Can we trust automation in a time of crisis?

  •   April 3, 2020

It’s a challenging time to be a marketer. Consumers are distracted, financial futures uncertain and volatility all but a guarantee. It’s a time when self awareness, realism and tact are crucial for success. We need to move fast, but controlled. Tomorrow is going to be different from yesterday, and two days from now different from today.

Can we trust automation in a crisis? When everything is different depending on the hour, can we trust machine learning? Will our automation move fast enough and provide the insights we need? Should we revert to the good ol’ days of staring at the screen for 24 hours a day, watching metrics change in real time?

Yes, automation can keep up with appropriate inputs. No, you should not revert to the stone age of SEM (even though my beard indicates otherwise). Each situation is different, so you must evaluate your own business under your own lens. Below are eight core elements to watch and adjust to ensure success for your search campaigns in a time of crisis extreme volatility.

Bid modifiers must adjust along with behavior

First things first, your time of day bid modifiers are (likely) broken. Or rather, they need a reassessment. COVID-19 has thrust much of the world into hibernation, working from home with a disrupted family life to boot.

Normal demand curves don’t look normal anymore. I took a look through one of our “normal” clients to see how search volume changed pre and post crisis.

Weekends are adjusting, the lunch break and the “getting to work” spikes have flattened. We remember volume taking a nosedive Friday + Saturday nights. We saw a slight rise Sunday evening as people got back to their computers. The current state is… well, different. I suspect it will be different for your accounts as well.

Odds are your curves have changed – you should check to see if your assumptions hold true.

We can expect geographic volume to shift dramatically as well. People aren’t commuting anymore, so we can expect a change in searcher behavior around cities. Crises (especially COVID) affect different cities, states and regions in different ways. As regulations around social distancing have shifted, so too can you expect regional search behavior to shift. Double-check your geographic bid modifiers and budget allocations – does performance pre-crisis still hold true in crisis?

I won’t go in depth to the shifts in device performance (as many already have at length), but device behavior shifts dramatically in a crisis as well. Particularly in times of COVID, if consumers are immobile there’s less of a need for a mobile device. Adjust accordingly. 

Inventory and news cycle will likely influence each other

Humans are inherently irrational creatures. We make decisions based on what we observe and react to what we see, rather than trusting a clear course of action. In times of crisis, it’s amplified a kabillion-fold. As such, inventory will often dictate demand and vice versa. If a news report shows is about a given product (all but guaranteed during a crisis), odds are the masses will take to search engines to hunt them down.

This can yield false positives and false negatives, impacting both long and short term performance. As the mad dash arrives for a given product, you’ll see a huge spike in conversion rate (while inventory remains). Following the rush will be a near immediate cooldown. Ensure your inventory tracking is tip top and tied to bid modifications to ensure you’re not spending money to take in orders you can’t fulfill.

While a crisis can represent unprecedented times, there are precedents you can review in your history to see how you react. Was your product ever cited on a reality show? Spotted on a celebrity? Touted as a miracle cure, if even for a few minutes? Each scenario will resemble the short term spike and tail-off of volume. Review how your bidding tools and inventory management system reacted. That will give you a good idea of how to react both now, AND when the crisis concludes.

Smart bidding

I’m going to address these en masse, as the answer for each is similar. Look at your most volatile times. Every crisis is unique, volatile and requires different tactics to address. Algorithms can’t necessarily differentiate between an unprecedented crisis and a really good Black Friday sale.

You can generally assume that most bidding algorithms will favor the last 30 or so days worth of data. Take a look and see how long the last volatile period affected your campaigns. If it’s a spike then drop (or a valley then climb), make sure the tool is making the right decisions.

A safe way to predict the future is by looking at the past. Find your best day/week and your worst – did Smart Bidding keep up and make the correct decisions? Did it lag behind, and leave spend on the table? Did it react too quickly, or assume the good period would last longer than it did? The answer isn’t simple for any of these questions.

Expect slower creative approval and adjust your automation

When a crisis strikes, everyone affected reacts. In the case of COVID where the world is affected… well, you get the point. That means that Search Engines’ resources will be strained to the brink. You can safely expect a delay in reaction time. Google and Bing both have 48 hour ad approval windows, but rarely stretch beyond… instantaneous. In this particular crisis where support teams are affected, that time can be extended. Yes, that means your new promo ad may not go live while the promo is live.

Adjust your automated rules for any and all creative swaps coming up. Many advertisers have a rule to pause evergreen ads when launching a new set of promotional ads. In a time of crisis, wait until you have absolute confirmation that the new ads are live before pausing the others.

Brand safety and messaging need to be front of mind

It’s challenging to understand and react to brand safety in tumultuous times. Keep your brand principles and voice front of mind and you’ll know exactly how to act. If you’ve planted your flag of “we go where customers go,” then you’ll want to keep doing that. If you’ve planned on excluding any and all controversial content, the answer is simple as well.

Where it gets challenging is for those who tread the middle ground. We’re fine being on news sites, but only if it’s not controversial. This is much more difficult in modern times of crisis, as quite literally every news outlet will, in some way or another, refer to the crisis.

The other challenge to watch is what you say in your ads. Shipping times shift. The ability to make in person appointments, not so much. 24/7 call center? No way. With the advent of responsive search ads, odds are you have some value proposition laying around in there that may be invalid in crisis.

Worse yet, this could extrapolate with panic buying. If a customer sees same day delivery, they will buy from you. If automated tools see your eCTR and conversion rate spike, they’ll prioritize the ad unit. If you can’t fulfill the promise you set, that customer isn’t coming back. It’s a dangerous cycle. The best way to get ahead is to ensure your ads communicate reality with your customers, even if it’s cloudy news.

Take a look at every part of your ads (yes, even those lil ol’ structured snippets) to see what’s still valid.

Watch queries closely, especially Dynamic Search Ads

This is similar to the inventory issue noted above. If there’s something on site that people are searching for, DSA’s and close variants will find it. There’s nothing like a pandemic to be a casual reminder that yes, your promotional swag company DOES sell custom hand sanitizer.

Many companies are placing alerts on their site to address how they’re reacting to a crisis. This can throw a wrench into search queries generated by DSA’s or broader match types.

Pay close attention to queries as they arise. If you’ve actively decided you don’t want to show around any crisis-related queries, add those negatives right away! Exclude any crisis-related pages from your DSA campaigns as a failsafe, and your campaigns should still run smoothly.

Last but DEFINITELY not least – craft volatility alerts

I’ve not been shy about recommending “pops and drops” alerts. They’re crucial at all times for all accounts to ensure we address performance swings with haste without staring at the computer all day and night. In an era of crisis, things move FAST. Waiting until tomorrow isn’t an option anymore.

Instead, think of the metrics you care about where you need an alert. Make the swings something you truly care about (e.g. spend quadruples hour over hour) and consider running your scripts on a more frequent basis.

We’re in the midst of a crisis today. To us humans, these are unprecedented times. To machines, these are periods of extreme volatility. They’re unprecedented times, just like the last unprecedented time. Review what happened during your last rollercoaster ride. Evaluate how your automation performed and adjust for the current period and beyond. 

Remember, the time of crisis is a time to cement your brand voice, a time to speak 1:1 to your customers. It’s a challenging time to be a marketer, but that doesn’t mean you should stop being one.


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