The 2020 Back to School shopping season brings new opportunities – and challenges – for advertisers

Akvile DeFazio
August 5th, 2020
Akvile DeFazio

Like every other facet of our daily lives, the 2020 back-to-school shopping season is going to see a major impact from the pandemic. Parents are experiencing extraordinary levels of uncertainty when it comes to the upcoming school year – with questions around everything from when schools will officially start to how students will be taught.

“Most parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer in the dining room, or a combination of the two,” said National Retail Federation (NRF) President and CEO Matthew Shaw.

As school opening dates are being pushed back – and virtual learning programs are being introduced across the country – the “usual” school supply list is shifting, and with it the amount of money parents expect to spend in preparation for this year’s back-to-school season.

Back-to-School sales to cross the $100 Billion mark

The NRF predicts 2020 will be the first year combined back to school sales for K-12 and college will exceed $100 billion. Based on the organization’s recent survey of 7,481 consumers, this year’s back-to-school shopping season is expected to bring in $101.6 billion, $20 billion more than the $80.7 billion generated last year.

An overwhelming majority (88%) of the NRF’s survey participants said the coronavirus will affect their back-to-school shopping plans, with 43% more parents planning to shop online this year. This means more parents searching for deals and browsing school supplies from their mobile devices and desktops – giving Facebook and Instagram advertisers new opportunities to grab a larger share of back-to-school revenue.

But the shifts taking place during this year’s back-to-school shopping season also come with their own set of challenges for advertisers – from knowing which products to promote across Facebook and Instagram to choosing the right ad formats for products with varying price points. If you are a brand looking to win back-to-school sales, now is the time to launch your Facebook and Instagram campaigns as parents and students prepare for the school year.

Testing is the first step to high performing ads

Because this year’s back-to-school season involves so much disruption – from the way parents and students shop to the supplies they are buying – advertisers should make testing a priority across their Facebook and Instagram campaigns. When launching a campaign, try out various formats, from single image and video ads to Carousel and Collection Ads.

For brands that have a limited number of products, test single creatives and Carousel Ads to showcase more variety. If your brand has a more robust line of products – or a product catalog – there’s a good chance you’ll experience stronger results using Collection Ads (an ad format that includes a primary image or video with four smaller accompanying images below it).

Testing your Call-to-Action (CTAs) copy is another way to improve performance. For prospecting campaigns, test both “Learn More” and “Shop Now” buttons. If you are running a retargeting campaign for less expensive items, a “Shop Now” CTA would be ideal. For higher priced products – laptops, tablets or office furniture – a “Learn More” CTA that leads to a product landing page on your website would likely deliver higher engagement rates.

In addition to testing ad formats and CTAs, advertisers should also test campaign objectives. If your product comes at a higher price point, consider testing a website traffic campaign objective, especially for new – or colder – prospects. (When promoting high-priced items, it’s a lot easier to get audiences to visit your site versus asking them to open their wallets immediately via a conversion campaign, which would cost more in ad spend and likely be less effective.)

For your warmer audiences, test conversion and catalog sales campaigns by retargeting prospects who have not yet made a purchase. If you have a list of customers who purchased products during the previous school year, retarget those users, but include an additional targeting layer for parents with children in specific age ranges. For example, if you have a list from last year of parents of preschoolers, these parents would now be parents of early school-age children – an audience whose back-to-school needs likely include a longer list of supplies.

Make sure CTAs align with your audience

For brands targeting a younger demographic, remember to speak their language, using slang and emojis when applicable (and on-brand). When targeting parents, brand messaging should be more direct and based on the value proposition – how will your product help their child complete homework or perform better in a virtual learning environment?

Give your campaigns the gift of video

Video ads convert at a higher rate and are an especially powerful tool for marketing to younger demographics. Facebook’s free built-in Video Creation Kit makes it easy for all advertisers to create professional video ads that can run across Facebook and Instagram. By adding subtle motions and effects available within the Video Creation Kit, brands are more likely to capture the attention of younger audiences.

Our agency has seen noticeable results in recent months with the video ad campaigns we’ve managed across Instagram – especially Instagram Stories Ads. Based on AKvertise’s data, Instagram Stories video ads are more likely to outperform any other Facebook and Instagram ad placement and promotional content. If you have a back-to-school product that is geared toward a teenage audience – think electronic devices, dorm room decorations, or at-home desk supplies – Instagram Stories Ads should be part of your ad placement mix.

Don’t base targeting tactics on preconceived notions

For certain product promotions, advertisers may be tempted to divide their target audiences across Instagram and Facebook, focusing Instagram ads on a younger audience and leaving ads targeting parents on Facebook. But such assumptions could result in a sizable amount of money left on the table.

Testing each audience segment on both platforms is the only way to know whether or not you should be running ads for both groups across Instagram and Facebook. Yes, we typically see younger demographics perform better on Instagram, but until you have gathered enough data to see the potential of a campaign – or lack thereof – your back-to-school ads should target parents and students alike.

The word “unprecedented” has been used a record number of times this year, but there is no better way to define 2020. According to the NRF’s survey, 55% of the shoppers it polled said they expect their K-12 and college students to have, at least, some if not all of their classes conducted at home this school year. A virtual learning environment means a whole new list of necessary school supplies: Computers, home furnishings and other necessities to accommodate an “at home” classroom for one. For those returning to in-person classes, masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies are likely at the top of every teacher’s supply list.

To meet the evolving needs of this year’s back-to-school shopping season, advertisers will have to continually optimize their Facebook and Instagram campaigns – giving consumers a seamless path to the products that can help them prepare for a school year unlike any other.


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