A smarter approach to ‘back to school’ marketing

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Like the world around us, Back to School (BTS) shopping has increasingly become more diverse and complex. No longer should marketers develop strategies and tactics that rest on an old paradigm. The BTS “season” is still relevant, but to focus on the short time frame before the start of school and ignore the entire school year is short-sighted.

Likewise, if marketers define their Back to College (BTC) consumer target as the traditional student, they ignore the range of students that leave millions of dollars behind. “Students” today are not only 18 to 21 years old. There are many other age segments, many older, who may have families of their own and different purchasing needs than younger students.

All of these changes in the BTS market demand a new approach to marketing. One of the most important underpinnings to that approach is understanding that BTS segments are diverse. While they share many commonalities, they also are unique in terms of what resonates to them and how they will choose to allocate their money for BTS spending.

The data behind these students tells an important story. Marketers who leverage that data and develop marketing strategies around it will surely reap millions of uncaptured retail sales. I believe we need to redefine what the BTS season is and learn how to market most effectively to these consumers to capitalize on the millions of retail dollars at stake.

As we know, each May, several million high school seniors and around 2 million college graduates toss their caps into the air to celebrate the culmination of their education and prepare for the next stage in life. Some graduates will join the “real world” and begin working; many high school seniors will enroll in higher education; and a few million college students will end up in graduate school.

Let’s also not forget about the millions of elementary and secondary school-aged children who will continue their education in their respective grades after summer break.

At the same time, marketers have their eye on the more than $75.8 billion back-to-school spending season, which in 2016 was the second-largest consumer spending season behind only the winter holidays.

This “season” is typically considered to be the month or two before the start of school, but I argue that those months alone represent just a small fraction of overall sales opportunities.

BTS marketing is a year-round strategy

Yes, the month or two before school starts, traditionally known as the BTS “season,” will continue to be a financial boon for companies providing goods and services to the 77.1 million Americans enrolled in nursery through graduate school. However, marketers who shift their focus to a year-round, data-driven strategy will be able to capture BTS sales that occur outside the typical month or two before the school.

Who makes up the BTS market?

Students that marketers should consider as their consumer targets are diverse, as are their shopping habits and life cycles. Of the approximately 77 million students, 4.5 million are in nursery school, 53.4 million are K-12, and 19.1 million are college and graduate students. The typical start of the school at any level is in mid- to late August or early September.

In a 2016 study conducted by the National Retail Federation, only 13 percent of families with children in grade school had completed their BTS shopping by early August, and 22 percent had not even started. Of college shoppers — including students and parents of students — only 15 percent had completed their shopping.

The survey also asked those who had not completed their shopping about what shopping categories they still needed to complete their lists. It showed that in K-12, 77 percent needed school supplies, 70 percent clothing, and 57 percent shoes. For college-aged consumers, the list was similar, with 61 percent needing school supplies, 50 percent clothing and 33 percent personal care items.

This data demonstrates that the majority of consumer spending heading into the traditional BTS marketing season of June through September is atypical if we adhere to the notion that the BTS season is powered by only these purchasing months. While many consumers shop early, millions of others buy late, and there are also those who spread out their spending for school-related purchases throughout the year.

Therefore, it stands to reason that if marketers analyze various audiences and pivotal events in the school year, they will realize there is opportunity to capture ongoing spending well beyond the short BTS season. Depending on the age of the student, your consumer audience can include parents, teachers, young students (with influence on parents) and adult students. Major events that marketers can plan for include holiday, spring and summer travel, travel to drop off college students, exam preparation, prom, and, of course, graduation.

The newly defined back-to-school opportunity

To understand how marketers are leaving money on the table, let’s look at an example of how advertisers allocate resources for college students — those attending undergraduate and graduate school. In overall BTS spending, this group represents 19.1 million students and more than $48 billion in spending.

The high-value audience in this group is the typical college-aged student — a freshman that is 21 years or younger. The problem for advertisers is that only 17 percent of college students fit that definition, meaning that planned promotions are only reaching a small minority of your target audience.

