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Back-to-School Campaign Performance from 2015 and Takeaways for 2016


The arrival of August means we’re about a month away from the start of the new school year. According to a recent NRF survey, back-to-school spending is the second highest after the Q4 holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.) and continues to grow as a major revenue source for many retailers1. Moreover, the same survey reported that families plan to spend more on school and college supplies this year accounting for a projected revenue of $75.8 billion, up 11.4% from 20152.

Reflections on 2015

Using Yes Marketing Market Intelligence to track 30 top retailers, we discovered that, in 2015, back-to-school campaigns started right at the height of summer, the 1st week of July, and continued through the 2nd week of September. Interestingly, these campaigns largely underperformed, generating an average open rate that was 21% lower than that of base communications over the same period.

A closer look at the back-to-school emails that drove the weakest engagement showed that, while their subject lines did announce back-to-school sales and offers, they did not provide details on the type of products that were on sale or the specific type of offer being promoted. In addition, July and August of 2015 did not see the email summer slump from past years3. Instead, last year’s back-to-school emails had to compete with more seasonally relevant emails promoting summer clearance sales and early fall products.  

Tips for 2016’s Back-to-school Campaigns

Marketers who have already started their back-to-school campaigns as well as those who are yet to execute them, still have time to take advantage of the lessons from 2015 and fine tune their upcoming back-to-school campaigns. The same NRF survey indicated that 33.8% of consumers plan to start shopping for supplies 3-4 weeks before school starts while 25% plan to start 1-2 weeks before. So, as marketers prepare for back-to-school, they should consider the following tips to optimize engagement:   

  • Be specific: A strong offer and call-to-action are essential for an engaging email subject line. In addition, the subject line should mention the products that the highlighted offer applies to and explain how they relate to subscribers’ needs for back-to-school prep. The email from Apple is a great example. This campaign achieved an impressive open rate of 33.4% likely due its concise and to-the-point subject line that featured both the specific product being promoted and the compelling offer that went with it.

Subject line: Buy a Mac for college. Receive a pair of Beats headphones

  • Target the procrastinators: Since a quarter of shoppers won’t start back-to-school shopping until about 1-2 weeks before school starts, marketers should plan to deploy themed emails within that period. Subject lines that highlight urgency such as countdown timers, last-chance deals, and reminders for sale deadlines would likely appeal to these consumers and incite action. 

With the learnings from last year’s campaigns and the above quick tips in mind, marketers should test different message combinations to find out what resonates best with their customer base. When executed thoughtfully, participating in back-to-school campaigns is a great way to stand out from the crowd and effectively engage customers in the upcoming weeks. For comprehensive insights into email trends and tips for back-to-school and all other Q4 holidays in 2016, be sure to look out for our upcoming 2016 Holiday Whitepaper, releasing next week. 


Author Bio

Gurjit Sandhu

Gurjit Sandhu has been in digital and direct marketing for over 6 years, delivering marketing and event management solutions in both fast-paced corporate and entrepreneurial environments. Energized by strategic thinking and the power of marketing technology, she collaborates closely with cross functional teams at Yes Marketing to spearhead multi-channel communications that highlight product innovations.