based on the findings, will give you a strong basis here. You can find some tips on getting the best out of your feed in our recent webinar.

There is also a chance that Google will take a more handheld approach to the new world; perhaps using some of the more well-known SEO drivers, such as authority, relevance and credibility to decide who will show. However, this could make it more difficult for smaller brands to appear within the Shopping Tab in the future. To help prepare for this, find ways for your paid teams to work more closely with the SEO team to ensure your feeds are optimised for the right terms and phrases that people are searching for. 

Ultimately, we don’t know what the real impacts and results of changes will be until Organic Shopping is rolled out. All we can do is set up to measure impacts and plan for every eventuality. The only constant is change in our industry, and I for one welcome it as an exciting opportunity to demonstrate our adaptability.

We will be analysing the impact closely in the US, so stay tuned for the results.

This post was originally published on Incubeta’s blog.

The Evolution of Search Affiliates

Digital marketing is now in its third decade of existence, with many of the practices founded during its infancy still being implemented today. Even in these early years, when brands faced issues with organically growing through methods such as SEO and email marketing, they reached for new paid channels to sustain growth. Online affiliate marketing was one of these new disciplines, which helped brands expand to new audiences and increase traffic to their site, in the hope of generating more sales.

A key part of the affiliate industry was and still is the publisher, a business that markets an advertiser’s products or services on their behalf. Publishers are typically remunerated on a performance model, where they are paid a commission after having driven a conversion (a purchase, lead, download, etc.) on an advertiser’s site. In these early years, affiliates were often sites that simply recommended or reviewed certain products in an attempt to get a customer to click the product and make a purchase.

With the foundations of the digital affiliate model in place, several business models sprang up, leveraging the tracking and payment technology that affiliate networks had to offer. In this article, we’ll go into detail about one of those business types – search affiliates. How did search affiliates begin, where are they today, and how does NMPi fit into all of this?

What Is a Traditional Search Affiliate?

With the emergence of Google AdWords (known today as Google Ads) and other search marketing platforms in the early 2000s, digital marketers swarmed to this new marketing channel. 

While it’s hard to imagine today, marketers were initially wary of this new advertising technology, concerned about fraudulent traffic and its potential to even drive noticeable performance. Affiliates were soon to capitalize on these emerging platforms, however, realizing the high risk/high reward they had to offer. Search Affiliate Marketing is similar to traditional affiliate advertising, but instead leverages search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing to drive traffic and conversions for advertisers.

This came as an advantage to nascent in-house marketing teams, as the affiliates ran campaigns and fronted the ad spend, minimising risk and preserving ROI for advertisers. This pure performance model acted as a natural incentive for the affiliates to perform to the best of their capabilities in order to not operate at a loss because of inefficient paid search campaigns.

Where Is Search Affiliate Marketing Today?

With the slow commoditisation of paid search, brands began to bring increasing proportions of their PPC activity outside of the affiliate channel, in favour of working with an agency or managing in-house. Google also placed increasing pressure on search affiliates to improve the search experience and attract more of the marketing budget from established brands.

With affiliates no longer able to serve ads directly to an advertiser’s website, new ways of working were quickly established that still leveraged the power of search engines. Indirect linking search affiliates such as coupon and cashback sites emerged, serving on ‘brand-plus’ keywords (also known as TM+) to drive traffic and performance.

You’ll often see coupon sites today providing specific promotions for brands via their paid search ads. These affiliates, just like their ‘90s counterparts, earn a commission off each conversion that falls within their attribution model.

Cashback sites are also common versions of modern search affiliates, driving a large proportion of traffic to their sites via search engine marketing. The commission earned by these publishers is often passed in whole or part back to customers as an incentive for using their site.

Where Does NMPi Fit Into the Picture?

By the early 2000s, there were countless search affiliates engaging in PPC activity via the affiliate channel. NMPi (known at the time as Net Media Planet) joined the fray in 2004 and began supporting advertisers in a wide range of industries, countries, and search engines.

