November 12th, 2014 | 5 MIN READ

7 Critical Success Factors for Ecommerce This Holiday

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

While for most ecommerce sites, the holiday shopping season is the “most wonderful time of the year,” there’s no other time of the year when consumers are more bombarded with email and ads promising door-crashing (and site-crashing) low prices and free shipping offers, both in-store and online. With competition fiercer than fierce, what makes or breaks your holiday selling success?

Site performance

The average cost of downtime for an ecommerce website is an estimated $4700/minute. There’s nothing more critical than website uptime and performance during peak periods.

It’s not just outages that can be devastating. Slow loading pages at any point of the shopping journey (not just the home page, and especially the checkout process) can turn holiday shoppers away.

Preparing for a traffic spike includes forecasting the required server capacity and conducting load balancing tests. (It's better to be overprepared, as unexpected consumer behavior or even a competitor’s outage could increase your peak traffic).

Optimizing for page load speed includes using a Content Delivery Network, enabling HTTP “keep alives,” using CSS sprites, minifying code and ensuring third party scripts like web analytics and social sharing don’t interrupt the loading page content. Domain sharding is another common performance optimization tactic, but may be detrimental to mobile performance.

During the holiday season, continual network performance monitoring is also key.

Communicating your value proposition

When it comes to email marketing, best practices go up the chimney during the holidays. Think Mondays between 12pm and 1pm are the best time to blast? So do all your competitors. Think free shipping in the subject line is compelling? Everyone’s pimping it. Can you over-blast your list? That depends. Even your tried-and-true segmentation strategies may be irrelevant as shoppers switch from personal buying to gifting.

Segment, test and refine your campaigns while in-play, but understand the best way to stand out in the inbox is to have a better value proposition, and communicate that in every subject line, offer and landing page. Beyond free shipping and 10% off, why should a shopper be interested in your site and ultimately choose to shop with you over all the other shopping destinations and offers?

Ensure your value prop(s) are plastered all over your website and social channels, too. Don’t assume a visitor has noticed them on your home page, many visitors will arrive directly to product pages.

Mobile-friendly pages

An estimated 66% of email is now opened on mobile devices. Tablets and smartphones are expected to capture 31% share of sales this Black Friday. Many retailers already experience ~50% of their traffic from mobile devices. The importance of mobile optimized sites can not be overstated, and those who have not invested yet will miss out.


While the rest-of-the-year personalization may be completely irrelevant during the holidays (past purchases, clickstream history), matching current signals of intent such as customer self-segmentation, campaign and keyword referrals, on-site page views and searches (during holiday period) and even geolocation can help convert customers who are task-oriented and want to shop efficiently.

PPC optimization

Ensure sold out items are removed from your paid search campaigns. Neglecting this is like a leaky faucet and disappoints shoppers. Don’t forget to include your value props in your ad copy. Multi-channel retailers should consider applying for Local Inventory Ads to capture showroomers.


Sending cart recovery email is a no-brainer (even without an email address), as is display retargeting. But as with email marketing, it’s important to adjust your campaigns for the holiday season (and not rely on “best practice” experience).

For email retargeting, you may want to be more aggressive with discount offers in your recovery attempts than you are the rest of the year. Rather than sending a series of 3 emails over a period of 7 days, you may experiment with 3 emails over 3 days. You may notice that more carts can be recovered within the first 48 hours of abandonment than the rest of the year, when carts are most often recovered within 1 hour (or you may observe the reverse).

With display retargeting, understand the importance of tagging holiday visitors and separating them from your general retargeting campaign. Set cookie windows to end when the holidays end, and don’t forget to add “burn pixels” that remove visitors from your campaigns once they convert (so many marketers neglect this step).

Stop A/B testing

You’ve likely heard "you shouldn't test during traffic spikes" before, and unless your test results will be applied only within the holiday season (such as testing offers and merchandising), this is good advice.

There are a number of reasons why you should, like a code freeze, test freeze during the holidays. Yes, the influx of traffic can bias your results, especially if the spike hits in the middle of your testing period. But the most important reason is your site visitor is thinking differently than at any other time of the year.

Are you testing value propositions? Perhaps the only value prop that really matters at Christmas is free shipping. Or lowest price. Or stock availability. Your "winning" value prop may be a losing one come January.

Are you testing checkout design? Shoppers may be so motivated to get their hands on the gifts or use your time-limited coupon, they'll put up with obstacles they wouldn't at more casual times in the year. Who cares if your button is blue or red when you're the last Tickle Me Big Bird on the 'net? Who gives a hoot if your checkout is one-page or three when your Cyber Monday sale ends in an hour?

Most importantly, what you learn from your tests, though you can reach validity much faster when traffic is high, can't reliably be applied to your site for the rest of the year. Again, if you can test quick and apply winners to your holiday efforts, do it. But avoid declaring "winners" during the peak winter season.

From Black Friday to last call before Christmas, ecommerce goes nuts. Make sure your site is technically prepared, you're not relying on marketing "best practices," you're leveraging remarketing, and A/B test wisely.

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