2016 Back-to-School Retail: How the Marketing Landscape Has Changed

Retailers were given some encouraging news this summer, as the National Retail Federation (NRF) raised its Back-to-School spending projections to an estimated $75.8 billion, reflecting a near 11 percent increase from last year’s $68 billion. While a read on overall consumer sentiment has been somewhat up in the air, due to global economic conditions and the upcoming election, organizations like the NRF maintain an optimistic stance on revenues for back-to-school and into the 2016 holiday season. Even though retailers and marketers are likely starting to think about holiday planning (yes, already!), there is still ample time to influence back-to-school strategy and win over customers. With a few days left in the digital “peak time” for back-to-school search interest, let’s take a look at how consumer behavior is impacting marketing strategy, budget decisions and opportunities for leveraging new mobile tactics – themes to keep in mind during the remaining weeks of summertime.

Budgeting for research phase is key

We’ve seen many brands embrace the strategic importance of early messaging for back-to-school online; but what we’ve noticed this year in particular, is that beyond just early messaging tactics, it’s critical for brands to be spending in paid search early on in the season – before they are generating the conversions on those keywords. As in recent years, consumer search intent began its steady incline around mid-June and grew consistently through the middle of July; but conversion rates did not rise until late July. From a direct response and ROI perspective, it may tempt marketers to hold back on early back to school funding and push paid search budgets further into July, but we recommend against that! As consumers “shop” around different brands and products online, they’re both researching and considering their options for purchases. Without the right amount of visibility during this critical time, your brand may lose out on the chance to influence those purchase decisions to come in the following weeks. Maintain a competitive paid search strategy across both mobile and desktop – particularly now that there’s less paid real estate and stiffer competition for consumer attention.

Revenue ramp-up comes later…

Last year, we saw the highest peak of search interest occur on August 8th, with query volumes also increasing steadily year-over-year. And this year, strategizing around that earlier upswing in research and product considerations ultimately paid off for many retailers. Both click volume and conversion rates began to kick into high gear around mid-July, and are maintaining that steady growth in August.

More consumers going mobile

According to a survey taken back in June by Penn Schoen Berland, around 60 percent of parents planned to buy at least one thing on a mobile device and 30 percent planned to do at least a fourth of their shopping on mobile. This is quite a change from last year, where we saw more dominant searching and engaging on mobile, but less actual conversions. As marketers continue to get savvier with their mobile strategy, consumer expectations of the mobile experience will also increase – sounds like a bit of a Catch 22, right? But with the mobile-first reality we’re in, it’s time to figure out where and how mobile plays a role in your customers’ journey to purchasing. Whether it’s researching, planning, organizing or buying, parents and students alike are turning to mobile for a complete shopping experience. Consider exploring and testing Google’s enhanced tools for capturing mobile traffic and revenue – like device level bidding and expanded text ads.  There’s plenty of volume to be had during back to school season search volume, to help set expectations for later this year, as these tools will certainly come into play during the holiday season!

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