When I was in 8th grade a few of my friends started using this new thing on the computer called the “internet” and online shopping wasn't even a concept yet. By mid-summer I’d start to see commercials for Starter Jackets, Trapper Keepers and Reebok Pumps while I watched TV shows like The Fresh Prince and Saved by the Bell. I’d see countless pages of clothing ads in Seventeen magazine and hear catchy jingles from local retailers while waiting for the next song on Casey Kasem’s Top 40. My parents usually discovered back-to-school deals through the Sunday newspaper circular. I remember my dad handing my mom the circular on Sunday morning saying, “Maria – there are some good deals on sneakers over at Foot Locker this weekend.”

So much has changed since then. Thanks to my DVR, I haven’t watched a commercial on TV for what feels like years (although I do catch the occasional funny commercial on YouTube). Thanks to my iPod and Pandora, I rarely listen to the radio anymore. The only newspaper I read is the one I get for free on the subway in the morning. Even my parents media consumption and shopping habits have changed. They stopped subscribing to the newspaper when I was in college and my frugal father loves finding coupons on “The Google.” Now he says “Maria – before you go to the mall let’s search on ‘The Google’ to see if we can find a good deal.”

This all reflects the fact that people’s shopping habits – across generations - have fundamentally changed. Now people take the initiative to look for the goods and services they want instead of relying on marketers to feed them information. If retailers and manufactures aren’t providing information when consumers want it, then their brand will likely fall out of the buyer's consideration set.

So this back-to-school season, don’t fall out of consideration! Here are 4 things to take into account when thinking about your back-to-school marketing plans:

1. Shopping Starts Early
Like many kids across the country today, in early June I’d be daydreaming about summer vacation and cheerfully singing along to Alice Cooper’s classic anthem “School’s Out” with my friends. However, today retailers should be humming a different tune. Back-to-school season is only a few weeks away. Yes, you read that correctly – weeks. If you look at search query trends on Google.com, terms like “school supplies” and “back to school” begin to rise in late June and continue through late September (See Graph). Retailers should be prepared to respond to this rise is consumer demand immediately in an effort to capture as much share of the back to school market as possible.

2. Tailor Campaigns to Moms AND Kids
Growing up, my mom was the primary back to school purchaser for me and my brother and today moms continue to be the gatekeeper for purchases related to their kids. We’ve found that moms are doing their homework when it comes to shopping:
  • 82% of moms go online prior to any purchase [1]
  • 57% of moms research online before purchasing in stores. [2]
Although my mom had final say on what we could buy, my brother and I had a lot of input into the brands and products that we eventually purchased. And today, kids have so many more brands to choose from that it is important that retailers not forget this influential target audience. A study from the NRF & BIGResearch found that 89% of moms say that their child directly influences their Back-to-School spend to a degree [3]. Additionally, about 50% of teens say online searches have an “extreme impact” on their purchase decisions [4]. If I had Google.com when I was 12 years old, I bet I would have found a way to convince my parents to buy me a pair of Reebok Pumps.

Retailers should adopt a two-pronged online marketing strategy to reach both audiences. For example, let’s say you sell sneakers. Increase brand preference among tweens & teens with targeted messages on sites where they spend a lot of time like Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace. Reach influencers with display ads on niche sites that review the latest sneaker trends (there over 50 in the Google Content Network right now!). Support these campaigns with tailored search ads to direct them when they seeking more information about your shoes. Reach moms who are ready to spend money and are searching on terms like “sneakers”, “sneaker deals”, or on your branded terms because their son or daughter can’t stop raving about your sneakers.

3. Bargain Hunting
Though my formative years were spent without the shadow of a major recession hanging over us, my father, the frugal fellow that he is, wisely treated every shopping expedition as if we were on the brink of entering the next Great Depression. To some people saving money is a sport, and with all the new technology available today, we are on a whole new playing field.

A recent Google study found that 53% of people spend more time online searching for the latest promotions and discounts [5] and 40% are very likely to use coupons accessed online [6]. Even younger folks are using coupons. 51% of college students are coupon clippers who are very likely to use coupons accessed online [7]. Search query trends also support this data. Queries for the term “coupons” on Google.com significantly increased during the 2008 holiday season and this trend continued into 2009. Since search query trends are an indicator of consumer demand, we can see that people are increasingly turning to Google.com as a resource for shopping.

Knowing that value is important to consumers and that people are searching for the best deals, retailers must optimize their search campaigns to ensure potential shoppers are aware of their back-to-school promotions.

4. Don’t Be Invisible: Manage Your Virtual Storefront
My mom and I usually went to the mall for back-to-school shopping. We always knew what we needed: clothes, shoes, school supplies, backpacks, etc. However, often times we didn’t have specific brands in mind so we would browse the stores to see what was available. Now that most retailers have a virtual store, browsing has translated online and the search engine is the equivalent of a mall. People search for products like “jeans” or “computers” and the organic and paid search results are similar to the storefronts you might see in your local mall. Your text ad is your storefront message (ie “Back-to-School Sale”) and your landing page is your in-store experience.

The virtual mall also gives manufacturers an advantage they have never had before. At your local mall, manufactures usually don’t have a storefront. Instead they rely on retailers to showcase their brand in a prominent position within the store. With search results, manufactures have their own storefront and the ability influence consumers who are browsing for a product they sell.

Queries for common back to school products such as “backpacks” or “kid’s sneakers” begin to rise in late June and spike through late September. These searchers are doing the same thing my mom and I did in the mall all those years ago, only they are doing it from the comfort of their home or office. If you sell backpacks and you aren’t on that search result page, it is equivalent to not having a store in the mall. Consumers won't find you and they will end up shopping elsewhere.

[1] Thinking about your upcoming holiday shopping, in which of the following ways do you think you'll approach your Holiday Shopping? Select all that apply. N=2,593. October 2008 OTX/Google Holiday Shopping Intentions Study.
[2] “Back-to-school shopping moves online,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 25, 2008
[3] National Retail Federation 2008 Back To School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch.
[4] Performics and ROI Research, as cited in “Tweens Search for Products Online, Get Parents to Buy Them in Store,” MediaPost, August 8, 2008
[5] Google Touchpoints Consumer Survey, N=8,675, January 2009
[6] Platform-A and IRI study as cited in “Young Coupon Clippers Looking Online,” Research Brief, April 10, 2009
[7] Platform-A and IRI study as cited in “Young Coupon Clippers Looking Online,” Research Brief, April 10, 2009