For the reasons mentioned above, many of these paid search publishers ceased to exist or diversified into other areas. Despite these industry pressures, a small group of search affiliates survived and continued to offer performance-based solutions to their clients.

From that changeable time, NMPi emerged and expanded its offering. While paid search continued to be a valuable service, we expanded our pure-performance solutions to Google Shopping, paid social, and programmatic display.

Why Is This Useful Today?

With the emergence of search affiliate marketing came the opportunity for brands to launch paid search campaigns via affiliates on a commission-based model, minimizing risk while improving performance.

Due to industry developments, the viewpoint of what a ‘search affiliate is’ slowly shifted to cashback and coupon sites. Brands looked for ways to leverage search engine marketing in the affiliate space that didn’t overlap with their in-house or agency-managed PPC.

In this time of uncertainty, where advertisers are unsure of the ROI they will receive from their ad spend, might this be an opportunity to revisit this business model that founded what we know as search affiliates today?

5 Essential Steps for Maximising Facebook and Instagram Advertising

According to a recent report from eMarketer, 67.6% of adults (aged 18+) are spending over an hour a day more on social media platforms due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that Facebook and Instagram top the most used chart (78.1% and 49.5% respectively).

There is still incredible value to be found by utilising these channels, and if you aren’t in a position to offer your services at the moment it may be worth looking to the future and focusing on your upper-funnel activity.

If you are currently investing in your paid advertising, it’s even more important than ever to make sure that any activity you’re currently running is as efficient as possible. The 5 following steps will help you to create great campaigns. 

Essential 1: Set Campaigns Up for Success

A strong foundation is vital for campaigns, no matter the channel. Before going any further, make sure you address these factors:

  • Appropriate Campaign Goals – Ensure your KPIs are aligned with your campaign goals, as an incorrect application can set you up for failure. There are some shades of grey where the impact might not be quite so pronounced, such as between Reach and Brand Awareness, but if you’re running a Traffic campaign to maximise ROI, your campaign will never truly succeed even with perfect targeting, creative, and more.
  • Pixel Implementation – Many Paid Social campaigns fail or underperform due to incorrect or non-optimal pixel set-up. It’s essential that the key standard events are firing with the correct parameters, with the exact configuration of these varying in line with your vertical and KPIs. 
  • Attribution Approach – Relying solely on Facebook’s tracking is intrinsically flawed, as it operates in a silo and doesn’t take into account other touchpoints on the path to purchase. This can muddle the number of conversions that paid social significantly influences, causing advertisers to undervalue the channel.
  • Consistent Naming Convention – A consistent convention enables accurate and scalable optimisation, reporting, and auditing.

Essential 2: Leverage Granular & Varied Audiences

One of the most significant selling points for Facebook and Instagram is the unparalleled scale and variety of audience options available through which to reach your target audience. 

Proper usage of these empowers your campaigns to bring in the right new customers as well as maximizing revenue generation from current ones. Be sure to evaluate the potential of targeting based on interest, behaviour, demographic data, lookalikes, dynamic retargeting & prospecting, pixel-based audiences, and CRM data.

Instagram targeting (source: Instagram)

While granularity in paid social is incredibly important, it’s essential that it’s justified. If you’re not serving a different creative, directing to a different landing page, utilizing a different budgeting strategy or some other variation, then do you really need to segment?

Facebook & Instagram offer a large number of customizations you can perform within ads such as different creatives for different placements. Overeager segmentation is likely to instead impair Facebook’s natural optimization by overly constricting audience sizes, negatively impacting performance, and potentially driving up costs.

Essential 3: Inspiring & Hyper-Relevant Creative

A consistent brand image is key for paid social, but a one-size-fits-all approach is highly unlikely to maximise success. Once you’ve defined your audience and the goals of campaigns, the appropriate imagery and copy should be used for each group. While this should draw on the key elements of your brand image, it’s important that different audience segments you’ve identified are hit with creative aimed at that user type if you are to elicit your desired reaction.

