ace your back to school campaign

How to Ace Your Back to School Campaign Strategies

Back to school campaigns are a big deal for retailers. 

The lead up to the new school year represents the second biggest retail shopping season in terms of dollars spent. 

With over $80 billion spent in the United States last year alone, back to school sales outperforms Mother’s Day, Easter and Valentine’s Day combined. Making it second only to the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend. 

It’s a similar story in other countries as well. There’s no shortage of consumers looking to spend big on their back to school shopping. 

Better yet for online retailers, nearly half of these people are planning to shop online during this period. 

And don’t think that this opportunity is just for stores selling traditional school supplies like pencils, notebooks, shoes and clothes, etc. There’s virtually limitless options for what you can sell during the back to school season. 

Bed Bath & Beyond even gets in on the action with their linen. 

bed bath and beyond back to school campaign

When you know how to execute your back to school campaign well, there’s plenty of items you can sell. 

That’s exactly what we’ll help you achieve here: boosting sales with your back to school marketing. So read on for everything you need to know to ace your back to school campaigns.

When Are Students Heading Back to School?

First things first, when should your back to school campaigns take place? 

Students head back to school at the end of summer. So this means August/September in the United States and Canada as well as much of Europe. For Australia and New Zealand where summer starts in December, students often head back in late January/early February. 

This is complicated by the fact that exact dates often depends on individual states and school districts. 

Traditionally in the United States, it was common for schools to start in the week following Labor Day. However some school districts will commence in August and even late July. 

The image below from CNN shows various starting dates across the US from a few years ago. 

when students are heading back to school

So what does this mean for your back to school campaigns? 

Well there’s no one day or even week when people do their back to school shopping. Instead it often gets spread out across the entire month of August with sales ramping up later in the month as people look for last minute school savings.

So you’ll want to make sure your back to school campaigns are live by mid August. 

Who to Target (Don’t Forget About College Students!)

Now that we have an idea of when to launch your back to school sales, it’s time to think about who to target. 

A big mistake many retailers is focusing solely on schoolchildren and their parents. 

While this might make sense depending on what you’re selling, don’t forget about the millions of college students out there. Especially when back to college sales nearly outranks back to school sales 2 to 1 in terms of dollars spent. 

However don’t target students all the way from those starting their first year at elementary school to college seniors altogether. Students will have massively varying needs depending on their age and stage in schooling.

The trick to successful back to school campaigns is knowing exactly which group(s) you want to target. Once you nail this down, you can then start optimizing your messaging towards your target audience. 

If your business allows you to target multiple types of people, make sure you come up with multiple campaigns. Obviously the same marketing message will resonate with college students vastly differently than with schoolchildren.  

pottery barn kids back to school campaign

The Pottery Barn Kids’ messaging towards the parents of young children going back to school is never going to get older students opening their wallets.

Extra Credit Tip:

It’s not just students and their parents who are doing back to school shopping. There’s plenty of teachers who have to buy and pay for various items to keep their classroom supply topped up too. So consider offering volume discounts to people who buy in bulk.

Back to School Email Marketing Campaigns

Once you have your ideal target audience(s) in mind, it’s time to think about how to reach them. 

One of the best ways of doing this is with email. 

Unlike other channels such as social media or pay per click, you own your email list. This results in being able to reach your email subscribers much more reliably than your followers on social media for free. 

There’s also the benefit of email returning an average of $38 for every dollar spent on it. Giving it one of the highest returns of any digital channel. 

That said, with open rates averaging around 20% most of your subscribers won’t see your first back to school email campaign. 

This is why it’s important to send one than one email. With the sales period being spread out across an entire month, there’s plenty of scope to send multiple emails without spamming people’s inboxes. 

Again, make sure you’re targeting your emails to the right audience. Don’t blast an email out to your entire list, instead use segments to ensure that subscribers only receive offers that are relevant to them. 

grammarly back to school email campaign

Grammarly’s email is clearly targeted towards college students and high school seniors. Plus it’s got a great design. 

Extra Credit Tip: 

During the sales period, plenty of shoppers will be placing items in their shopping carts but never complete checkout. Automating abandoned cart emails will help you recover a decent portion of these otherwise lost sales. 

For more on how to take advantage of email marketing, check out our post outlining 5 tips to perfect back to school emails

Back to School Social Media Campaigns

There are very few instances where it makes sense to focus your marketing efforts on just one channel. And back to school sales is not one of them. 

There are plenty of potential customers you can easily convert who aren’t on your email list. Likewise they’re plenty of people on your email list who, for one reason or another, won’t read your emails. 

After email marketing, running social media campaigns is a very popular choice. 

Unlike email, social media lets you drive more engagement with your brand by being more interactive. Take the back to school Instagram post from Staples below.

staples spot the emoji back to school campaign

Instead of just simply putting up an image of their back to school offer, Staples has driven engagement by running a simple yet effective challenge.  

This is key when dealing with social. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest, the more engagement your posts receive, the more people they’ll reach.

But it’s not just organic reach on social media you should be aiming for. If you have the budget, running paid campaigns can be hugely beneficial. Especially if you pull them off right. 

Paid Social Media Campaigns

Just as with email marketing, a critical step in paid social campaigns is ensuring that you target the right people. 

Facebook has a myriad of targeting options for you to choose from. These include: 

  • Interest based targeting 
  • Demographic based targeting (such as parents of schoolchildren) 
  • Lookalike audiences based on past customers or people who engaged with posts
  • Custom audiences 

The first two (interest and demographic based targeting) are great for reaching plenty of new people. Whereas the more refined targeting using lookalike and especially custom audiences are great if you’ve got a well established presence. 

For example, if you’ve got a new store selling sustainable lunchboxes, running ads targeting parents of elementary schoolchildren with an interest in environmentalism can be effective. 

If this isn’t your first back to school season with your online store, then a lookalike audience is worth testing. 

To do this, you can upload a csv file of the email addresses of people who made back to school purchases in previous years to create a custom audience. You can then use this audience to create a lookalike audience filled with similar prospects to target ads towards. 

Whatever type of targeting you opt for, also remember to refine who you serve ads to based on age and location. You don’t want your back to school ads showing to people in Australia during August. 

back to college campaign

Bed Bath & Beyond has again got in on the back to school action with their popup dorm room campaign that also ran on social media.

Pace Out Your Back to School Campaigns

Unlike other shopping events like Black Friday, back to school shopping takes place over a much longer period of time.

Don’t concentrate all your campaign efforts to just the start or end of the sales period. Instead spread out messaging out and optimize it depending on how much time shoppers have left. 

For instance, in early August your messaging could be framed around convincing parents not to leave their shopping too late. By late August your messaging should shift to last minute shoppers. Creating a sense of scarcity here can have the effect of boosting sales when people don’t want to miss out on a great deal. 

Schoolchildren and college students likely don’t want to be thinking of the new school year in the middle of their summer break. So keep this in mind if you’re wanting to target them. 

Don’t Miss the Bus!

Now that you have an idea of how to structure your back to school campaigns, don’t forget to put your knowledge into practice. 

If you’re looking for more examples of back to school campaigns, we also have a collection of 5 ingenious back to school ad campaigns.

Just like how students shouldn’t leave assignments to the last minute, don’t wait until the end of summer to prepare your back to school campaigns. By planning your campaigns well in advance, you’ll set your store up with the best chance of boosting sales.

join us for a free webinar on back to school marketing. sign up here now.


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