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The ABC’s and 123’s of Back-to-School Planning

Plan early for back-to-school campaigns

If you’re a retailer or a CPG brand, you’re likely in the middle of planning the latter half of 2017, which leads off with Back-to-School and Back-to-College. May and June is a great time to ensure internal alignment on goals and objectives for these popular retail events, identify key target audiences, decide on the merchandise and services you want to promote and develop a weekly marketing plan for July, August and September. 


Back-to-School Overview

According to research from Statista1, in 2016 Back-to-School was the second-highest seasonal spending time of the year in the US with roughly $68B in sales, trailing only the winter holidays and far outpacing the $21 billion spent on No. 3 Mother’s Day.


Chart source: Statista

So where should marketers’ focus be? 

Here are a few tips to help brands maximize engagement with customers and drive sales:

A = Acquisition: From nursery school to college, there were 78 million children and adults enrolled in school throughout the country in October 20132. According to research from Deloitte3 households with school or college-aged children will spend approximately $500 on Back-to-School products which means there is plenty of opportunity for savvy marketers to capitalize on this spend and increase their market share.

With the help of third party lists and data appends marketers can reach households with school-aged children and build multichannel display, email and direct mail campaigns to target their parents, thus driving new customer acquisition.

B = Be where your customers are: All marketing channels have a primary objective and should be used accordingly to generate awareness, consideration, revenue and loyalty.

  • Display: Use display to reach new and existing audiences. Savvy technology partners can use a brand’s existing email subscriber list and work with a Data Management Platform to develop and execute a display strategy to drive new, existing, or lapsed consumers to a marketer’s website and stores.


  • Email: Use this channel to engage and re-activate customers. One way to make emails feel personalized and relevant is to identify customers with children in the household either through data the brand has collected, or via data enhancement. After identifying this customer segment, brands can dynamically populate email content like featured products based on the child's age. Brands can also use the Back-to-School theme in order to reactivate a segment of customers who are currently inactive but purchased Back-to-School items last year.
  • Direct Mail: While some claim that direct mail has lost its luster, the channel continues to be a very important part of the media mix, whether in the form of a catalog, a postcard promoting a sale, or a discount offer. According to a Gallup Poll4, 95% of adults between 18 and 29 feel positively about receiving personal mail; they enjoy the tactile experience, use it to link to video content or promotional offers, even share it with friends. Direct mail is a more costly channel so marketers should ensure they’re getting a good bang for their buck by leveraging predictive modeling to determine the customer segments most likely to spend incremental revenue. 

C = Connect with your most loyal customers: Brands can capitalize on their rewards and loyalty programs  by finding ways to recognize, thank, and incentivize their loyalty customers above and beyond what the general population gets. According to a recent survey, 42% of consumers look for stores where they can earn rewards from back-to-school purchases and 36% search for stores where they can redeem rewards; moreover, 66% say rewards influence where they decide to shop. So rather than following the pack and relying heavily on discounts that affect profitability, marketers should consider loyalty offers, services or experiential rewards to drive members to their brand.

Now for the 1, 2, 3 things to also remember:                       

1 = One platform is critical: Mobile.  More than 50% of consumers will use their smartphones and tablets as part of their Back-to-School shopping journey. Mothers are big drivers of this type of shopping; they are 30% more likely to shop on mobile than other adult demographics and 43% more likely to click "Buy" on their smartphones. Below are some of the must-haves for an excellent mobile experience:

  • Help customers research and find their local store online
  • Embed maps and contact information into emails (since over 50% of emails are opened on mobile)
  • Make it easy to browse and buy via a single click
    • Free Shipping and Buy Online, Pick Up In Store options must be front and center
    • Enable Mobile Wallet for saving and using coupons   

2 = Two Key Time Periods for Consumers

Chart source: The 2016 Back-to-School Trends You Need to Know

Almost 50% of consumers start shopping BEFORE August, so brands need to be in market as soon as Independence Day, driving consumers to stores and online with engaging messages and appealing promotions. Since school start dates vary, marketers would be smart to employ a regional strategy in support of a larger national campaign.

3 = Develop and execute (at least) THREE tests. Given the number of shoppers during Back-to-School, it is a great time to test and assess what works so it can be applied to the peak holiday season. In this sense, marketers should begin with the end in mind – what can they learn today to be more effective tomorrow? One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a multivariate testing schedule to facilitate fast learning. Here are some quick email components to consider testing:

  • Subject line
  • Day of week and time of day deployment
  • Call-to-action
  • Offer type
  • “Layer effect”: develop multichannel test plans to determine the impact of layering display, email and direct mail. This will give marketers concrete evidence of what channels work best for their customers.

The retail industry has been struggling to adapt to changes in consumer behavior and the explosion of smaller brands online, especially during the defining last months of the year when seasonal events and holidays dictate much of consumers’ purchases. Advanced planning of relevant, informed and personalized campaigns can be instrumental for retailers in retaining and expanding their market share. 






4. Frank Newport and Steve Ander, “Four in 10 Americans Look Forward to Checking Mail,” Gallup, April 2, 2015. Copyright © (2015) Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.

Author Bio

Linda Clasen

Linda is a results-oriented strategist with 20 years of experience in CRM and customer insights with Fortune 100 retailers including Best Buy, Target and Advance Auto Parts. Linda resides in the Minneapolis MN area with her family and is most likely to be found watching her kids throw stones at houses- which some of you may know as the sport of curling.