Are you trying to draw new customers to your business, where they may need a more informative creative? Alternatively, are you driving existing customers to site or re-engaging with lapsed customers? In this case, it may be more important to highlight offers or any new products.

The ad formats you choose are also key, so ensure that you’ve run tests across all relevant formats such as instant experiences, stories, collections & more. However, don’t be afraid to pull back on low performing formats, as different brands are very likely to have varying levels of success with different formats.

Essential 4: Maximise on Dynamic

Dynamic is a great opportunity to boost your paid social results. The success of your dynamic campaigns is wholly dependent on the quality of your technical set-up. Before setting up campaigns, ensure a full audit has been carried out on the events being fired by your pixel & that these are matching up as expected with your catalogue. Additionally, the catalogue must be regularly updated, with category data, custom labels & more populating daily at a minimum.

While many advertisers are making good use of dynamic retargeting, there remains a lack of quality Dynamic Ads for Broad Audiences (DABAs) campaigns. We historically see significantly stronger returns from these campaigns than traditional prospecting campaigns, and their dynamic nature makes them much less labour-intensive to set up & maintain. 

Dynamic variations of the same ad (source: Facebook)

Finally, ensure you’re leveraging as many dynamic elements as possible in your ads, pulling in things such a price, category, and multiple images to make the ads as engaging, attractive and tailored to the individual user as possible. Some sense checking is essential here, as gaps in the feed can lead to unusual-looking ads, and incorrect prices present in ads lead to a negative customer experience.

Essential 5: Excel at Cross-Channel

If you’ve set up your Paid Social correctly, the logical next step is to appreciate its role within your wider marketing mix and business strategy, to break it out of the siloes and drive increased performance across your business. Sharing is the keyword here – sharing data, insights, attribution – all of this improves an individual channel’s performance as well as the business as a whole. From testing successful Instagram copy on Search to using Google Shopping best sellers in Facebook DABAs, you can cultivate a more effective consumer journey.

You can find out more about Facebook and it’s role in commerce at our upcoming webinar. We’ll be joined by Sophie Ellis from Facebook to discuss the Future of Commerce on Tuesday 14th April at 12pm. Register here for the link.

No Pixel, No (First) Party

Recent years have been marked by a shift towards greater consumer privacy. The EU’s famous GDPR legislation – a trailblazer in its own right – has paved the way for an insurgence of data protection policies across the world. With California’s new CCPA laws for 2020, and Google’s upcoming 3rd party cookie ban getting under marketers’ skins, we are having to adapt to a whole new landscape.

Whilst heightened data transparency and security is a big win in the eyes of consumers, you would be forgiven for assuming that these laws would restrict digital marketers’ access to granular data. To some extent this is true – perhaps the biggest impact of GDPR was its prohibition of the use of third party data, or Facebook’s ‘Partner Categories’. But this overlooks the potential for innovation, and crucially, fails to consider a tool far more valuable than Partner Categories: first-party data.

The Facebook Pixel

The age-old belief that companies are inundated with data (inundata’d, if you will) but are still searching for the best avenues to utilise it, rings true. In Facebook terms, the vast majority of this first-party data is captured on-site, by the Pixel. This is a piece of code placed on a website that, once given consent, registers events (content viewed, checkout initiated etc.) that users take on a site throughout their path to purchase. It then syncs this data to a registered Facebook user profile, ready to serve them ads at a later date. This is how your favourite retailer is able to retarget you with that pair of trainers you added to your basket 27 days ago.

What are Custom Audiences?

Facebook stores this event data in order to supply ready-to-build custom audiences within Facebook Business Manager (below). Most who are familiar with paid social are probably aware of these events and have seen great success from targeting these high-intent users, but not all are aware of their full capabilities. 

Screengrab of Facebook's readybuilt custom audiences

Below are three helpful examples of how custom audiences can be used to sift through your first-party data, unlocking nuances of user behaviour otherwise overlooked by the standard events.

