Amid record-breaking Thanksgiving weekend e-commerce growth, there was an uninvited guest – bot traffic

shopping laptop

With holiday shopping officially underway, Thanksgiving weekend shopping saw record revenue despite the economic uncertainty. However, the growth of e-commerce is also attracting unwanted bot traffic that can siphon revenue and cloud important analytical data that marketers rely on.

A record 196.7 million Americans shopped online and offline from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday — an increase of 17 million from 2021 — according to the National Retail Federation’s survey of shoppers. Of those, the NRF estimates that nearly 123 million shopped in stores, a 17% increase from last year.

Revenue on Cyber Monday was an all-time record, according to Adobe, growing 5.8% year-over-year and totaling more than $11 billion. (Revenue was $9.1 billion on Black Friday 2022 and $5.3 billion spent on Thanksgiving Day.) For the overall holiday shopping season, Adobe Digital Insights expects consumers will spend $210 billion, surpassing the $205 billion spent during the 2021 season and the $188 billion spent during the 2020 holidays.

The high-spending weekend came amid worries of an e-commerce slowdown. A recent survey of marketers conducted by WARC found that 30% planned to decrease investment in digital advertising and e-commerce while just 23% planned to increase spending.

Despite the economic uncertainty, the higher-than-expected spending suggests that consumers do still want to shop, according to Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights. And while people were still shopping under the kitchen table with their phones six or seven years ago, he said more than half of revenue on Thanksgiving Day came from mobile devices.

“Those consumer dollars do seem to be there,” Schreiner said. “People are going out and shopping and buying gifts. And there’s certainly a version of this holiday season where things could have not been that great.”

Although the growth has been promising for bottom lines, some researchers suggest that all the holiday shopping traffic might not be coming from humans. The cybersecurity firm CHEQ’s analysis of 1.6 million visits to retailers’ websites found that about a fourth of Black Friday shoppers were likely fake. Meanwhile, CHEQ’s analysis of 765,000 visits on Cyber Monday showed that 1 in 5 was likely from bot traffic. However, that’s an improvement from last year: CHEQ estimated that 1 in 3 Black Friday shopping visits was fake in 2021.

“Like any good crime, there’s a combination of motive, means and opportunity,” said Daniel Avital, CHEQ’s chief strategy officer. “And I think specifically in e-commerce, that triad is very much pronounced … There’s a lot of money being put around, and that’s always appealing for bad actors online.”’

CHEQ isn’t the only company noticing marketers’ bot problems. A September report from Okta found that 23% of signup attempts for promotions were fraudulent — up from 15% last year – with rewards programs being a key target. Okta also saw an increase in bot traffic during the week of Thanksgiving, especially for retail, food and beverage and financial services categories.

Bot traffic cuts into real revenue, but it also muddies analytical data for everything from clickthrough rates, inventory, time spent on site, return on ad spend and which items people really want to buy. It can also affect customer acquisition costs and plans for the coming year.

“You’re also creating a cleanup mess,” said Ian Hassard, Okta’s director of product development. “Because how do you go back and find the real John Smith versus the fake John Smith? Who registered for that account? It’s nearly impossible without doing a whole bunch of digging and investigating into it.”

Beyond traditional online e-commerce advertising, SMS marketing continues to be a channel for marketers relying on first-party data. More than 12.7 million new consumers signed up to receive messages from brands in the past week — a 49% increase from the same period in 2021 — according to the SMS marketing platform Attentive.

Overall, from Nov. 21-28, Attentive’s platform tracked 1.6 billion messages sent globally from marketers to their subscribers and drove more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time. Some categories that have performed well include apparel, beauty and home office products.

Attentive president Amitabh Jhawar said companies are using text messages for mid-funnel campaigns and getting more revenue from existing customers rather than focusing too much on new ones. However, he said it’s important not to text too much or risk being seen as spam just like email and social media ads. Although companies might make more money in the short term with more messages, they could lose out on building a loyal base.

“If you’re texting multiple times a day, every day, it’s very hard to stay that relevant with updated information as a brand,” Jhawar said. “You’re going to have lots of opt-outs, and the reality for opt-outs is that you’re hurting the lifetime value of the subscriber list you’ve built.”

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