Engaging the 2012 Back-to-School Shopper

Although students aren’t yet thinking about back-to-school, marketers are.  Performance marketing budgets are being set for the peak back-to-school months of July, August and September.  To give retailers an idea of this year’s opportunity, we looked back at 2011 back-to-school paid search data for our aggregate group of retailer clients.  We also considered some key differences between the 2011 and 2012 back-to-school shopper to devise some fresh 2012 engagement strategies.


During the back-to-school season last year (Q3), we saw that:

  • Q3 2011 clicks were up 28 percent over Q2 2011
  • Paid search spend (and consequently, CPCs) peaked in August
  • But September was the biggest month, by far, for back-to-school sales.  Despite advertisers spending 12 percent less in September than in August, September sales were up 36 percent from August.
  • Click-through rates, conversion rates and average order size also peaked in September

This year, 46 percent of shoppers plan to spend more on back-to-school than in 2011 (PriceGrabber).  PriceGrabber also found that 17 percent plan to start their back-to-school shopping in June, 35 percent in July, 44 percent in August, and 3 percent in September.
Although the majority of students will start shopping in August, our data shows that they’re more likely to buy in September.  We think this is because many students compare options and explore new trends in the summer, but don’t actually purchase until they see, back in class, what their fellow students have purchased.  With this in mind, advertisers should:

  • Support Research in the Summer: But keep in mind that—while shoppers may fill their carts—they may not buy until September
  • Save Budget for September: Consider increasing September paid search budget, where we’ve seen very efficient campaigns—high click-through, conversions and average order size with lower CPCs (due to less competition in September)
  • Retarget!  Consider running display ads reminding shoppers that they’ve filled their carts, but haven’t purchased.  Test the new Facebook Ad Exchange to retarget your shoppers on their Facebook pages. 


The 2012 back-to-school shopper is quite different from 2011.  For instance:

  • She’s more likely to own a tablet
  • She’s more likely to shop on a smartphone, and even use it in-store
  • She’s on Pinterest pinning the hottest styles and getting recommendations from friends
  • Maybe she’s even on Google+
  • She’s a savvier deal-seeker, looking for flash sales, coupons and other discounts via comparative shopping engines

Because of these differences, engaging the 2012 back-to-school shopper requires fresh strategies:


NRF found that 39.6 percent of college shoppers and 30.2 percent of grade-school shoppers planned on using their tablets to purchase back-to-school products in 2011.  But since July 2011, tablets have exploded.  For Performics’ clients, tablet paid search clicks are up 332 percent from July 2011 to May 2012.  Overall mobile paid search clicks (tablets + smartphones) are up 423 percent over the same period.  It’s safe to say that your mobile strategy will be critical to 2012 back-to-school success:

  • Separately Target Tablets vs. Smartphones: Your back-to-shopper may search on his tablet after seeing your commercial at night on the couch; or she may search for your store location on-the-go on her smartphone.  These different customers require different messages.
  • In-Store: Keep in mind that smartphones are always on, especially in your store.  Multiply paid search bids for users who are located close to, or in, your stores.  Additionally, multiply bids for users close to, or in, your competitors’ stores (they may be searching for products you sell while in competitors’ stores).
  • Facebook Mobile Targeting: In June 2012, Facebook enabled advertisers to separately target desktop vs. mobile devices.  In early testing, Performics found that users engaged more with Facebook Offer Ads on mobile than on desktop; retailers see more offers claimed, higher click-through rates and lower CPCs on mobile.


Pinterest is the best way for back-to-schoolers to see what all the cool kids like.  Back-to-schoolers can also pin your products and share with friends.  Pinterest encourages deep participation and evangelism that could result in back-to-school traffic and sales for your brand.  Best practices include:

  • Claim Your Pinterest Account
  • Implement the “Pin It” Button:  Put it on all your product pages to enable easy pinning.  If you need to implement your “Pin It” buttons fast and have technical constraints, do it via SEO proxy technology.
  • Get People Pinning In-Store: Encourage mobile-savvy back-to-schoolers to snap pictures of your products and pin them.  Add “Pin This” tags to physical products.
  • Create Style Boards: Perfect for your back-to-school collection (similar to a catalog experience).  Inspire shareable ideas on your boards.


Although Google+ isn’t as hot as Pinterest, Google is giving it high visibility on the search engine results page (SERP) in hopes of boosting Google+ usage.  The opportunity for advertises is to dominate the SERP and convey three targeted messages at once for brand queries. Consider the below example for men’s clothing retailer MR PORTER:

  1. Paid Ad: Promoting 70 percent off summer sale with sitelinks
  2. Organic Listing: Evergreen messaging around the site’s positioning
  3. Google+: Real-time Google+ posting promoting a slipper sale; perfect for daily deals for back-to-school

B2S Porter

Comparison Shopping/Rewards

According to NRF, 31 percent of back-to-school shoppers compensated for the weak 2011 economy by doing more online comparative shopping.  This is likely to continue in 2012; and, this year, advertisers have more robust opportunities to engage comparative shoppers and deal-seekers:

  • Google Shopping:  Google’s new Google Shopping experience—which replaces Google’s old Product Listing Ads and Google Product Search—enables advertisers to create highly prominent product ads via feeds.  The new Google Shopping ads have larger images, integrated offers (i.e. 30 percent off), trusted store badges, product attributes and reviews.  Most importantly, Google Shopping ads appear on the top of the SERP, catching the eye of back-to-school shoppers.  Google Shopping is also available via mobile app:

    B2S Shopping

  • Google Offers: Google Offers beta—which is similar to Groupon and LivingSocial—provides searchers with daily deals and coupons.  If available in your locale, Offers can be integrated into top-sponsored paid search ads, as seen below:

    B2S Offers

    Back-to-school searchers are able to redeem their offers by entering promo codes online, printing in-store coupons or showing their mobile devices to cashiers to scan the offers’ barcodes.

  • Shopkick: Back-to-schoolers also want to earn rewards while they shop.   Shopkick users visit your physical stores, check in with the app or scan barcodes and then receive rewards (called Kickbucks).  Consider partnering with shopkick this season to boost in-store traffic. 

This year’s back-to-school shoppers are savvier than ever.  Keep up with them on mobile, tablets, Pinterest, Google+ and comparison shopping engines.  Remember that they’ll explore all their options before buying, even if they wait to check-out until September.

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