First of all, consider that unlike decades ago when we were in school, school districts vary their start dates widely. A fourth-grader in Cobb County, Ga., goes back to school on August 15, while her counterpart in Tampa, Fla., will have to hit the books on August 3. Then there are those sad kids in Hawaii, who go back to school on July 27 this year.
Now consider that according to the National Retail Federation, 16 percent of consumers start their back-to-school shopping at least two months before school begins. Forty-five percent begin shopping between three weeks and a month before school starts.
Where does this put us? I am recommending to my clients this year that they begin back-to-school campaigns no later than June 1. Back-to-school and back-to-college spending in 2005 equaled almost $39.9 billion*. That is second only to the holiday season. So there is no room for error or being left behind by your competition. What that really means is starting to plan your campaigns right now, keeping this process in mind:
>TAKE AN INVENTORY OF YOUR PRODUCT OFFERINGS. Back-to-school doesn't mean just shoes and backpacks anymore. You can position your products as back-to-school merchandise whether you sell electronics or trash cans that would suit a dorm room.
>CREATE A ONE-STOP SHOP FOR KIDS, THEIR PARENTS, AND/OR COLLEGE STUDENTS. Your school-related merchandise doesn't have to take over your home page, but you should be creative. For example, try a back-to-school checklist -- all the must-haves -- to make shopping easy for parents. Or focus on the persona of your shopper: "Are you a note-taker? Then this laptop is for you."
>TARGET YOUR CREATIVE CAREFULLY. Swap out search creative to speak to your audience, without getting too young. Keep in mind that parents are shopping as much as their children, so search creative that says, "Yo! Check out this laptop. It's hot" is not necessarily advised.
>I KNOW, I AM PREACHING TO THE CHOIR, BUT I HAVE TO SAY IT: Before you get too far down the campaign planning trail, make sure your entire marketing mix reinforces your message. Back-to-school sales or promotions are a perfect platform for strong, cohesive messaging. Get your campaign out early and differentiate your product and brand from those of your competitors. Then reinforce them with your online and offline marketing mix. Back-to-school campaigns beg to be interactive and updated regularly!
>DON'T FORGET CAMPAIGN TRACKING. Here is a scenario: A mother is searching for "school backpack" on June 15. Because you have prepared your paid search creative accordingly, she finds your site and purchases a Strawberry Shortcake backpack. You have tracked her through the purchase process, and five months down the road, you are able to e-mail her a holiday sale offer that includes Strawberry Shortcake, Dora the Explorer, and Care Bears merchandise. She purchases the new Care Bears bedding set for her daughter's Christmas present, and you have just tripled this customer's 2006 spending on your site.
This equation works for everyone; simply change the searcher from "mother" and insert "buyer" and exchange "backpack" with any one of your products. The point is to close the deal and then remarket to the buyer with follow-up or supporting merchandise.
So enjoy March and April, but keep in mind that back-to-school isn't just for kids anymore. As our campaigns launch and sales begin, we'll all have those familiar butterflies in our stomachs. There's just nothing like the first day of school.