4 back-to-school marketing lessons to use this holiday season

McKenzie Gregory

What back-to-school can teach marketers about the holidays

Did you know that back-to-school is the second-largest retail season of the year, only falling behind the holidays? Since it's such a crucial time for retail sales, we took a look at some of the biggest lessons we've learned from recent back-to-school campaigns so you can apply them to your holiday marketing strategy this year. 

Lesson 1: Acknowledge blurred seasonal boundaries. 

In 2016, nearly 40% of consumers began back-to-school shopping in June or earlier. On the other end of the spectrum, more than a third of consumers didn’t stop back-to-school shopping until September or later!
These days, traditional sales seasons are blending into one another as marketers start promoting earlier and extend their sales later. That means that retailers shouldn't hesitate to get in on the action early or keep things going even after key dates have passed. Timeliness is important, for sure, but it’s now acceptable to extend your campaigns beyond the traditional thought of when a season should begin or end. 

Lesson 2: Let others market for you.

Many of this year’s back-to-school campaigns centered around an influencer, like this one from Urban Outfitters featuring blogger Tessa Barton. Influencer marketing is a fantastic way to capture attention and stand out in the all-too-noisy sales seasons like back-to-school and the holidays.



Don’t have the budget for traditional influencer marketing? No problem! You can still utilize one of the biggest influencers out there – your own audience – with user-generated content. 

According to the Ipsos Millennial Social Influence Studyuser-generated content is 50% more trusted by users than traditional media. Think Instagram photos, tweets, Vines, YouTube videos – any content that’s being created by consumers about your brand. Marketers love it because it allows them to tap into the power of their fan base and use authentic and original content to power incredible campaigns.  
An example? In 2016, Target actually let kids create their back-to-school commercial. Allowing their audience to craft the message added a layer of authenticity and fun that helped them drum up buzz and awareness during one of their most competitive seasons of the year. 
Retailers can also generate much-needed brand awareness from user-generated content during the holidays. For instance, have your audience tweet out a link to a product that's on their holiday wish list for a chance to win that item. Or, use the holidays as an opportunity to do some good by donating a predetermined amount of money for everyone who posts an Instagram and tags your handle. The possibilities are endless, so get creative!

Lesson 3: Think mobile. 

According to an online study by Branding Brand, a mobile commerce platform for retailers, 62% of millennials who were preparing to go back to school this fall planned to shop with a smartphone for necessities.
That stat is unsurprising when you consider the how crucial mobile has become to digital marketing across the board, but it still helps reinforce something that will make or break your success over the holidays: If mobile is this big during back-to-school, it will only become more so during the holidays. Put the mobile experience – from optimizing your emails for the small screen to using mobile-friendly landing pages – at the center of your strategy and reap the rewards that come with an improved customer experience. 


Lesson 4: Don't make it all about sales. 

During busy retail seasons like back-to-school and the holidays, every brand will be heavily promoting their products and offering discounts. So one way to help your brand stand out is to supplement those offers with marketing campaigns that aren't about selling something. 
How do you do that, exactly? 
Helpful content 
This year, Whole Foods supplemented each of their back-to-school emails  with a recipe or blog post to help busy moms save time or accommodate their picky eaters. 
Similiarly, Betty Crocker runs a special “24 Days of Cookies” holiday email series that helps them market to their consumer base in a way that feels helpful and festive, not sales-focused.
Make people feel something
If there's ever a time to create a campaign that evokes emotion, it's during seasons like back-to-school and the holidays. This year, for instance, HP released this tearjerker for their 2017 back-to-school campaign:  

And you may have seen the viral videos high-end department store John Lewis releases each Christmas. They have absolutely nothing to do with products or sales, but instead call upon the spirit of the holidays to make people laugh or cry – just generally feel something. Here's last year's version: 


No worries if you aren't working with a department store-sized marketing budget; your holiday campaign doesn't have to be as elaborate as these videos to be effective. Whether it's a heartfelt "Happy Holidays" email to your customers or a silly, branded Christmas song you post on social, give your audience an occasional break from promotions with something that will make them laugh or stir up an emotional response. 

Back-to-school was a great practice run for the upcoming holiday season, but now it's time to get serious. Get in the game early, leverage your audience, remember the importance of mobile, and think beyond discounts to ensure you get the most out of the biggest retail season of the year.




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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