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How app marketers and brands can get an A+ in back-to-school marketing

by Lewis Leong on Aug 31, 2017

The back-to-school shopping season is a busy time—about 25% of all US households will be out spending, and 43% of consumers plan to use a smartphone to research their back-to-school shopping, up 10% from just five years ago. For Millennial parents and Gen Z students, the figure is nearer 60%, according to RetailDive, with most of back-to-school spending happening between June and September.

With an estimated $27 billion up for grabs in this period, app marketers and the brands they serve stand to claim a big piece of the pie. This is particularly true among consumers who remain undecided on their purchasing decisions, because they’re significantly influenced by mobile experiences as a means to discover, research, and purchase.

Reaching mobile-savvy students of all age groups with engaged experiences is part of the success formula, but just as important to marketers is understanding the role of parents as the ultimate spending decision-makers. With that in mind, here’s a back-to-school primer to get your marketing off to a smart start this year.

ABCs and 123s

Mass merchants will be the top beneficiaries of the back-to-school shopping season, according to the Deloitte 2017 back-to-school survey, with about 81% of buyers planning in-store visits throughout the core July to September timeframe. In the same period, consumer visits to traditional department stores and specialty clothiers are expected to decline by one-half and two-thirds, respectively. Both digital and mobile channels are still growing in line with the broader shift to shopper purchases through e-commerce and m-commerce channels.

Overall, back-to-school spending per child is expected to remain flat compared to 2016 at $501 per year on average. But the way those dollars are allocated across different consumer categories will shift over previous years.

For example, spending on clothing and accessories is expected to rise by an estimated 10% year over year, but that will account for purchases of multiple items from multiple brands. At the same time, spending on computers and hardware is expected to fall by about 4%, but the majority of the spend will go to the favor of a single brand due to “bundling” of offers (see below).

Audiences for clothing and accessories campaigns will be bigger overall, but command lower CPM rates and offer lesser average revenue per user (ARPU), and less lifetime value (LTV) impact, as compared to the computers and electronics categories.

Of course, the sheer volume of dollars shoppers spend in back-to-school categories from July to September (the peak in 2016 was around August 18), means there is a lot of money to be made.

School is social

In 2017, finding new ways to reach Gen Z on mobile and on social media will be key to the success of back-to-school retailers and brands, with TotalRetail reporting that marketers will use Facebook Live (74%), Instagram (60%), and Snapchat (55%) as core platforms to reach students and parents. Livestreaming tactics will be a big source of conversion, and tapping into the student’s common experiences in a meaningful way will likely be a popular tactic.

Coca-Cola was ahead of the pack using this technique, leveraging young people’s fascination with pics and images by focusing the brand’s entire 2016 campaign on stories of students who shared Snapchat pics of their first day of school. The result? Completion rates for a 10-second spot increased to 54%.

But competing for the billions of back-to-school dollars will require a detailed strategy for reaching not just students, but also the spending decision makers: Parents.

Parents are educating marketers on new shopping behaviors

While mobile-savvy tweens and teens are among the most influential consumers on the planet, they tend to rely on someone else to make purchases for them. This is absolutely the case for the back-to-school shopping season, when parents take turns making the core spending decisions for their kids.

Most parents plan to use smartphones in the back-to-school shopping process, with 25% using phones to compare products, and 32% using them to make purchases. And when they walk into stores, they will continue to look for more product content on their smartphones. Throughout this process, they’ll be influenced by online reviews of products and brands, which can lead to major bumps in conversion rates in the electronics category, for example.

Beyond simple discovery and research, back-to-school shoppers (young and old) increasingly expect web, mobile, and in-store shopping to be complementary, so retailers are offering “interconnected experiences” that bridge the digital and physical realms, including:

  • The ability to buy online and return in stores.
  • The ability to use mobile and social media sourced coupons in stores.
  • Scan-as-you-shop mobile apps that save time at checkout.
  • Location-based deals that offer immediate in-store incentives.
  • Augmented reality shopping experiences (think: Pokémon Go for brick-and-mortar retail).

For app marketers and advertisers, this creates a world of creative opportunity to catch back-to-school shoppers in the moment, both in-store and elsewhere, with creative applications built on great in-app experiences with video, coupons, and messaging. The more compelling and timely those mobile experiences are to the individual shopper or audience cohort, the better your back-to-school campaigns will perform in any shopping category.

The A+ brand performers

The key to success for app marketers and brands during the busy and competitive back-to-school season is to correlate typical back-to-school behaviors—in-app, in social, digitally, and in the physical world—with their clients’ brand-specific product offerings and market positioning.

In 2016, Target ran a great back-to-school campaign by reaching across physical and digital channels with content that was created entirely by kids aged 8 to 17, helping the brand stand out from the crowd. Office Depot drew rave reviews for its mobile campaign, which used Pokémon Go-like AR technology to target back-to-schoolers with an integrated image recognition feature built into its shopping app.

“To get kids to download the app, Office Depot created an interactive in-store display that essentially let you pose for a short video with alternative rock band, then share it on social media. The AR experience was built on HP’s Aurasma technology which has also been utilised by the likes of Disney, Argos, Budweiser and Best Western.”

These are just a few examples of brands that have broken through the noise of the back-to-school shopping season by creating unique experiences that capture the attention of mobile users.

School’s out

Unlocking the back-to-school opportunity means mobile marketers and brands must draw data from across the consumer’s various channels and touchpoints and create compelling advertisements and calls to action that are personalized to the individual user’s journey, from discovery through purchase, online and off.

Once that’s understood, it’s just a matter of studying your monetization tool chest to find the right combination of compelling mobile experiences—rewarded video, social experiences, RTB vs. traditional ad buys, etc.—that will make the grade with shoppers this back-to-school season.

Lewis Leong is AppLovin's Content Marketing Manager.

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