If you’re measuring your ROI based on impressions, and you think you’re buying 19.1 million impressions, yet fewer than 25 percent of paid impressions are seen, do you think you’re throwing away money?

Now, let’s focus on a few areas where marketers can find opportunity in this lucrative consumer category and how to extend the value past the “season.” In the above example, marketers are clearly missing out on a majority of college shoppers. To gain market share, they need to shift resources from only those students who are 21 and younger, which makes up only 45 percent of the college audience.

The remaining students range in ages from 22–24 (19 percent), 25–29 (15 percent), and 30+ (21 percent). In this case, dorm room furniture or first-time electronic buys may not be important to 55 percent of the college population because their life situation is different, so marketers should execute campaigns that utilize demographic data along with personalized data that may indicate if a person lives in a home or apartment versus a dorm room.

Marketers can target adult students by adding relevant segments to their BTS campaigns. Examples could include education and graduate education category terms, federal student aid and student tax breaks, employer education reimbursement, application process and business category terms.

Better-targeted campaigns also can be informed by purchase behavior. In the NRF survey discussed above, in K-12 and college student spending, it was indicated that by early August, nearly the start of school, students still needed to purchase school supplies, clothing and shoes and personal care items.

It’s evident that marketers have a clear time frame to target BTS shoppers for these items. This is akin to reviewing data about the best time to deliver marketing emails based on the likelihood of the time they will be opened. In a joint study by Retail Touch Points and Magnetic (my employer), it showed that only 34 percent of retailers use data to optimize opens, clicks or send times.

Teachers have untapped spending power

With so much focus on students, it’s easy to forget that BTS shoppers also include teachers who have purchasing needs throughout the year, for the classroom and for themselves.

Each year, 3.6 million K-12 teachers go back to school with their students, yet marketers overlook their spending power. And with cuts in federal education spending, it’s likely that teachers will spend even more of their own money on supplies.

According to the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers spend over $1.6 billion on supplies for students. Advertisers need user-level data capable of identifying BTS teachers, and shopping data can provide that. Refine that with data about the subjects being taught — e.g., unit sales for “Language Arts” products grow throughout the summer and reach 2.4x the monthly average by August (Magnetic: Proprietary Shopper Data: Jan–Dec 2016).

Additionally, teachers will spend on themselves in supplies, clothing, bags and accessories, computers and electronics. Shopper data will also be useful here to target teachers specifically, rather than being lumped into the entire BTS audience.

Lessons learned about BTS shopping:

  1. The BTS season is a major departure from the decades-old traditional paradigm

The world of retail changes every day, and it certainly has evolved since the days when we defined the BTS “season” as a month or two before the start of the school year.

Several factors have driven changes in the market. Colleges changing themselves, revamping programs to attract older students or those with children, has had a dramatic impact on who attends school and when. Secondly, people’s ability to shop on multiple devices, as opposed to physically going to brick-and-mortar stores, has allowed consumers to stretch the season’s duration to a much longer time frame.

  1. Knowing your consumer matters

Contrary to our traditional concept of the BTS student, students today are more diverse than they’ve ever been. Understanding who these students are — not just in terms of demographics, but what resonates with them, why and when — will greatly increase marketers’ chances of capturing sales.

Students today can’t be fit into a neatly closed box. They vary in age, interests, reasons for going to school and rationale for buying. It’s important that brands are able to serve many of these students’ needs at different times of the year as it relates to school.

  1. Data and tools help realize sales

Marketers would be remiss to not take advantage of the wealth of data and tools available to them to better appeal to consumers. Data that goes beyond demographics is critical.

Understanding the nuances of each consumer and their purchasing intentions helps drive sales. Technology platforms that leverage that data to help retailers market to those consumers in the right way and at the right time can be a great advantage for brands.

  1. Keeping up is key

I started this article out by suggesting the obvious: the world around us is diverse and complex. We know that to be true, but our ability to keep up with these changes and adapt accordingly can often mean the difference between failure and success.

It’s possible — and rewarding — to leverage understanding, data and tools if we choose to keep up with the marketing world around us.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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