High school jacket with backpack and email envelopes

Back-to-School Email Marketing Strategy That Gets an A+

Whether you’re marketing to parents, students, or teachers, the back-to-school season is a rite of passage every August. There are brand new pencils to sharpen and fresh notebooks to fill. “Lucky” sports gear for tryouts to clinch your spot. And of course, fresh ‘fits that impress during homeroom.

Now is when buyers aren’t just shopping, they’re buying - and they have a deadline. Americans spent a total of $110.8 billion in 2022, averaging out to around $661 per K-12 child, according to CapitalOne. Parents expect spending to rise up to 15.7% in 2023. Spending for back-to-college is even higher and could hit a record this year. According to the National Retail Federation, shoppers start browsing as early as July, scouting out the best deals.

If you work for one of the many brands delivering those deals and more to inboxes, here’s how to ace your back-to-school email marketing campaigns:

The psychology of back-to-school email marketing

Before you get started on back-to-school email campaigns, do a gut check with your audience.

Were you the type of kid bouncing-off-the-walls excited to get back to school in September? Or did you dread the end of summer freedom?

Chances are, your audience has mixed feelings, too. There are a lot of emotions connected to the new school year. See if you can get into your subscribers' minds and understand what they're going through and what they hope to achieve heading into the upcoming academic year.

Some students can’t wait to see their friends and learn again. Others, not so much. Some kids worry about fitting in and others want to stand out as individuals.

Same with parents - they may be sad for another summer to be gone so quickly or excited to have alone time again (and of course, stressed about all the stuff they need to purchase, again.) College students may be excited and nervous about leaving home for the first time. And teachers and administrators are likely scrambling to make sure everything is ready in time for students to arrive.

As you think about your campaign strategy, ask yourself:

  • How can we make this back-to-school season easier on parents and teachers?
  • What ways can we encourage students to feel confident about the new year?
  • What kind of balance do we want to strike between “summer is over, boo” and “back to school, yay!” kind of messaging?

If you’re going to use back-to-school as a marketing hook, there needs to be a why. Make sure your messaging matches up with your brand’s values and vibe before sending anything out.

Writing back-to-school email subject lines

During back-to-school season, remember that your subscribers receive tons of emails every day from brands that all have the same goal. For yours to stand out, start with a great back-to-school email subject line.

1.   Emojis make it playful

Back-to-school can (and should) be fun. Choose to use emojis in your subject line that showcase school supplies, like the apple, pencil, or fall leaves. Try subject lines like these:

“🍎 A+ back-to-school essentials 🍎”

Sharpen those pencils ✏️ ”

Packed your bag for school yet? 🎒”

Of course, not every list of subscribers responds to emojis in subject lines. Make sure to test some options to see what performs best.

2.   Play up back-to-school FOMO

The first day of school is an important time in a kid’s memory - use that to your advantage with FOMO-inducing subject lines like these:

“Everyone’s wearing these cool back-to-school styles”

“LAST DAY to save 15% for back-to-school”

“Don’t miss out on this dorm room decor”

Two close cousins to the fear of missing out are a sense of urgency and scarcity. As time runs out and inventory runs low, try back-to-school subject lines that use these factors to encourage action.

3.   Make it fun with puns

Few seasons are as universal as back-to-school in the United States. Almost everyone knows what it's like. Whether your target audience is parents getting ready for the next school year with trepidation or adults nostalgic for Scholastic Book Fair, everyone will “get” your humor. Think about subject lines like:

“Best-in-class gadgets for tech-savvy students”

“Get the write school supplies”

“Gym-dandy shoes for the school year”

4. Straightforward savings

Because back-to-school shopping is getting pricier than ever (thanks inflation), there will be plenty of price-conscious people out there looking to save a few bucks. This probably goes without saying, but don't hesitate to highlight your back-to-school sale with discounts, promotions, and deals right in your subject lines.

"Inflation-busting back-to-school price cuts"

"Your first assignment: Save 20%"

"Shop smart with back-to-school discounts"

Don't forget to include preview text

If you can't quite squeeze in everything you want to say in your back-to-school subject line, take advantage of the preview/preheader text and optimize inbox display.

That extra space even allows you to combine a couple of these subject line strategies in one campaign. For example, use a pun and emoji in the subject line, and highlight your savings in the preview text. Using preheader text also helps boost open rates.

After you've convinced them to open your email and check out your back-to-school savings, try to write a creative call to action (CTA) that convinces them to use that coupon code and start shopping.

Extra back-to-school email marketing tips

Of course, subject lines are just the icing on the cake of a back-to-school email marketing strategy. Here are some other ideas to help you reach people and deliver effective messages.