Purchase Value

You can overlay standard events (add to cart, purchase etc.) with information in the URL of the specific page the user is browsing when the Pixel logs an event. This gives you access to various URL parameters like the product name or category to give you a much broader idea of specific user interest and intent. 

Overlaying a standard event with a category variable is perhaps one of the more common tactics deployed in custom audience targeting. All this means is serving trainer ads to users who have recently been on a landing page on your website with ‘footwear’ in the URL. However, many ignore the potential to further refine these audiences by additional variables: namely, price. 

Screengrab of Facebook Ads targeting for purchases made in the last 90 days

When advertising products of a higher value, it is crucial to understand who is best to market them to. Suppose your customer’s average order value is £50, but you want to advertise your most valuable product range with an average product value of £250. Ads for these higher-value products may well mean wasted impressions on a typical past purchaser. Custom audiences allow you to refine these purchases by value, so that ads can be served exclusively to customers who have previously checked out a basket with a specified minimum value. Ultimately, this makes your ads more relevant.

Building an audience in this way still only utilises a small segment of the abundance of first-party data businesses are sitting on, but in this scenario, this small segment represents a far greater potential for return on investment. These users also represent a valuable source audience from which to build a look-a-like audience from, enabling marketers to find new users that display similar behaviours to their big-spending customers. 

Time Spent on Site

The trusty Facebook Pixel not only logs the value and the events made on a user’s purchase journey, but also tracks the length of these journeys by measuring overall active time spent on a website. Helpfully, Facebook groups all website visitors into percentile thresholds of their time spent on site, which can be used to build custom audiences. 

Screengrab of Facebook audience targeting for visitors by time spent

Many marketers seek to reach their most engaged customers by targeting users who have actively signed up to reward schemes or within the CRM. Whilst this audience tends to be the most engaged, it’s surprising to see the level of overlap with users who are spending the most amount of time on site. 

We’ve seen as little as an 8% overlap between the 5% of users spending the most time on site and those within the CRM, with a level of performance that rivals the CRM audience. Using these two audiences in tandem can allow marketers to reach a much larger group of high-intent users that, without the custom audience tool, would otherwise have been difficult to reach. 

Purchase Frequency

Our last example concerns frequency; the Facebook Pixel stores repeat purchase data from users that are readily available to be retargeted, if you know where to look. 

Screengrab of Facebook audiences by purchase frequency

This tool can be very handy for businesses that sell consumables. Should a business ever wish to promote these in a 3 for 2 deal, then understanding which customers already frequently purchase, and therefore may be likely to capitalise on a sale of this nature, can make all of the difference.

Alternatively, there is also value in understanding which of your past purchasers have failed to make a repeat purchase in a given time frame. Users within this audience may well warrant bespoke promotional targeting to prompt them to make a repeat purchase. Where there is data, there is opportunity.

Make the most of your own resources

Nothing in digital ever stays still. In an era of unprecedented concern for data privacy, laws such as GDPR and CCPA will continue to be introduced across the globe. As marketers, it is more important than ever that we are reactive to these changes that threaten to challenge routine. 

We have only scratched the surface of the targeting opportunities that are available with the apparatus provided by Facebook’s Pixel and custom audiences.  These examples should be used as motivation to explore new innovative avenues to maximise the utility of transparent, first-party data. Granular targeting is still very much possible, but instead of seeking external help, why not consult your own resources? Innovating with your own first-party data is a hugely rewarding exercise in terms of the performance it can drive.

You can find out more about Facebook and it’s role in commerce at our upcoming webinar. We’ll be joined by Sophie Ellis from Facebook to discuss the Future of Commerce on Tuesday 14th April at 12pm. Register here for the link.

Webinar Wrap-Up: The Customer Loop

Read Time: 4 mins

While we currently face an uncertain and challenging economic landscape, it’s important to remember that the situation is finite and we will come out of the other side. To help you prepare for the future, our experts are delivering a range of training initiatives in order to help you plan ahead. The first webinar of our virtual learning series – The Customer Loop – came from Incubeta’s Director of Strategy, Damien Bennett and looks a different way of understanding the customer journey.

