Back to School Marketing 2021: A+ Tips for D2C Retailers

5 teens sitting and smiling

With many schools fully or partially reopening after COVID-19 lockdowns, back-to-school shopping has taken on new significance for students, parents, and teachers who are eager to regain a sense of normalcy. Even though this heightened consumer interest is expected to boost spending to $32.5 billion – the highest the retail industry has seen in at least five years – D2C retailers still need to prioritize their back-to-school marketing to make the most of this shopping season.

There’s definitely more excitement about back to school than in 2020, but it’s still a complicated and confusing time. D2C retailers need to connect with people across their entire consumer base – many of whom are still dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and stress, and others who may not be returning to a classroom just yet. Tailoring your back-to-school marketing to the diversity of consumer emotions, experiences, and needs shaped by COVID-19 is how you can drive sales and strengthen consumer loyalty to your brand. 

Meet Consumers Where They Are

Whether consumers are back to in-person learning, staying at home, or switching between them, you want to show how your products can benefit them and meet their unique needs. 

Offer customized recommendations

In stores, this can take the form of product checklists based on in-person, hybrid, or remote learning settings (students probably don’t need backpacks if they’re at home), and websites can have different labeled sections. You can put together your brand’s “must-have” selections on social media and can ask consumers to weigh in on their top picks in different back-to-school environments. This attention to customized back-to-school options helps consumers feel seen, valued, and excited – especially those who may struggle to find a silver lining in continued remote learning.

Emphasize Value

With many adults still concerned about COVID-19’s impact on their finances, consumers want to know they’re getting the most for their money. So, any discounts you can offer are going to give you a competitive advantage – in its 2021 Back-to-School Survey, professional services company Deloitte found discounts were the most important factor to consumers when selecting a back-to-school retailer.

One retail sector where value is especially important is technology, with Deloitte reporting that “digital learning tools are replacing traditional school supplies, driving tech sales up 37%” compared to last year. While expensive tech like laptops or tablets may have been considered a luxury before, they’re now a necessity for many students, particularly those who’re still in a remote learning environment. You can help your consumers by creating specific deals for students and teachers. Highlighting product traits like durability, ease of use, and customer support will also give consumers more peace of mind knowing their investment is well spent.

SHOW how products make consumers feel

Ecommerce retail “therapy” was definitely a thing during COVID-19, with psychiatrist Leela Magavi saying how consumers appreciated the ability to make choices and decisions when shopping that “can release dopamine and increase feelings of motivation and happiness.” So, no matter what you’re selling, your back-to-school marketing should reiterate this, telling a story of how your products can positively impact consumers. 

5 teens sitting and smiling

Source: AdWeek

American Eagle did a great job tying product value to emotional value in its new back-to-school campaign entitled “Future Together. Jeans Forever,” connecting the return to wearing denim to the return to socializing.

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Offer Memorable Interactive Experiences That Relieve COVID-19 Boredom

As Extole CEO Matt Roche discussed in eTail’s Virtual Retail Success Keynote Panel, since consumers have been stuck with limited activity choices for over a year, retailers can benefit from “giving them something to do that has some sense of meaning or something with a sense of social connection, entertainment, or competition.” Getting back to annual traditions like back-to-school shopping means a lot to consumers who missed out because of COVID-19, so offering an extra-special experience this year can help them create happy memories tied to shopping with your company.  

Retail software company Bazaarvoice found that 72% of consumers surveyed about back-to-school shopping in 2021 said they’d be shopping in-store and online, so you want to ensure an exceptional experience for consumers no matter where they’re choosing to shop. While it’s great to offer specific in-person or digital activities like in-store giveaways and contests or website quizzes that give product recommendations, you can really amp up your back-to-school marketing by connecting in-person experiences to digital platforms like social media.

For instance, Snapchat found that 86% of its users are active on it while back-to-school shopping. American Eagle capitalized on that by introducing a Snapchat-based experience called “Dress Yourself,” allowing consumers to “try on” and shop looks from the retailer’s back-to-school collection using the front-facing camera on their smartphone – no fitting room lines required. Retail augmented reality (AR) experiences like American Eagle’s have boomed in COVID-19, and Shopify found they had a 94% higher conversion rate than products without AR. If you can try your hand at AR, try offering a virtual experience with apparel or dorm decor or create a back-to-school-related game. 