1. Think outside the lunchbox

Even if you're in an industry that doesn't have an obvious connection to back-to-school shopping, there are still ways to use this time of year as a hook for email marketing campaigns. There's more to the new school year than clothings, supplies, and electronics. Consider some of these angles:

  • Health and wellness: Kids often need check-ups and physicals before heading back. Mental health is another important topic for students (and teachers).
  • Personal care: From stylish haircuts to clear skin to fresh breath - students want to look and feel good when they head back to class.
  • Transportation: Families are carpooling to and from school. Teens are getting driver's licenses and transporting themselves.
  • Communication: Parents, students, and teachers need solutions to help everyone stay connected and on track as schedules get hectic.
  • Personal safety: Back-to-school means back to germs too - as well as other safety concerns.
  • Grocery: From classroom snacks and bake sale fundraisers to bagged lunches, the school year is full of food.
  • Extracurricular needs: Student athletes need new gear for sports. But so do student musicians, aspiring artists, and more.
  • Personal finances: It's a good time to start thinking about saving for college.

2. Use abandoned cart emails

Parents have their hands full this time of year. Being so busy, it's easy to get distracted during online shopping, which means items of interest may get left in shopping carts before they're purchased.

Abandoned cart emails bring those shoppers back to your ecommerce website. Sometimes all they need is a reminder. Other times you may want to incentivize the purchase completion with a discount or free shipping.

Make sure other automated transactional emails are in good shape too. This type of email is an important part of the customer experience, and shoppers expect to get messages such as order confirmations and shipping updates that let them know everything will arrive in time for the first day of class. If possible, you could customize the copy or design of transactional emails for the back-to-school season.

3. Segment subscribers for back-to-school

Your email segmentation strategy can shift as students prepare to hop on the school bus once again. Yes, you could segment for parents vs students or teachers. But you could also use zero- and first-party data on your shoppers to segment and personalize back-to-school email campaigns in other ways.

For example, since different parts of the country start school as early as the end of July and as late as post Labor Day, you could segment your list by geography. That will help you send the right emails at the right time. You could also switch up the imagery and product recommendations in your emails based on where subscribers are located.

Purchase histories may also help with segmentation as they suggest who your customers are shopping for this time of year as well as what they're likely to be interested in purchasing.

4. Educate customer through the inbox

In the spirit of the season, consider a little less selling and a little more teaching in the inbox. Is your company creating back-to-school content you could be including in your campaigns? Reach out to the content marketers on your team and find out what they have planned.

Could you deliver a back-to-school themed email newsletter? What kinds of tips can you share with parents, students, or teachers? How about checklists, infographics, style guides, or even videos and webinars? Beyond the typical promotions, you can send valuable content this time of year to show customers and subscribers you care about them and their families.

5 back-to-school email examples

Ready for email marketing 201? Check out some recent back-to-school email campaigns that made the grade:

1.   Acknowledge the end-of-summer blues

Back to school blues email

Retailer Dudley Stevens does a great job of balancing the end-of-summer blues many people feel with the excitement of back-to-school season. This email is short and sweet, anchored by the copy, “Backpacks are replacing beach bags.” It also does a great job promoting a lesser-known category for the brand with bags instead of their iconic sweaters.

2.   Put yourself in your audience’s shoes

Care.com campaign example

Back-to-school brings up a lot of feelings, both for parents and kids. It’s a challenging transition, especially for working parents juggling after-school daycare, extracurriculars, or new routines. This message from Care.com, an online babysitting platform, offers a solution, with an email design that’s pleasing to the eye and easily scannable.

3.   Study up on schoolyard vibes

ATOMS shoes campaign design

Back-to-school works for adults, too. But unless you’re a kiddie brand, it can be difficult to evoke that back-to-school feeling visually without violating your brand guidelines (and looking like a 5-year-old’s birthday party gone wrong.) This email from sneaker brand Atoms does a great job with their subtle, chalkboard-inspired background for this email.

4.   Try flat lay photography

Stylish email with school supplies

Visually evoking that new-notebook, new-pencil feeling in your emails is another way to get your audience excited about shopping for school. This email from designer Gray Malin gives kids a chance to visualize what their back-to-school supplies look like on their desk (and does a great job of acknowledging the end of summer, too.) Check out some other cool email graphic design trends.

5.   Use school days nostalgia

Nostalgic school clothing email

Kiel James Patrick, a preppy New England brand, leans into the nostalgia on this back-to-school email promoting their kid sweaters and dresses. Pull the heartstrings of parents thinking back on their own field trips and show-and-tell days to encourage them to shop.

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