4 Steps to Successfully Running Promotions in AdWords

Author: Emily Irish, Content Marketing Manager

Published March 2, 2015

Sales are a pain for retailers everywhere, as you well know. Unfortunately, they also seem to be a cultural expectation and necessary evil.

And while designing new banner ads and sending floods of sale emails to your list are valiant efforts, many retailers underestimate the impact that paid search marketing can have on a sale’s success (or failure).

This is because AdWords is the kind of versatile and (if you’re doing it right) high-traffic platform that can get the word out about your sales—and entice shoppers to buy NOW. Over the last couple years, Google has made this even easier.

Unfortunately, something many retailers fail to take into account when promoting sales in AdWords is the boost to conversion rates necessary to support the sale. Consider the following chart. The yellow bars show you the percentage of conversion rate increase that’s required to maintain your average level of revenue when promoting a sale.


If you’re going to take 30% off, you’d better make sure you’re chasing new opportunities and trying to get new traffic in the door. In essence, playing the same volume game that every retailer running a sale plays, whether ecommerce or brick and mortar. Luckily, having a measurable goal is the first step to hitting that goal.

What you might not know is that AdWords can be a fantastic tool for making up that extra volume—especially when you make use of some of its newest features. So this post will be walking you through some paid search techniques and tools to overcome some common barriers to advertising promotions successfully through AdWords.

Barriers to Promotions in AdWords

Retailers normally face one (or more) of these four barriers when it comes to promoting sales in AdWords.

Not enough time. I’ll be honest with you – it takes a lot of time to get your promotions really firing on all cylinders. There’s a lot that goes into executing a promotion well in general, and in AdWords specifically — especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

Insufficient planning is also something that keeps retailers from succeeding with promotions in AdWords. Sales take time to plan and implement, and can sometimes come down to the last minute, but search marketing teams especially need enough notice if they’re going to execute the promotions well. Most retailers don’t often plan far enough in advance to make the most of AdWords for promotions.

Lack of feature knowledge. With Google always rolling out new features and updates to existing features, it’s tough to keep up. But in order to stay on top of the game, it’s crucial to know what features and tools are available to you—and which ones your competitors are using.

Perceived “ad history” risks. Historically, launching new promotional ads and pausing existing ads was a problem—it often meant a slight drop in traffic, as a lack of ad history meant that Google didn’t show new ads with the same frequency as the old ones. For a 2 or 3 day sale, the results usually weren’t worth the time and effort, and sometimes ended up harming performance.

Luckily, this has changed in recent years, as Google’s rolled out tricks and tools for working around the ad history problem.

Merchant Promotions

Merchant Promotions allow you to advertise a discount within your Google Shopping ads with a “Special Offer” tag. This draws the shopper’s attention to your ad over your competitors’, especially if it’s the only one with this tag (which happens more often than you might think). When you click on the Special Offer tag, it gives users a sale offer and coupon code.


merchant promotions

An added benefit is that you can schedule these promotions in advance, so they’ll start showing the hour your sales go live, without any micromanaging.

For more details on Merchant Promotions specifically, and how to use them effectively, check out our blog post, Savvy Advertiser’s Guide to Merchant Promotions.

Sale Attributes

Now, while Merchant Promotions is still a valuable addition to your promotional arsenal, it’s more recent cousin, Sale Attributes, is proving to be even more valuable for many kinds of promotions.

Sale Attributes in your Shopping ads are a great way to push your company ahead of the competition – which is one of the main purposes of a sale anyways, right?

The problem is that, even if your sale price beats out your competitors, Google Shopping is not going to automatically know that. Shopping ads continue to display the normal price, as described in your feed.

Observe this example. Advertiser 3 would lose the click with most shoppers, who are only interested in getting the most competitive price.


What you wouldn’t know from looking at this ads listing is that Advertiser 3 is actually holding a sale on this item right now, which makes it easily the most competitive seller of the bunch.


What the Sale Attributes feature does is allow the pricing within your Shopping ad to display your sale price.

screenshot5This way, you can leverage your sale pricing to grab more clicks than your competitors. And as eye-catching (and valuable) as that little “Special Offer” tag is, some shoppers still won’t click if they see what they think is obviously the better deal.

