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Frequent Shifts, Major Results: SEM Takeaways from the COVID-19 Climate

28 May 2020 Anastasia Sorokina

in Digital

Already a fast-moving segment, digital marketing has had its fair share of transformation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a landscape in which advertisers must be flexible and ready to shift with the rapid changes we have seen in consumer behavior. While directing the search marketing and PPC initiatives for our top Stella Rising clients, I experienced this turbulent climate firsthand. From the initial state of panic, up to now, I have adapted frequently, enabling our clients to see outstanding gains and lower costs. Here, I look at best strategies for approaching SEM, within a larger context of digital marketing during COVID-19.


Initially, many brands responded by reducing media budgets. Regardless of business initiative, paid search saw budget cuts of up to 60%. Awareness tactics such as GDN and YouTube were included in these reductions. According to Statista, the revised prediction for the general advertising industry is about a $20B loss in revenue this year.

Many retail brands, in particular, reacted accordingly because of understandable struggles with supply chain management. Inventory issues forced our team to constantly pivot strategies, ensuring that we satisfy any fluctuations in demand while also maximizing sales opportunity. Two of our main goals via SEM are to effectively communicate with loyal customers and reach new qualified users at as low a cost as possible. With those goals in mind, we came up with multiple approaches to drive client success during these uneasy economic times:

    • Focus on valuable information and effective communication: Ad copy messaging must reflect the business changes that brands are undergoing, while also highlighting unique selling points, special promotions, discounts, and useful product details. We always want to add maximum value to the products/services in our ads, and also underscore how the brand is adapting. We further recommend communicating sympathetically with consumers while emphasizing any support or relief initiatives that our clients are involved in.
    • Automate quick changes: With search demand and client goals adjusting so rapidly, our team employed certain Google automation products, allowing more time for internal performance analysis and client communication. Smart Bidding tools allowed bids to be adjusted in real-time, thus reaching the lower-funnel consumers based off of user signals and algorithmic learnings. This type of automation takes time to learn but can shift with search marketplace changes faster and more efficiently.
    • Concentrated targeting: The team used data-driven insights to focus on top-performing keywords, audiences, and demographics which, in turn, showed cost efficient performance boosts. This hyper-targeted approach with audiences and keywords allowed us to confidently report on positive campaign results week-over-week and make adjustments to boost revenue growth further.

The enhanced ad copy had a much higher customer response. In one client case, we saw a 55% increase in clicks and 51% uplift in CTR. Via a marketing mix of search and shopping ads, campaigns reached a 263% MoM increase in ROAS and +137% MoM lift in revenue March to April. Even more exciting was when our efforts led to April revenue surpassing that of the holiday season period (+32%), while also driving a 104% revenue increase YoY and a 300% improvement in ROAS YoY.

By leveraging Google’s smart bidding solutions with a more concentrated targeting strategy for a jewelry client, we were able to reach new consumers at a much lower cost and maximize revenue with lower-funnel tactics. This strategy led to a 139% boost in ROAS from March to April and drove a revenue increase despite lower ad investment. Sales growth continued in May and cost efficiency improved even further (+24% MoM ROAS).


One of the major learnings that I took from the initial period of the pandemic—and will apply moving forwardwas the vital importance of having a brand presence in the search marketing space. This is especially true when competing on your top-performing keywords, so as to ensure that your ad is shown at the top of page. Using best practices from Google and other search engines, our team was able to work with clients to develop strategies that would maximize cost efficiency and increase revenue while building a new customer base. Turning off ad campaigns during a time like this can be costly because it allows competitors to grow their reach and gain the edge with consumers. Additionally, major ad metrics are much more efficient when advertising demand is lower; from the period of March 9th to May 10th, paid search CPCs decreased 45% and the average CTR increased +8% across the beauty and retail brands we work with

Additionally, as ever, running ads allows brands to collect critical data points that inform new strategies and build stronger futures. Google is keen on using historical data to optimize campaigns in real-time, ensuring that brands serve ads to the consumers who are ready to learn more and convert. Down periods for an ad campaign make it difficult to infer from past data, inhibiting a clear understanding of how to best spend a budget.

When reviewing Smart Bidding tools and new digital marketing methods, it’s important to note that even in difficult economic times, progress will still be made so that companies can advertise efficiently in any climate. This inducement, paired with research indicating that retailers who continue marketing investment during a recession recover faster, offers strong incentive for brands to continue sound digital marketing. At Stella Rising, we will keep adapting, employing best practices that provide value and returns for our clients, thereby fast-tracking us on a path to economic recovery.