New Lesson Plan: 7 Digital Marketing Trends for Back-to-School Season 2020

Eva Maria Schmidt
September 15, 2020

Virtual classes only? Part-time remote learning, interspersed with on-campus courses in small cohorts? Whatever approach education providers across the globe may choose, one thing is already clear: Back-to-School (BTS) is not going to be business as usual this year.

But in a year full of surprises, BTS 2020 is also expected to bring in more business than usual: Total back-to-school spending will reach $101.6 billion this year, a sharp 25.9 percent increase from $80.7 billion in 2019. Average spend per child has increased across the world, reaching £191 in the UK ($249) this BTS season.

The main driver behind increased spending is clear: technology! As schools ramp up their share of online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, more students require tablets and laptops to participate. In recent surveys, 28 percent of parents planned to spend more on computers, laptops, and tech accessories. To supplement school curricula, 51 percent will also invest in virtual learning tools, while non-computer items such as desks, shelves, and room dividers are trending as well.

In light of these shifting consumer patterns, marketers can no longer rely on previous rulebooks for BTS 2020. Most notably, the share of online purchases has increased by six percent over last year to reach 55 percent, as consumers increasingly avoid public spaces. The old “get discount coupon, redeem in store for savings” approach is on the way out. What’s coming in is a new breed of value-adding marketing, including backpack maker JanSport’s ‘Lighten the Load’ campaign focused on mental health improvements for students dealing with a new reality.

To help digital marketers deal with the new reality, and avoid being late for class, here are 7 Digital Marketing Trends for Back-to-School Season 2020:

1. Shift to online, but not only mobile

Consumers intend to spend $10.4 billion online this back-to-school season, but after weeks of lockdown measures, device use is shifting: 64 percent plan to use a laptop/computer to make their purchase (up from 42 percent in 2019), while smartphone purchases are down to 46 percent (from 60 percent). Marketers best adjust their digital marketing strategies accordingly. Here’s a quick cheat: Browser push notifications boast subscription rates of up to 15 percent, compared to just two percent for email marketing. Go get that opt-in!

2. Trust and safety first

As BTS purchases shift online – and the global pandemic sparks an increase in cyber fraud – data privacy is an important differentiator for companies. A strong 52 percent of BTS shoppers voiced concerns about shopping at retailers that experienced consumer data breaches. Make sure to fortify your tech stack with best-in-class solutions engineered for data safety. And also read our primer on Data Privacy for Digital Marketers: The Roadmap for 2020 and Beyond.

3. Deals and personalized offers

Despite all the disruption, one BTS lesson remains unchanged: BTS shoppers still enjoy scoring a great deal! Price remains the main driver for 85 percent of consumers this season. As a rule of thumb, percent-based discounts (e.g. 50% off) work best for items under $100, while amount-based discounts ($30 off) prove effective above $100. Plus, deals perform especially well in a gamified format, like Staples’ interactive backpack puzzler. Deals also soar in combination with personalized product recommendations generated by marketing-specific AI like the Marigold Recommendations engine.

4. New (and old) formats

While shopping on laptops is making a surprise comeback, consumers embrace new formats: Up to 15 percent of BTS shoppers plan to use voice assistants or cashier-less stores this season. Marketers may also want to keep an eye on the perfect intersection of educational content and advertising: podcasts! The medium will attract more than $782 million in advertising budgets, or 20 percent of digital radio ad spending this year, and cross the $1 billion threshold in 2021. Meanwhile, email is far from an old hat and offers deep hooks into consumers’ purchasing journeys: Those who receive email marketing have been proven to spend 138 percent more with companies than consumers who don’t. So get that BTS list together!

5. Segmentation and personalization

The target group for BTS marketing used to be straightforward: Talk to the parents, who sign off on most purchases, especially large tech spending. But as the world turns, 69 percent of children now exert a moderate-to-high influence over computer purchases, up from 54 percent in 2019. This calls for a segmented approach to reach different age groups, using customer profile data to provide personalized customer journeys based on online behaviors and interests.

6. Omnichannel and click-and-collect

The majority of customers are looking to stock up for BTS via e-commerce channels. But research reveals that 20 percent remain undecided about the format of their spending, which represents $5.5 billion in untapped sales opportunity. Companies that can offer omnichannel journeys while connecting online and offline touchpoints are at a clear advantage. Especially those who offer buy online, pick-up in-store options, which 26 percent of BTS shoppers plan to use this year.

7. Don’t be late for class!

Here’s some good news: You can still enroll for BTS season! In previous years, more than 66 percent of shoppers would already start their back-to-school shopping before August (usually on Amazon Prime Day, July 15). But amid ongoing uncertainty, only 17 percent of consumers had finished their shopping by July 2020, while 90 percent had yet to receive their list of school supplies. So for marketers, there’s still room to inspire and join the conversation, even as school gets back in session – in whatever mode or format – this fall.

With that said, there is no fixed curriculum for this edition of BTS. But for marketers with access to real-time customer data and omnichannel engagement tools, back-to-school 2020 offers lots of opportunity to learn about the best ways to keep your audiences engaged in the new reality.