Back to School Digital Marketing

How to Get the Most Out of Back to School Digital Marketing

It’s that time of year again. Late summer, otherwise known (to marketers, at least) as the back-to-school shopping season, is upon us. Back to school season is the second biggest shopping season of the year, and analysts predict that back-to-school spending in 2017 will reach $83.6 billion.

If you sell anything that parents, students, or teachers are likely to want or need as they head back to school, this is a crucial time of year for you. People are ready to spend money and you want to be one of the businesses they spend it on. If you don’t play your digital marketing cards right, you’ll be leaving money on the table – potentially big money.

To help you navigate back-to-school digital marketing effectively, we’ve got a few tips and best practices you should follow.


Think of your audience first.

Blurred photo of a crowd of people walking through a city's streets.

This is always the rule in online marketing and there’s no reason for it to be any different when you’re preparing your back-to-school marketing plan.

Develop different marketing personas to focus on.

You may already have online marketing personas, but it’s worth revisiting them to see if they could use any tweaking to make them more useful for back-to-school marketing. If you don’t have any marketing personas for your business yet, treat this as a good excuse to get them done.

Depending on what you sell, you’ll probably want a few personas to represent your main back-to-school audiences. These may include:

  • Parent personas
  • Kid personas
  • College student personas
  • Teacher personas
  • Adult student personas

Within these, there are many possible sub-categories of your audience. For example, parents within different income brackets are likely to have different priorities when they do their back-to-school shopping, and elementary schoolers will be buying different sorts of school supplies than teens heading off to college for the first time.

Don’t think you can leave off kids in your marketing focus because parents are the ones with spending power, nearly 60% of parents say they’ll buy what their kids say they want. If you sell something that K-12 kids and college students will need, then your marketing needs to take both the students and the parents into account.

And don’t forget to include adult students and teachers either.  These two groups aren’t the first ones that jump to mind when thinking about back-to-school shopping, but they both represent a sizeable portion of the people who will be buying items for a new school year. 3.6 million teachers are heading back to school each year in K-12 alone, and people over the age of 25 account for 8.2 million college students.

You don’t need a thorough persona for every possible category of person you hope to reach in your marketing, but you do want to use this step to establish a clear picture of the types of people most likely to buy from you during the back-to-school season and the priority levels you should attribute to each.

Brainstorm what they’re thinking.

Once you’ve identified the types of people you most want to reach, take some time to sit with your team and brainstorm what their likely concerns and priorities during the back to school season are. Everyone in the room’s a former (or current) student and you probably have some parents on staff as well, use that.

For some starter ideas, parents may be thinking about:

  • The stress of having a lot of shopping to do before the first day of school.
  • Worry about the cost of clothes and school supplies (especially if their kids will probably grow out of the clothes again by this time next year).
  • Making a good first impression on the teacher.
  • Making sure kids heading to college have everything they need, are safe, and hoping that they bother to still call and visit once they’re settled in.

Kids may be thinking about:

  • Impressing the other kids.
  • Starting new extracurriculars.
  • Finding items branded with their favorite entertainment properties.

Teachers are probably thinking about:

  • Making sure their classrooms have all the supplies needed.
  • Worrying that some students may not have all the recommended school supplies
  • Dressing in a way that makes a good impression on the teachers and students, while still being comfortable.

This is a short list, but it establishes the types of concerns and ideas to be thinking about. You want your marketing to address the main pain points and priorities your target audience has, this brainstorming session will help you identify what those are.


Be targeted.

A line of StormTroopers facing forward, while one looks into the camera.

One of the great benefits of online marketing is that it gives you the means to be targeted. You don’t need to reach childless 30-something professionals with your back-to-school marketing – doing so would be a waste of your money.  And you won’t get the results you want if you deliver messaging designed for a 15-year old high school student to their 40-something parent. Your marketing should be targeted to the people you identified in your personas and specific based on which persona they best match.

That’s not only good for your ROI, but it’s what consumers prefer. 63% of them say they’re annoyed by marketers that send generic ad blasts out that aren’t in any way tailored to their interests, and 78% say they’ll only engage with offers that are personalized based on past interactions with the brand.

Luckily, most online marketing channels make targeting fairly easy. With pay-per-click marketing and social media advertising, you can specify who sees your ads based on factors like age range, geographic location, gender, interests, and past online behavior. With email marketing, you can create segmented lists based on when and how users signed up that allow you to deliver more relevant emails to each consumer.

You have the means to make sure you’re delivering the right message to the right person, use it.


Do preparatory research.

