6 Lessons for Successful Back to School Retail Campaigns

According to the National Retail Foundation, consumers are projected to spend $83.6 billion on school expenses in 2017, representing a more than 10 percent increase from last year and the second highest projection since 2012. Marketers follow suit, having invested $251 million in back-to-school advertising in 2016.

To better understand what drives marketing engagement around this prominent promotional period, Persado’s linguistic experts and data science team analyzed 540 AI-crafted email subject lines used by five retail brands for email campaigns spanning three years, 2015 – 2017 (June 1 – September 30; through July 31 in 2017.)

The following represents key lessons in back-to-school email performance and illuminates key learnings for brands heading into their 2017 campaigns.

Lesson No. 1: Back to School Is an Emotional Experience

In isolating the performance of different types of language used during the back to school promotional period, we discovered that the descriptive language category, in which back to school-related words and phrases frequently fall, did not perform nearly as well as emotional language. Emotional language, on the other hand, contributed approximately 64.17% to performance on average across all the campaigns while descriptive language contributed to a mere 19.05%. In other words, appealing to audiences with emotional language is more important for driving responses than descriptions of the time of year, the offer, or back to school products. For example:

Descriptive Language = describes the product or offer

e.g. “BOGO Backpack Special” or “limited edition black patent Mary Janes”

Emotional Language = evokes feelings that trigger action

e.g. “awesome unleashed” or “now’s your chance”

Lesson No. 2: Back to School Puns Might Get You an F

Typically, subject lines that incorporate wordplay or puns — “We’ve got your back…pack” — around a shopping event’s theme do not contribute to email marketing performance as significantly as personal, straightforward, emotionally-charged language that serve to highlight the benefit of the product or offer for the customer.

For one campaign, a back-to-school pun was tested directly against the correct wording of the phrase—the difference in response was insignificant and contributed just 1.6% to overall performance of the subject line.

Lesson No. 3: The Early (Sending) Bird Can Get the Worm

Overall, there were no significant differences in average response rates between the months of June, July, August, and September, suggesting that early promotional campaigns can drive action as effectively as ones closer to the start of the school year. In fact, average response rates were slightly higher at the start of summer.

Average response rates from the 540 campaigns analyzed by month, over the three-year period were as follows:

June: 0.13463859%

July: 0.13185262%

August: 0.129354124%

September: 0.125634907%

Lesson No. 4: The Struggle Is Real! End-of-Summer Anxiety Sells

While it doesn’t make a discernable difference when brands should promote back-to-school, stressing summer’s end using anxiety-type words and phrases can grab audience attention. Understandably, given the focus on high grades and top scores in academia, phrases that convey achievement perform well too.

What doesn’t perform as well is challenge. Imagine your toes in the sand as you listen to the lap of waves while sipping a frozen cocktail. Would a line like “You can’t refuse this deal on school sweaters!” motivate you to face the coming fall season? (Yes, we can refuse, and do!). The best and worst performing emotions for back to school campaigns can be broken down as follows:

best performing emotions




worst performing emotions




Lesson No. 5: The Grown-Up Has the Credit Card, Not the Kid

Directing the message to the person buying the back-to-school items—the parent—tends to be more effective than relating the students. An effective tactic is to appeal directly to the purchasing customer with a sense of accomplishment or reward, and to speak to their desire to feel they are getting the best value.

Lesson No. 6: Emojis ¯\_()_/¯

Formatting, which includes the use of graphic elements like symbols and emojis, had some effect on customer engagement, with a 17% contribution to response rates in back-to-school campaigns. If it’s right for your brand, it’s never a bad a idea to test the use of emojis in your subject lines. The best performers from the past three years include:




No matter the time of year, whether Valentine’s Day or heading back to school, emotions are always in season when appealing to consumers. When used the right way, retailers can leverage emotion in their promotional campaigns to better drive action during any season.

Matthew Bower is the Director of Content for Persado. 

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