(Fair warning, though – Sale Attributes is a little bit more involved, and requires going directly into your feed for setup, so Merchant Promotions may still be your best bet, depending on your timeline and level of technical support.)

Here’s what you do…

FIRST (warning, Will Robinson!), you need to make sure that your landing page is showing the same sale price as you’re using for your ads. Otherwise, Google will disapprove your ads and you’ll be worse off than when you started. We realize this may very well require a meeting with your development team, but we promise the results are worth it.

Next, within your Shopping feed (yes, you have to go all the way into your product feed), you will need to add two new parameters.

The first is sale_price, which shows the discounted price (instead of the regular price). In a spreadsheet, this is pretty easy to do, as you can simply set up a formula to take x% off the price column.

The second is sale_price_effective_date, which will tell Google when to run your sale. For this column, you must use the following syntax exactly (bookmark it!) or Google will not recognize it.


For you copy/pasters, that’s:

StartDateTStartTime-TimeZone/EndDateTEndTime-Time Zone

When you’re finished, your updated feed should look something like this: (click to maximize)


Like Merchant Promotions, this can also be set up well in advance, so be sure to put that feature to good use and don’t wait until the last minute to set up your sale in AdWords.

The other benefit is that, once you’ve set this up, you can forget about it until you need to add a new sale, since Google Shopping will revert to the original price once the sale dates are over.

Ad Customizers: Countdown

(Paid search analyst, Kaitlyn Thomas, is going to cover this next section about a fairly new feature in Google that promises to be a game-changer if used optimally. Kaitlyn’s had a lot of success using this new feature with her clients, so listen up!)

When using promotional text in your ads, do you ever wish you could create a greater sense of urgency to ad viewers that will encourage them to pull out their card and purchase?

In the past we’ve tested out ad copy the encourage the purchase through phrases like “Hurry, Sale Ends Soon,” “Only One More Day to Save,” or “Last Day for 20% Off!” We’ve seen success with some phrases, but others have flopped so we’re always looking for new ad copy that will produce great results.

In September 2014, Google AdWords released an ad function that helps advertisers create that sense of urgency they’re looking for by counting down to the end of a promotion.

Within the description lines of an ad, you can call on Google’s COUNTDOWN function, {=COUNTDOWN(“yyyy/MM/dd HH:mm:ss”,”language”,daysBefore)}, which works much like dynamic keyword insertion, but shows a countdown in the ad text to the end of a promotion.


When creating an ad in the interface, just start typing the formula in one of the description lines and a box will pop up prompting you to complete the formula:


As you can see above, advertisers can choose what date, hour, minute and even second the promotion will end, when they want the countdown to begin, and the time zone of the ad. With this feature, you don’t need automated rules to enable and pause ads as the sale begins and ends. Plus the COUNTDOWN formula changes the ad text dynamically as the end of the sale approaches. Below are some examples:



Countdown to Ad Success

Advertisers can reap several benefits from utilizing the COUNTDOWN formula in their ad text while running promotions. We’ve tested the feature across a variety of accounts and have found several perks of this new tool.

  • Higher click-through and conversion rates: Although performance varies across accounts, we’ve typically seen higher click-through rates and conversion rates with the countdown ads due to the greater sense of urgency they create with the ticking clock. In the account below, we saw a 76% increase in click-through rates and double the conversion rate of traditional sale ads!


