Back-to-school emails: Where we've been and where we're going

McKenzie Gregory


It’s that time of year again: As students head back to class, brands everywhere compete for a boost in Q3 sales with back-to-school marketing campaigns. It isn’t just school supply retailers like Target and Walmart making the most of the decades-old theme—now, everyone from restaurants to travel sites to tech companies get in on the action.

Since it’s such a pervasive part of our industry, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at how back-to-school email marketing has changed over the past few years, plus where we think it’s headed.


A look back…

After a quick search through our own inboxes, it was pretty shocking to see how much email design has transformed since 2009 (the oldest unbroken example we could find).

             Back-to-school emails from 2009-2012


For one thing – as email design has gradually become accepted as an art form of its own – these flyer-like templates have given way to mobile-friendly campaigns that are actually intended to be consumed in an inbox.




Back-to-school emails in 2017


However, the design isn’t the only thing that’s changed in back-to-school emails over the past few years. Here are a few other interesting trends we discovered.


1. It isn’t just about students.

While back-to-school campaigns used to be all about pencil cases and stocking up on uniforms, brands of all kids have found creative ways to incorporate it into other offerings. For instance, upscale retailer Bergdorf Goodman aimed last year’s campaign at moms with the subject line, “Back to school for them, something new for you.”



What it means: Even if you think the back-to-school season isn’t relevant to your brand, all it takes it a little creative framing to surprise and delight your audience with something special.


2. It isn’t just about discounts.

When we compared back-to-school emails from years past with more recent ones, something else that stuck out was the ratio of discounts to content. Before 2015, almost all of the emails revolved purely around discounts or sales. Over time, content – especially videos and blog posts – has worked its way into the fold.




What it means: Sales and coupons are great, but provide other types of value if you want to stick out in a sea of brands all saying the same thing.


3. Trends evolve (and fade) quickly.

We saw a spike in emoji usage in 2015 and 2016, when emojis in email subject lines were just beginning to get trendy. This year, they declined quite a bit, though some brands aimed at older audiences are still using them.



What it means: Trends fade, and the novelty wears off quickly. Stay abreast of the latest techniques and email design trends to ensure you’re ahead of the curve.

Some popular trends for subject lines in 2017? Pique curiosity with a well-placed ellipsis, or use an element of humor (like a pun or pop culture reference) to evoke a positive emotional reaction.


4. Brands are sending more, earlier.

June is the new July... which was the new August a year ago. Plus, most brands have cranked up their send frequency in the hopes of capturing more attention. Combine the two, and that’s an intimidating amount of volume to compete against. There’s still a ton of opportunity in the inbox, but you’ll need to plan early to truly stand out.


Nordstrom Rack sent a whole series of back-to-school emails this year, beginning in early July


What it means: This carries over to other major marketing holidays: If brands are sending back-to-school emails as early as June, you need to be planning your Black Friday and Cyber Monday campaigns now.



Now that you know the state of back-to-school email marketing, it’s time to fire off a timely campaign of your own. Good luck, and happy sending!


About the Author

McKenzie Gregory

McKenzie Gregory is a senior content manager on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

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