Photo of a person using a laptop with an open book and a cup of tea in the background

Good marketing depends on good research. Before you really dive into planning your back-to-school digital marketing, devote some time to gaining the knowledge you need to do it right.

These are probably regular steps in your general overall marketing plan, but make sure you spend some time performing them in preparation for your back-to-school marketing plan specifically.

Do seasonal keyword research.

Google’s Keyword Planner tool uses monthly averages in the data it provides for keywords, which doesn’t help you much in researching seasonal trends in keywords.  For that, Google Trends is more useful.

There you can see how the trends in search volume for specific keywords vary for different days and months of the year, and see the data on related topics and queries Google provides.



Example of chart showing trending topics worldwide.

Topics searched most recently worldwide.


Use this data to help you decide the best keywords to use in the PPC and content marketing portions of your back-to-school digital marketing strategy.

Study your competition.

In figuring out the best approach yourself, it’s often useful to see what other businesses in your space are doing. See what shows up in the PPC ads and organic search results when you do the searches you’ve identified as your main keyword targets for the season. If you don’t already, follow some of your main competitors on social media and sign up for their email lists so you can keep an eye on their campaign strategies.

This will help you gain an idea of what tactics are working for other businesses, but it will also enable you to avoid simply replicating what everyone else is doing. You can brainstorm how to create content and ads that will differentiate you from the other brands your audience will encounter.

Review last year’s data.

Unless your business is brand new, you should already have some useful data on what digital marketing tactics and approaches work best for your target audience. Go back and revisit all your marketing analytics from this time last year. Review how the results varied for the types of ads you used, the topics and keywords you focused on, and the different channels you used in your marketing.

You should be able to rule out some approaches here that didn’t pay off well enough last time around, and identify a few tactics that did perform well that you should be sure and try again. You don’t have to base this year’s back-to-school campaign entirely around last year’s data – it’s okay to branch out and try something new – but you should absolutely make use of the data you have to help guide you in some of the most important tactics to try and avoid based on what you know works.


Create a strategy.

A man writing notes on a whiteboard

At this point, you’ve collected and created a lot of useful information that will become the base you need to build a strong back-to-school digital marketing strategy on top of.

Start by establishing clear goals so you know what you want to achieve. Then craft a strategy designed to meet those goals. Clarify the channels you’ll be targeting, the products you most want to focus on, the best audience to target for each channel and product, and how you’re going to tie all your various efforts back to each other to get the best bang for your buck.


Prioritize mobile marketing.

Two hands holding a tablet, while a laptop is displayed in the background

The rise of mobile isn’t exactly news at this point, but if you’re not already in the habit of placing a priority on the mobile experience when crafting your ads and campaigns, make sure you do so for your back-to-school campaigns.

Last year, Google reported that three out of five back-to-school searches in July happened on mobile devices – up 35% from the year before. And data from Facebook confirmed that 91% of all back-to-school content posted on the platform was shared on mobile.

For every ad you design and tactic you pursue, consider how it will appear and perform on mobile. Make sure the mobile experience of your marketing activities will make prospects more likely to click and buy than navigate elsewhere.


Offer and promote competitive deals.

Special Offer written in decorative, red font

For all those parents who are stressing out over how to afford the new clothes, school supplies, and other items their kids will need during the school year, one of the primary driving forces that will get them to buy from you is hard-to-beat coupons or specials. One study found that coupons were the number one most influential tactic for deciding which stores to shop at for back to school, followed close behind by in-store promotions.

When most of your competitors will also be using deals and coupons to get people through the door (and into the digital shopping cart), you need yours to be both competitive and highly visible.

Create a promotion campaign for your deals.

Your offers won’t be worth much if no one ever sees them. Make use of paid search marketing and social media advertising to get them in front of more people. Use the platforms’ targeting options to make sure the right ads are shown to the people they’ll be the most appealing to.

Don’t neglect your current customers and subscribers though. Get your offers in front of them by promoting them to your social media followers and your email list. Your paid advertising channels can help get them in front of new prospects, but you can use your earned media channels to promote the offers to the people that are the most important to you – those that already have a relationship with your brand.

Use geo targeting.

In one study, 74% of parents and 66% of kids said that local targeting was one of the most effective parts of the back-to-school campaigns they encountered as consumers. For any brick-and-mortar businesses, the geographic targeting options that are available for PPC ads and social media are powerful. Busy parents won’t necessarily just be looking for the best deal – they’ll also be trying to figure out the most convenient place they can go to check off the items on their back-to-school list.  If you can target the people located close to your shop, you’re more likely to get them in the door.

Use retargeting.

