Back to School — Heading back or logging in, the new year starts here.”

Kohl’s direct mail piece, July 2020

The back-to-school shopping season — the year’s second biggest driver of retail activity — is normally a great opportunity for direct mail marketing. Because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, though, the new school year presents consumers with unique challenges besides the usual ones.

The biggest change from past years is that many students, teachers, and staff are beginning the year … not at school. Remote learning was an emergency measure that was instituted as lockdowns and shutdowns were ordered across much of the U.S. starting in March. Now, states and districts are opting for in-person, online, or hybrid instruction setups for at least the Fall 2020 term — depending on the severity of the outbreak in their location and the measures in place to deal with it.

It is a very uncertain time. However, the National Retail Federation (NRF) is forecasting that back-to-school spending for all education levels (K through college) will reach $101.6 billion this year, a new record.

Based on past examples, there are lots of ways to market your service or product in ways that satisfy a customer’s typical wants and needs as well as keep their kids (and others) safe in the “new normal” environment.

We’ve looked at this year’s back-to-school direct mail trends and have the following insights to share.

Keep Kids Connected

Technology is usually the second highest spending category for students up through 12th grade; it is the highest budget item for college students. With so many students in e-learning, laptops, headphones, printers, speakers, and other accessories are projected to dominate school spending this year for everyone.

Don’t forget about internet service! With other family members competing for bandwidth, telecom companies would be wise to offer alternatives or upgrades to their plans to account for the at-home learning environment. 

In this July 2020 mailing from Windstream, the image on the front panel shows a shopping list of school necessities that emphasizes the last item, fast internet. Inside, the copy highlights the dependability of the company’s service: “there’s one thing you can count on … the speed and reliability you need to support learning and working from home”.

kinetic back to school direct mail marketing trends

Keep Kids Healthy

After being at home — mostly — for a few months, any return to the school environment is a good time to review what you need to do to make sure your child is ready, physically and otherwise. This folded self-mailer was sent out by Orlando Health, a major healthcare system, in August 2020. It promotes getting a physical exam from pediatricians affiliated with the system’s plan. In a normal year, as well as one like this, a physical is a necessary step to participate in sports; certain vaccinations or tests are also required for school enrollment. 

Inside, the spread opens and reveals steps to help prepare the child for the new school year, such as ensuring that he or she starts their day with a nutritious breakfast for “increased energy and better concentration”. It also recommends talking with the child honestly about their feelings on returning to school.

orlando health back to school direct mail marketing trends

Keep Kids Learning

Even under the best circumstances, some children need extra help with their studies. For years, companies have supplied supplemental educational services to students using a variety of programs. With the coronavirus pandemic upending traditional in-class academics, Huntington Learning Center, on the front of this July 2020 mailer, issues a warning: “There’s another crisis right now — an education crisis. Children may never recover the losses”. 

Notice how this headline and the image of darkened empty classroom seats leverage fear, the most powerful emotional driver. No one wants their child to fall behind.

The company offers parents tutoring and standardized test prep for their kids — both online and offline — and a $100 discount on an academic evaluation as an incentive. 

huntington learning center back to school direct mail marketing trends

Keep Kids Supplied

Usually, for kids in grades up through high school, clothing was the largest budget item for families’ back-to-school shopping. But not this year. Some physical stores remain closed or reopened with more limited hours and other restrictions. And many families entered August with their school plans in flux. As a result, apparel spending is not projected to increase significantly.

Large retailers like Kohl’s acknowledged that pandemic or not, a new school year means buying back-to-school merchandise like leggings, tees, and backpacks, such as the ones in this postcard that was mailed to the retailer’s charge customers in early August. Besides the $10 reward for every $50 in purchases, the customer can also use the coupon on the front to get a $10 discount on school items.

kohl's back to school direct mail marketing trends

Search for More Examples of Back-to-School Mail with Who’s Mailing What!

With our Google-inspired search function, you can easily find many more examples of this type of mail campaign in Who’s Mailing What! Type in “back to school” or any other variation to see the most relevant search results.

New mailings are added to the database every day, so use Who’s Mailing What! to stay on top of trends as they develop.

Final Thoughts

Pretty much everyone’s life has been upended by COVID-19, including students, parents, teachers, school staff, and more. Massive changes, like mask requirements, social distancing, flexible schedules, and sanitizing measures have been instituted to minimize any disease spread at schools.

For marketers, though, the continued uncertainty means that mailing exactly as you’ve done in past years is unwise. The traditional 2-month back-to-school season is morphing into a longer period that pays closer attention to conditions that can change at any time. To be effective and helpful to consumers, your direct mail strategy will have to be more responsive and flexible. It will have to offer more response options to make customers feel comfortable when and how they buy. And it will have to be ready to pivot quickly — to sell juice boxes, laptops, masks, or whatever else kids and schools and parents will need — as the pandemic continues into the fall.

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