The back to school season is one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, second only to Black Friday. This year, in particular, the back to school season poses a huge opportunity for marketers and brands to capitalize on the late August/early September shopping surge. A recent survey conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) noted that consumers today are feeling more confident in the economy than they were at the same point in 2013.

Back to School Marketing - 5W Public Relations Blog

Families with kids all the way up to college age will be spending almost $670 this season, according to a study by the National Retail Federation (NRF). In total, back to school spending in 2014 is expected to exceed $276 billion. In other words, the significance of this season should not be underestimated.

The Back to School season is a major opportunity and marketers should be looking for ways to make the most of it. To that end, the following tips should be considered:

Offering Online Discounts is Key

The NRF’s August 2014 survey asked consumers where they intended to do the rest of their back to school shopping. Almost a quarter of respondents stated that they intended to make the remainder of their purchases online. PM Digital’s Back to School Trend Report shows that K-12 and college consumers spent more money online for their back to school shopping than offline. K-12 families spent just shy of $900, 41 percent more than those shopping offline.

What businesses should discern from this is that they cannot limit their discounts to in-store customers. Brands are missing a major opportunity if they do. It is important to make the effort to woo online customers as well. The PM Digital report also stated that product listing ads are expected  gain popularity and positively affect shopping performance. Meaning, savvy marketers should leverage sites like Pinterest and Instagram as new ways to approach back to school advertising. Other suggestions include creating an online-only back to school kickoff event.

Target Students as Well as Parents

Marketers would be wise to note that $913 million of back to school spending will be done directly by students. While they may not be spending their own money, students do get play a large role in the purchase decision. A full 12.4 percent of parents say that the child gets full control of the back to school purchases. And, purchases made by the modern student are not limited to stationery and calculators, they are in control of big ticket items as well, averaging $212.35 of total back to school purchasing.

As such, we expect to see more back to school marketing plans geared directly towards trendsetters in the K-12 age group and potentially focusing on the K-8 group as the younger demographic is a target to build brand loyalists.

Market Specifically to College Students

The US has about 18 million college students, an age group that is considered to be the largest consumer group in US history. This is a group that takes their technology and trends very seriously, spending considerably more money than the other age groups. The longer shopping list of the college student includes items like furniture for a dorm room along with electronics and school supplies. The NRF states that spending on college is expected to exceed $48 billion.

Student discounts are good for building brand loyalty and for ensuring that the customer has a positive experience. Retailers should consider a model like Amazon Prime’s free subscription to students. A discount for students could provide the kind of positive experience makes lifelong customers. Free trials are another useful incentive.

Marketing to college age students calls for the marketer to understand a few things. Attempting to dictate trends or even leverage existing trends for the purposes of marketing could easily backfire, as consumers in this demographic are quick to identify out of touch messaging and marketing that seeks to speak to them rather than with them. It is important that marketers focus on being straightforward rather than on being hip. Marketers should also note that these young adults are the next generation of educated consumers, meaning that now is the key time to establish themselves within this age group.

Timing is Important

Many marketers start their back to school email campaigns as early as May and June. However, back to school email marketing is most strongly associated with the month of August. Back to school mailings in the first half of August tend to bring in the most revenue. There are a number of reasons for this including the fact that shopping decisions during August may be peer-influenced. Students have returned to school, observed the trends and now want to purchase the electronics and clothes that their peers own. Another reason for the success in early August may be that parents want to get their shopping done before the end of summer break.

Marketers should time their campaigns to align with back to school dates in their region, understanding the local school calendars will go a long way to capturing the attention of consumers at a time that will drive them to purchase.

Utilize Mobile

Almost 37 percent of research for back to school shopping will involve the use of smartphones, according to the NRF, the highest percentage on record high since the organization began surveying shoppers about smartphone use. Nearly 22 percent plan to use their smartphone to buy items and slightly more than 31 percent intend to use their tablet. Simply put: marketers who ignore mobile are making a mistake. People now have devices that allow them access to information at all times and with very little effort. Consumers are able to make price comparisons on the go and search for coupons while they wait. This is in fact an amazing opportunity as marketers now have the ability to reach customers and convince them to make a purchase while they are already shopping. In many cases, consumers will be very receptive to relevant discounts and product information.