Rachel Ullstrom / Account Director, Rio SEO

The leaves are changing, the days are getting shorter, and we already have the second largest shopping season of the year behind us.

Back-to-school has become one of the most profitable and important traffic and purchase seasons for online marketing. It is important to plan for a mid-summer campaign to drive success and set you up for a successful holiday season.

Since the 2013 back-to-school season was so successful, let’s recap what went well and how to set yourself up for success in 2014.

Most of our clients are looking for a few key performance indicators (KPIs) by which they measure their success – traffic, leads, sales, brand engagement, or perception lift.

The back-to-school audience is fairly broad encompassing family decision makers, which include parents and students of varying ages. It is important to consider the calendar of the school year. College students don’t all begin school after Labor Day, although that’s when many campaigns see the end of the back-to-school season.

What we know about these consumers is that 29 percent of them begin the discussion around mid-July and 90 percent plan to seek deals. Plus, they are searching online for back to school terms more frequently than ever.

Young people tend to have a stronger presence and propensity to share on Twitter and Facebook, while moms and young adults are also on Pinterest making this audience a highly social one. Exclusive offers tend to be less appealing to this audience. In general, a better deal or value rather than exclusivity tend to be drivers in purchasing decisions.

Here are a few best practices from this year’s performance:

  • Begin planning early. You don’t want to launch later than early-mid July to begin participating in the early discussions and gaining valuable momentum.
  • This audience likes DEALS. Sweepstakes are key in capturing their interest, as well as short time offers and engagement discounts.
  • Keep it Simple. This audience is efficient. They will not participate effectively without a clear user flow and call to action.
  • Engage. Make sure you are present everywhere your users are – social networks, sweepstakes and deal sites, retarget and utilize your e-mail lists.
  • Think long term. Don’t forget to take all of your learnings and audience data and apply them forward to the biggest shopping season of the year. It’s just around the corner!

A few campaigns that nailed it this year:

  1. bullyingSears launched an online anti-bullying campaign with the tagline “Team up to stop bullying” partnering with reputable and social good organizations like It Gets Better. This campaign drove a longer term discussion, helping Sears become part of the conversation and a player in preventing child violence – a social issue affecting their key demographic. See #BullyingHurts
  1. backtoschoolAT&T launched an online campaign centered on social rewards and school room trivia. Asking trivia questions and rewarding users for answering correctly or giving them another opportunity to answer correctly. Consumers were also invited to share the contest, which resulted in additional entries. AT&T did a great job engaging social users, and tying in a fun user flow before sending them into the purchase funnel.
  1. Target launched a campaign aimed at college students who would be making more material purchases – offering them a fun and easy checklist mobile application for dorm supplies, back-to-school tips and tricks. Target also built social sharing on Facebook into the mobile experience.

Back-to-school is about exactly what it says. Make sure your promotion, message, and landing page are tailored to your subject matter and your audience. It should be timely beginning in mid/late July, and relevant to those who are preparing for themselves or their children to go back to school.

Engage in all appropriate and audience relevant places and social networks. Target and retarget your audience. Offer something that will actually matter to them – a real value for a relevant product or service. And don’t make it too complicated. The process of participating, engaging, and purchasing should be simple.

I expect that the fall of 2014 will be another banner back-to-school season. With more digital families, students, and parents than ever before, make sure you follow these best practices to gain traction and offer real value to your consumers.