Tips for a Successful Back to School Email Marketing Strategy

With the start of a new school year right around the corner, back to school season is already underway for most marketers who are hoping to capture some market share of this second largest seasonal shopping period of the year. Although the total spend for the 2015 holiday shopping period was down compared to the previous year, things are looking up for the back to school season. According to new projections from eMarketer, “in the core back-to-school months of July and August, US retail sales will increase 2.6 percent, up from 1.6 percent growth in 2015” and “the season will represent 17.2 percent of full-year retail sales.”

So whether you’re looking to fine tune your back to school strategy or still need to come up with additional ideas, looking at tactics that worked well in the past for other brands can help you optimize your program for increased engagement and ROI.

Dick’s Sporting Goods
Using data from Return Path’s Consumer Network, we can see that during last year’s back to school season Dick’s Sporting Goods sent over 23 back to school campaigns. The majority of these campaigns were sent during August with the highest concentration deployed the week of August 3rd.

Dick’s Sporting Good’s best performing back to school email, in terms of engagement metrics, was sent on August 8 with the subject line “Just for You: Back-to-School Youth Nike Gear & More” and had close to a +24 percent higher read rate than their other messages in this category. The email used past subscriber behavior, such as browse or purchase history, to customize the content of the message with products which would specifically appeal to that individual customer (area of message shown in black). The subject line also used the phrase “just for you”, which helped give the message a sense of exclusivity, and the preheader statement clearly called out a free shipping offer, which is something that is usually top of mind for most online shoppers.


The Gap sent 19 back to school campaigns during last year’s back to school season. Similar to Dick’s Sporting Goods, they sent the majority of their emails during August, sending the most volume the week of July 27, one week prior to Dick’s Sporting Good’s highest volume week.


One campaign sent during the week of July 27, which had the highest engagement rate for all Gap back to school emails, focused on a compelling 50 percent off discount. The message, which had about a 40 percent higher read rate than Gap’s other back to school messages, used the subject line “Best Customers: Major back to school savings—50% off kids styles” and was just one of three back to school emails to include a promotional discount within the subject line. This tactic, along with the phrase “best customers”, seems to have worked well at piquing subscribers’ interest and response. Additionally, the message used vibrant colors and eye-catching lifestyle imagery to highlight the products and encourage readers to scroll through the entire message. Gap also used this email to target and collect data on an additional segment through its additional promotional offer valid for all teachers.



Out of the three brands, Staples sent the fewest back to school campaigns during last year’s back to school season. In total, they deployed five campaigns, all sent during July with the highest volume during the last week of the month—also the highest volume week for the Gap.


Staples saw the highest engagement from their back to school email sent on July 30. This campaign, with the subject line “Hurry, teachers get 40% back in rewards!”, had over a 90 percent higher read rate than Staple’s other back to school campaigns, which is likely due to the fact that this email was specifically targeted to teachers and included a strong promotional offer. The creative also included eye-catching product images and skimmable content with multiple call-to-action buttons, which are all effective ways to increase subscriber response. 


Based on these findings, as well as results from some back to school marketing studies, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when crafting your next back to school focused email:

  • Offer compelling discounts. As we saw from the Gap and Staples examples, providing back to school shoppers with special promotions and discounts can help increase engagement and conversion.  Additionally, offering free shipping on all orders can give you a leg up on the competition since “half (48 percent) of BTS (==back to school) shoppers would like to see greater availability of free shipping for online purchases,” according to recent research from Mintel.
  • Take advantage of last minute shoppers. Both Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Gap sent back to school campaigns right up until the end of August, which is a smart tactic considering findings from the National Retail Federation show that “30% of back-to-school shoppers will wait until one or two weeks before school to start shopping.” In addition to getting extra revenue from shoppers that may have already purchased from you, segment out non-shoppers and target them with specific subject lines and deals focused on last minute shopping.
  • Expand your audience base. Besides targeting parents and students, don’t forget about teachers who, according to a survey from SheerID and Agile Education Marketing, will spend close to $500 of their own money purchasing back to school supplies for their classrooms. To capitalize on this segment, create standalone campaigns specifically segmented to teachers similar to the successful approach applied by Staples.
  • Stand out in the inbox. As you’re perfecting your back to school campaigns, as well as coming up with ongoing email strategies, Return Path’s Inbox Insight tool, which is powered by our consumer network consisting of two million consumer inboxes, can help give you a strong advantage over your competitors. Inbox Insight data uncovers the ways your customers are engaging with your competitors’ emails, giving you powerful insights to help optimize your email program and stand out from the competition.

So, as back to school season comes into full swing, be sure to put your best foot forward with an A+ email strategy by incorporating these helpful tips. Additionally, even if you’re not technically a brand that is top of mind for back to school shopping items, get creative by incorporating a back to school theme into your messages as this is likely top of mind for many of your subscribers and a great way to bring even more relevancy to your emails.


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