Your 2024 Back-to-School Campaign Planning: Too Soon? Nope

back-to-school stack of books feature

The back-to-school shopping rush is hectic for retailers, ranking just behind the holiday season on the marketing calendar. But now that kids in grades K-12 have returned to class and college students are heading back to campus, it’s time to start planning your back-to-school 2024 marketing campaign.

Too soon? Not if you want to make the most of a huge opportunity. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend a record $41.5 billion on back-to-school items for K-12 students this year, and back-to-college spending is projected to reach $94 billion. Spending will likely increase next year too because back-to-school shopping is a major priority for families, even in uncertain times.

For your marketing team to get a larger piece of that growing pie, you need to start thinking about next year’s back-to-school strategy now. The audience, product mix and media channels are complex, and it takes time to plan, test and execute a campaign that will deliver the maximum return for your marketing spend. Here’s a closer look at what that means and why an early start is critical.

Challenge #1: Highly Segmented Audiences, A Massive Range of Products

Traditional back-to-school shopping ads typically feature parents and K-12 kids buying school supplies like notebooks, pencils and lunchboxes. But the back-to-school market is much more complicated than that. At least five distinct audience segments are involved: parents, students, college students, grandparents and teachers. Each segment deserves marketing attention because the outlay is significant.

For example, teachers can deduct $300 from their taxes for out-of-pocket spending on school supplies, but a Marketplace report says they spend more than $820 per year. Grandparents often get in on the back-to-school shopping adventure too, either by helping parents purchase supplies or making clothing purchases.

Students of all ages need to prepare for a new school year, so the product mix that can be successfully marketed is massive. It can include everything from crayons and safety scissors for younger children to furniture and linens for college students’ dorm rooms. And of course, everyone will need a new backpack.

Back-to-school campaigns can also include services and items that people don’t typically think of as school supplies, such as eye exams, glasses or haircuts, so you may need to expand your campaign. The bottom line? Back-to-school audiences are highly segmented and the array of products is enormous. As a marketer, you’ll need time to get your arms around that, so starting early is smart.

Challenge #2: A Fast-Evolving Media Market and Digital Channels

Also keep in mind that the media environment is evolving quickly, and different audience segments respond better to specific media channels. This complicates back-to-school marketing. But if you plan in advance, you can get ahead of the curve, whether you intend to develop TV spots, run social media campaigns on channels like TikTok or Instagram — or both.

The TV ad market is highly fragmented. Over the last couple years, streaming channels delivered via over the top (OTT) devices and Connected TV (CTV) have overtaken cable and broadcast as a share of total TV consumption. CTV complicates the playing field for advertisers, but it also enables more precise targeting, which is what marketers who are trying to reach highly segmented audiences need. That’s why more marketers are considering CTV. You can leverage it for next year’s back-to-school campaigns if you secure it early; spots are more expensive if you wait.

Effectively reaching students on their preferred digital channels takes advance planning too. Influencer ads on channels like TikTok or YouTube can be an effective way to reach students. The authenticity influencers bring to the table is especially appealing to younger consumers. But it takes time to lock down talent – another reason to start planning now.

Challenge #3: Creative on a Schedule and the Need to Stay Nimble

It’s not just younger consumers who respond to authenticity. Some of the best back-to-school ads recently broke through the clutter with positive, inclusive messages for kids, like Gap’s “Everyone Belongs” campaign. Amazon’s “Spend Less On Your Kids” ad from this year was another standout, using humor to appeal to parents and grandparents in a way that makes them feel good about saving money. That’s important because school spending, unlike holiday spending, isn’t discretionary.

Keep in mind that early shoppers tend to be bargain hunters looking for savings opportunities like BOGO deals. But some might wait for local back-to-school tax breaks to kick in, so be aware of that timeline as well. Keep an eye on competitor ads. In an inflationary environment, people will shop around, so conveying a sense of urgency can drive sales.

Amazon, in particular, has firmly established the expectation of free shipping, so you’ll need to address that in your messaging too. If you can’t offer free shipping all the time, letting customers know they don’t have to pay for shipping for orders above a threshold helps. Planning ahead can help you develop creative that addresses all the complexity to its fullest potential. This gives you ample time to test messaging across different platforms to see what resonates.

If you wait until next year to start planning your back-to-school campaign, the time needed to develop creative and address these points will limit your options. So, start early, and above all, stay nimble. Remember that early this summer, back-to-school marketers had no idea that the smash hit movie Barbie would blow up demand for pink items. Marketers with solid campaign plans had more time to pivot than peers playing catchup, so start planning now.

Karla Crawford Kerr is VP of marketing at Hawthorne Advertising