Spending on digital channels has increased exponentially over the last five years and is expected to continue. Digital advertising spend in the UK between 2014 and 2019 increased by 108% to $19.2bn. 46% of that spend was on search marketing. Historically, these kinds of channels have been closely associated with performance marketing – activity that is specifically geared at driving sales. More traditional channels, such as TV and OOH, are instead typically used to raise awareness.

In addition to the growth in digital spending, consumer behaviour has changed rapidly, with shifts towards video, mobile, audio and voice content; but despite new avenues being opened up to us, many aspects of digital marketing, such as the measurement of performance, haven’t caught up.

The New Digital Playbook

The game has changed, and so must our approach. We must create a new digital playbook to allow us to navigate this space. We see this playbook being broken into three sections:

  1. Move the boundaries
  2. Refocus on creative
  3. Measure beyond sales

1. Move the Boundaries

The first part of this playbook is to change the way we think about digital advertising, shifting away from its perception as just a performance driver. To do this, we can start applying a new way of visualising the consumer journey: the Customer Loop.

While many of us are used to the customer funnel, there are certain limits to its portrayal of the customer journey. We now understand that the path to purchase is often not linear, and this doesn’t account for impulse purchases. On top of this, it’s clear that there is value in advertising to both in- and out-of-market audiences. Very few people will be in-market for a new car, but it’s incredibly important to raise awareness with audience who are out of market so that when they’re ready to consider their purchasing options, you’re front of mind.

The customer journey is instead an infinite loop of exploration and consideration until the moment of decision. Users swing from passive to interested to active, and this visualisation demonstrates that it’s just as important to target passive audiences as it is your interested and active ones.

There is also a need to go beyond online in our measurement strategies. Many marketing strategies have an omnichannel approach, and so reporting also has to consider how digital activity has impacted not only online sales, but overall performance.

And finally, in our constantly-evolving world of digital advertising, we must continue to test, to adapt, and to adopt. Voice search is still expected to be a big disruptor in the space, meaning that advertisers will need to remain on top of those trends to be able to adapt as necessary.

Refocus on Creative

When developing creatives for display and paid social, many marketers will repurpose assets from their TV or OOH campaigns. This is a practice that really needs to change, as users interact with digital ads differently to traditional channel. So, using a traditional creative for a digital ad placement with a digital audience is unlikely to be successful.

There are more tools at our disposal with digital creatives, with a whole range of placements aside from the big 5 able to help us bring our creatives to life. We have more opportunities to layer in personalisation and make the ads interactive, so building from a digital-first mindset requires us to utilise every tool at our disposal.

Speaking of personalisation, while it’s a very useful tactic for advertisers, there are times when it will be more valuable to be consistent and use the overarching brand design. Striking a balance here will be crucial when it comes to developing an effective creative strategy.

Measure Beyond Sales

As marketers move their traditional advertising budgets towards digital, it’s important that we don’t discard traditional marketing measurement models. Reach, Brand recall and Share of Voice still have a lot of value and are still really relevant for our purposes.

A mistake that we tend to see is that brands embark on a digital strategy without an idea of their overall objective. This often means that the KPI for the campaign incorrectly becomes sales. Setting and being aware of your objective from the outset will help you to develop a KPI which is relevant to your overall goals.

Ultimately, the big goal here should be to tell compelling stories, and not just to our audiences. We should be able to accurately and effectively portray to other stakeholders what the purpose of our campaign was, how we achieved that, and why is was (or wasn’t) successful.


The Customer Loop was the first webinar in our Virtual Learning Series. Over the next 10 weeks, we will be hosting weekly webinars and a series of virtual classroom courses.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the full line up here: Incubeta Ignite: Virtual Learning Series

This was originally posted on Incubeta’s blog.