In the same study, 34% of students and 27% of parents said that retargeting was the most influential online marketing strategy they encountered. Getting reminders around the web of items they were already considering can help distracted parents and students with a lot on their minds make a decision and move forward with a purchase – especially if the deal offered looks too good to pass up.


If you have a physical location, use your ads to drive people in store.

Mannequins posed in storefront of a trendy boutique


While a decent portion of back-to-school shopping happens online, nearly half of students and a full 82% of parents say they ultimately prefer to make about half of their back-to-school purchases in the store itself. This shouldn’t be all that surprising when you consider that a good amount of back-to-school shopping is for clothes that kids will want to try on.

For businesses that have a physical location, it’s a good idea to therefore use your digital ads to incentivize people to come into your store. Two-thirds of parents say they typically do some research and browsing online before making an in-store purchase, so you can capture them online with your promotions and ads in order to get them to the store.

While digital marketing is clearly focused primarily on what you can do and track online, in the case of back-to-school marketing, it’s useful to see how you can connect your online promotions to in-store visits.


Make use of influencer marketing

Two young women forming a heart by combining their hands


Both kids and parents (particularly moms) are audiences that respond well to influencer marketing. Where parents have often trusted recommendations from other parents when making purchasing decisions, now much of the process of giving and receiving that sort of advice has moved online. One report about millennial moms found that:

  • 49% turn to the internet to find expert advice on parenting websites at least once a week
  • Another 32% seek out advice on mom blogs every week
  • 32% also look to other parents on social media for advice
  • And 73% use parenting communities for brand and product recommendations

You can tap into the power of these online communities during the back-to-school shopping season by identifying the influencers within them and developing an influencer marketing plan.

And with a number of social media personalities starting to gain huge followings amongst kids and teens, influencer marketing that targets a younger audience is starting to become a popular option as well. In addition to perusing parenting communities online to identify the best influencers that will help you reach parents, take some time to research which young social media personalities can help you reach the students doing back to school shopping.

Reach out to the main influencers you identified to find out if they work with brands and whether they already have a system for doing so. Over a quarter of mom 

bloggers work with brands to develop sponsored posts three or more times per week, and many young influencers are already accustomed to a pay-per-tweet or post model.

Chances are, if they’re on your radar, they aren’t new to the game of influencer marketing and they’ll already have some preferences in how they like to work with brands. Your best bet is usually to follow their

lead and let them talk about your brand in the way that feels most authentic to them and their audience.


Create helpful, relevant back-to-school content.

Girl posing in front of chalkboard with words "back to school" written across

Develop a content marketing strategy for the next couple of months that emphasizes topics relevant to back-to-school. The brainstorming you did back in step one about what your personas are thinking about should help you develop some topics to focus on, as will the research you did in step two.

Develop valuable content in a variety of formats – blog posts, videos, ebooks, or whatever you feel will land best with your audience – and start releasing it in the weeks leading up to back to school.

An added benefit to keep in mind here is that these pieces of content will be semi-evergreen. You can return to them and promote them all over again next year. And if you have any relevant content you created last year, then you already have a head start on this step and can look for opportunities to re-purpose, re-publish or promote last year’s content.

Make sure to optimize all your back-to-school content for search engines. While SEO is generally too slow of a process for newly published content to make a big splash in the search engines, in future years the content you’ve created could gain new visibility and bring you new traffic each year at back to school time.

Promote the content to your email list and on social.

Your content marketing will always go further if you make a point to promote it. Push out the content you create in your marketing emails and on your social media sites. You can attract prospects to your website with helpful advice, and use the opportunity once they get there to encourage new email signups or promote discounts and deals to help drive them toward a sell.


Analyze your results.

Savvy marketer reviewing back to school marketing strategy analytics.

Both throughout your back-to-school campaigns and after they’ve wrapped up, take time to review your marketing analytics to better understand how well your different tactics and approaches are working. The insights you gain can both be put to use throughout the rest of the year, and can make sure you go into next year’s back-to-school season better prepared to get results.

Good marketing is as much about data analysis and good planning as it is about creativity and execution. Make sure you go into this back-to-school season well prepared, and take advantage of everything you learn along the way to do even better in years to come.


Natalia Wulfe

Natalia joined Effective Spend in 2011 and has been instrumental in the rapid growth of the company. She brings more than 15 years of marketing expertise, with both agency and in-house client experience. After 6 years of leading an expert PPC advertising team, Natalia currently runs internal marketing and people operations. A proud Austin native, Natalia holds an advertising degree from UT with a concentration in media planning. She enjoys sharing the wonders of her weird city with her two young daughters.