Back-To-School Promotion Ideas for Small Businesses

What’s the status of your back-to-school marketing plan? According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), the average family will spend more freely on school and college supplies this year. It expects total spending for K-12 and college to reach $75.8 billion, up from last year’s $68 billion.

The annual NRF survey, conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, suggests that more than 50 percent of shoppers will start back-to-school shopping three weeks to one month before school starts while 22 percent will start shopping with only one or two weeks left.

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As we head toward September and into the final few weeks before students head back to school, Small Business Computing asked small business owners to share details of their most successful back-to-school promotions and tips.

Back to school promotions

University Beyond created an annual back-to-school promotion it calls National Student Discount Day.

Be Helpful: Back to School is Stressful

Getting ready to head back to school can be stressful for your customers—both the parents and the students. Nicole Gardner, Dormify‘s COO, recommends that business owners personalize their back-to-school campaigns to their audience and to be helpful to their customers.

“Be helpful. It’s a stressful time for many parents, and full of anxiety for students. Offer resources and accommodate customer requests where you can,” she advised. “Figure out if you’re speaking to the student or to the parent, and adjust your tone, your messaging, and your offers accordingly. Use all the customer data you have and get hyper-targeted; we find email to be the most effective marketing channel for accomplishing this.”

Coupons and Discounts Attract Back-to-School Shoppers

Mike Catania, CTO of PromotionCode, works with 15,000 retailers: a third of which are small businesses that regularly compete against national brands and big box retailers. When it comes to the back-to-school rush, Catania recommends coupons as a particularly effective marketing strategy for local businesses.

“Because they’re local, these businesses can tailor their offers not only to a specific school name (to build associative brand recognition), but they can also provide tiered offers based on different grade levels,” says Catania. “For example, a coupon offer that gives X-percent off storewide (where X represents the grade level of the incoming student) has been an extremely popular offer.”

Celebrating students also creates a positive back-to-school promotion for retailers. Doug Messer, co-founder and CEO of University Beyond said the company’s most successful back-to-school promotion was a holiday they created.

“We call it National Student Discount Day, and last year we had more than 100 brands participate,” said Messer. This year, “on August 24th, 2016, all participating brands will come together to promote our website via Twitter, drive a mass audience to view and use the available discounts, and sign up for our site. We already have major enterprise companies reaching out to participate again this year.”

Use Social to Talk Up Back-to-School Promotions

Social media is a good way to cash in on local back-to-school shopping. “Local social media is far more influential than national. Posting that coupon to social media and tagging the school for which it applies will help move it along to parents who, in turn, can make it go locally viral with minimal advertising efforts on your part,” says PromotionCode’s Catania.

Daniela Arango, public relations specialist for DoItWiser, also supports using social media to boost back-to-school promotions. Arango says that small business owners can create excitement around back-to-school sales on social media by launching a pre-sale ad campaign to generate expectations around your offers and products.

She also recommends offering online coupons or promotions to visitors and clients on your website in exchange for subscriptions to your mailing list or follows on social media. “Your customers get a discount on their back-to-school purchases, and you build a community around your brand.”

Arango suggests that businesses take advantage of user generated content (UGC) to show how your customers use your products at school. This gives your future clients a sense of closeness, trust, and familiarity with your brand.

Back to school promotions

Even B2B companies, like Dollar Days, can take advantage of back-to-school promotions.

Back-to-School Promotions for B2B

B2B businesses also find success with back-to-school promotions by taking advantage of email campaigns, social feeds, and good deals.

Marc Joseph, CEO and president of DollarDays International, a B2B business that sells 225,000 general merchandise products by the case at wholesale and closeout prices to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations, explains.

“Today our banners feature office and school supplies, back-to-school clothing, accessories, writing instruments and backpacks. All of these products tie together because we want to be the one-stop-shop for all back to school needs,” says Joseph. “This also works with brick-and-mortar stores or online B2C sellers. Once a customer comes into your store, you don’t want them to leave. The best promotion is to offer everything they need.”

For example, DollarDays sells backpacks with a per-unit price starting at $3.19. Email campaigns and social media promote the item to draw people to the website. Once prospective customers land on the site for a backpack, they can see all the school supplies they need to fill the backpack—all in one place.

How to Promote Back-to-School Outside of Retail

Many back-to-school promotions center heavily on retail stores and online shops, but many small business owners can capitalize on students and parents shopping for school-related deals. Ajmal Saleem, owner of Suprex Learning, a startup tutoring company, says the back-to-school promotion is especially important.

“Parents commonly seek our tutoring services during the summer to help their kids keep up their skills during the break. However, back-to-school is an excellent time to offer promotions, and parents are willing to spend the money if you can show them it’s a good investment,” says Saleem. “We offer bulk-tutoring packages right before the school year starts. When a parent purchases more hours of tutoring (24 hours and up), it not only provides us with sustained business, it helps parents keep their children’s momentum going.”

Even vCalc, a crowdsourced calculator creation platform, offers back-to-school promotions. The vCalc platform invites people to use math knowledge to solve every-day challenges and to build and share free equations, algorithms, constants, and collections.

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Kurt Heckman, vCalc’s president, said they ran a student contest last fall that went so well that it’s now an annual back-to-school event. Called Coding for Community, this contest encourages students to use the vCalc platform to create free online calculators for the benefit of their communities. Prize money ranges from $25 for honorable mentions up to $1,000 for two grand prize winners.

“The results have been surprising. Students have built free calculators that are now being used all over the world,” says Heckman. “This annual contest is a terrific way to get our product into the hands of more students every fall, and it’s now an ongoing part of our back-to-school promotion regimen.”

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal is a freelance writer, covering business and Internet technology for more than a decade. She is also managing editor of

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