  • Counts down days, hours and minutes: It’s like a ticking time bomb. Ad viewers see the ad warning the end of a 20% off promotion in 2 days, 1 day, 2 hours…10 minutes! Boom! They pull out their card and purchase before the sale ends. Thanks to this dynamic text you get the added sense of urgency all in one ad that does everything for you from starting to counting down and ending.Prior to these ads we would need a new sale ad for each day leading up to the sale advertising the days left until the end of the promotion; plus, we probably would never have an hour or minute countdown with ads since that would require creating ads, labeling, and automating rules for hundreds of ads across the account. Yikes!
  • Maintains ad history: When you change ad text within existing ads, the change will erase all history associated with that ad, resetting the quality score and all performance metrics. Google isn’t big with change and we typically see a drop in performance when sacrificing ad history.With countdown ads, however, the text dynamically changes from days to hours and even minutes all within the same ad. This eliminates the need to change your promotional ad text or have a new promotional ad for every day or hour.
  • Starts X number of days before end date: Within the formula you specify the number of days you want the ads to start serving before the final day of the promotion. Thanks to this feature, there is no need to set up automated rules to enable = the countdown ads when the promotion begins =. That saves you time by not needing to create a rule, but it also saves you the stress of worrying if the rule ran to enable the ads on time!
  • Ads stop serving at the specified end date: Just as the ads start serving a certain number of days before the end date, they also stop serving on a specified time which is set in the “Countdown ends” portion of the COUNTDOWN formula. As we mentioned previously, this eliminates the need for an automated rule to pause the ad when the sale ends because it automatically stops serving. Although the ads will say “enabled” in the interface, the formula prevents the ad from serving after the countdown end date.

Tips to Successful Countdowns

Do you have an upcoming promotion you want to promote through paid search? Try testing out this formula in your ad copy and see how it performs. We have a few tips for you to help make your launch a success.

  • Enter the end time in 24-hour time: This can be a little tricky since most of our brains don’t work in military time. Make sure to use the 24-hour time format in the “Countdown ends” portion of the formula or your ads might end at 11:59am instead of 11:59pm.
  • Start ads two days before: We’ve done several tests of ad copy with countdowns to the end of promotions and we’ve found the most success by starting the countdown 2 days before the sale ends. Starting any time before that, ad viewers think, “Oh, I’ve got 7 days to buy these shoes,” or “I’ll buy this sweater later since the sale doesn’t end for another few days.”Starting earlier than 2 days takes away that sense of urgency you’re shooting for in these ads, and might prevent someone from purchasing on the spot if they know they have a much longer time before the sale ends. Typically, you don’t see significant increases in click-through and conversion rates until the last 2 days of the sale anyways, so save this ad weapon for the most important days of the promotion!
  • Use the ad viewer’s time zone: In the advanced portion of the countdown formula you can choose to use the account time zone or the ad viewer’s time zone. We would recommend using the ad viewer’s time zone, and the ads will be customized to end at the specified time wherever your customer is in the world!
  • Label the ads to monitor performance: As you do with any other ad copy test, you’ll want to label these ads to monitor how they’re performing throughout the sale as well as the aggregate data at the end of the sale. You can segment out performance of your labeled ads by day to see how the ads performed each day the ad copy dynamically changed. Using that data you’ll be able to determine if your ads were a true countdown to success!

Callout Extensions

We’ve saved the easiest for last. Callout extensions are really simple, and every account should be whitelisted for them now. In a nutshell, this extension is an extra line of text that Google allows you for the purpose of calling out an added benefit of doing business with you.

It could be anything from “Open 24/7” to “Free Shipping on All Orders”—whatever it is about your company that makes you unique, or appealing to shoppers.

However, you can also use them for promotions, and they’re a great way to quickly and easily get the word out about a sale without having to rewrite all your ads and launch them.


One key benefit of callout extensions is that they can be launched very quickly for all campaigns. This means you can update ads across your account to promote your latest sale. And, like all our other favorite promotional tools, you can also schedule callout extensions in advance! (This means no more excuses for AdWords missing out on hours or days of your promotion.)

As far as setting these up? There’s really not much to tell you. In the “View” drop-down menu in AdWords, click Callout Extensions and hit +extension. Then you’re on your way to quickly and easily setting up your extension; Google even has some popular ones ready-made, to make it even easier.


“But Wait, There’s More!”

Interested in learning about more ways you can make your AdWords initiatives more profitable? Check out our special report, 9 AdWords Traps That Kill Retailer Profitability. This exclusive report offers key strategies that, when implemented, will vastly improve the effectiveness of your AdWords campaigns. Download your free copy today!