Back-to-School Marketing

Schools around the country have opened their doors for a new year. For consumers, it’s time to open their wallets to purchase notebooks, computers, and countless other necessities students need as they head back to the classroom.

While some kids might dread going back to school, businesses are celebrating it as their second busiest shopping season of the year next to the winter holidays. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, this critical period accounts for 16.1 percent of retailers’ annual revenue. Businesses are starting back-to-school campaigns as early as July, with the month reporting 4.6 percent higher sales than last year.

This provides a rare opportunity for retailers to not only boost sales with existing customers, but to also win new customers and set the foundation for long-term growth. In a year where economic concerns still abound, businesses must look to capitalize on opportunities like the booming back-to-school market.

Yet, this is a lot easier said than done. Retailers of all kinds realize the immense opportunity, flexing extra marketing and advertising muscle during the season to draw the attention of a crowded marketplace. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, and FourSquare, sending out millions of promotional fliers to squeeze every dollar possible. Consumers often feel inundated with communications and pulled in all directions. If your message isn’t standing out, it likely won’t be heard--or acted on.

Email: The Secret Recipe for Back-to-School Success

Businesses need to be innovative and unique, making back-to-school shoppers feel valued, appreciated, and connected to their brand. There’s no better forum for that than email, widely considered by consumers as a preferred medium for communication. Integrating email with social media creates even more opportunity to deliver customized, personal information that consumers crave most.

Keep in mind that it’s not about blasting thousands of generic emails at once, hoping the doors will swing open. Email and social media marketing must be treated as a science, especially during the back-to-school season. Each message must be full of compelling, customized information that resonates with each customer and her particular back-to-school situation.

Here are a few ways to get your business on the right track with compelling content:

Make yourself more relevant: Even if it isn’t selling pencils or office supplies, any retailer can tie itself to back-to-school season. Restaurants can offer special lunch promotions to parents who are no longer keeping watch over their kids during the midday hours. Delis and smaller eating establishments might offer take-out sandwiches for kids to enjoy in their lunches. Travel companies can plug deals for fall or winter vacations for the family. Or home improvement businesses can tailor to the stay-at-home parent to address projects that fell by the wayside in the summertime. Every business matters this time of year, and should highlight how it can best play a role in this busy season.

Don’t always ask for the sale: Sure it’s the goal, but being too upfront at all times can turn some customers away. In many cases, offering practical back-to-school tips in the lead section of your newsletter works more wonders than blurting out “save XX percent now!”

Use social media to engage, not attract: One hundred clicks on an email newsletter aren’t valuable unless they engage customers. Use newsletters and social media to start conversations consumers can relate to, such as time management tips while kids are away during the school day or how to best manage your child’s first day of kindergarten. Offer a prize or discount for some of the best feedback as this can often help incentivize even more sales activity.

Showcase your specials: While many back-to-school products may not be big-ticket items, consumers are looking to save pennies at each and every turn. They’re bargain hunting on the Internet more than ever. A recent Deloitte study revealed 35 percent of parents plan to use social networking sites for help with back-to-school shopping. Some parents are even creating unique Facebook and Twitter profiles specific to shopping. Every time you have a sale, send an email alert to your subscribers, and make sure you’re sharing it with your Facebook fans and Twitter followers.

Put part of your best category on sale: Place your most relevant items on sale this season. For instance, if you sell shoes, focus on fall shoes for kids. Your email and social media feeds can announce “25 percent off our best-selling fall shoes.” This delivers several benefits. For example, you have a reason to put 25 percent off in your subject line, but your loss exposure is only on three styles. Shoppers who are in the market for fall shoes will now be on your site and can swing over to the full-priced items. And you can capture who clicked on this particular email to quickly make a segment called “parents,” targeting them with future emails starting with the upcoming holiday season.

Don’t be afraid to get creative with your back-to-school campaigns. Ensure your emails get noticed in crowded in-boxes, integrate with social media, and you’ll be able to take advantage of this busy buying season to keep sales thriving.

Jeff Revoy is chief product, marketing, and strategy officer for iContact, an e-mail marketing provider for small and midsized companies. He can be reached at JRevoy@icontact.com.

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