Even without AR, you can still use technology to engage with consumers. For example, try creating an in-store display that encourages consumers to snap a picture with it and tag your brand on social media – bonus points if you create a custom #backtoschool related hashtag for consumers to use. 

Ultimately, the more fun consumers have during their back-to-school shopping experience with your brand, the more likely they are to come back and shop again. 

Celebrate Your Consumers as Valued Brand Ambassadors

Many people experienced a deep sense of isolation and lack of purpose during COVID-19, driving an increase in social media use for connection and meaning. You can build on this by using your digital back-to-school marketing to celebrate consumers as unique individuals and bring them together as a brand community.

One strategic way to do this is through re-sharing and engaging with user-generated content (UGC) on social media. Remember that custom #backtoschool hashtag we just discussed? Creating activities like that where you encourage consumers to create content connected to their experience with your brand helps them feel more invested in it. They can also have positive interactions with likes and comments from other consumers who are participating. 

Over 50 percent of consumers want brands to offer specific direction for creating UGC, which allows you to get creative with your back-to-school marketing ideas – here are a few quick examples of what consumers can share:

  • First day of school outfits
  • New favorite school supplies
  • Classroom set-ups
  • Remote learning set-ups
  • What this back-to-school season means to them considering COVID-19

You can share UGC prompts on in-store signage, on your website, or through social media posts. To really boost participation, turn them into contests with gift cards or back-to-school supplies as prizes for your brand’s top three favorite posts. By making your own UGC prompts, you can steer the direction of positive consumer feedback that can drive sales to the retail areas you want, whether that’s focusing on a new product line or talking about some of your best-sellers.

Consumers may not trust traditional advertising, but they do trust each other – if you incorporate UGC in a back-to-school campaign, you can increase sales by up to 18%! In addition, using UGC in your back-to-school marketing is a great way to generate positive word of mouth by making loyal consumers feel valued, celebrated, and connected. The more credible and authentic they find your brand, the more likely they’ll share your content, recommend your products, and even defend your brand against criticism.

When re-sharing UGC, be sure to be mindful of inclusivity. While you don’t want to feature content solely because a person checks a racial or gender box, showcasing a wider variety of consumers will help more of your consumer base feel represented and connected to your brand.

Use Purchase and Referral Incentives That Support Others

The COVID-19 crisis has further emphasized how consumers have high expectations that companies will contribute to positive social change, with the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ “Consumer Sentiment Towards Brands During COVID-19” report finding that most consumers they surveyed were “happy to learn about how brands are helping in response to the coronavirus pandemic.” 

In its 2021 Trust Barometer Special Report, public relations firm Edelman found that consumers who trust brands and their values are seven times more likely to shop with them again compared to consumers who don’t trust a company. By incorporating giving back in your back-to-school marketing – whether that’s donating a portion of back-to-school sales to schools or teachers, hosting a school supply drive, or giving students and teachers extra perks for referring friends – and bringing consumers into the process, you boost consumer loyalty because they feel good supporting a company that’s making a difference. 

Referral Marketing Example -Man carrying box of good that says special delivery

Sources: TheGoodTrade, Yoobi

D2C school supply retailer Yoobi, for instance, has made giving back a central pillar of their brand. They donate a school supply item for every item purchased, creating free Yoobi Classroom Packs for elementary school students in high-poverty areas in partnership with the Kids in Need Foundation. Use your charitable incentives during the back-to-school season to help track consumer interest, and you can use those insights to generate new programs and new business throughout the year.

Strategic Back-to-School Marketing Can Bring Consumers Back to Your Business

As Extole CEO Matt Roche notes, “If you treat consumers well, do fun things together, and recognize them as a friend, you’re more likely to keep them through COVID-19 and beyond.” By giving consumers a positive experience during their back-to-school shopping, you’re also giving yourself a better chance of earning their business again in the future – the holiday season will be here before you know it!

Check out one of Extole’s targeted refer-a-friend programs to see how you can keep building your customer base year-round.

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