Back to School MessagingPop quiz: What’s the second most lucrative e-commerce shopping season?

If you guessed “back to school,” congratulations; you’re at the head of the class. If you’re wondering how you just got your kids into summer camp and are already reading an article on preparing for the back-to-school season, consider this report from digital marketing agency PM Digital:

Nearly half of all customers start shopping for their back-to-school needs online three to four weeks before the first day of school.

Nearly half of all customers start shopping for their back-to-school needs online three to four weeks before the first day of school. And about 31 percent start that process two months before the first day of school.

With much of the U.S. going back to school in late August or early September, that means we’re entering “prime time” for marketers.

Tempus fugit, as the Latin teachers say.

So, how do you handle a prolonged promotional cycle that’s only relevant to a certain portion of your population?Segmentation.

If you split your efforts into two buckets, you can focus on acquiring new customers to your brand via back-to-school messaging while also engaging your existing customers early in the season to “take them out of market” for your competition.

Though tactics differ between the two buckets, one thing remains constant: value messaging is still king among back-to-school customers.

By combining some of your seasonal clearance/sale promotions with back-to-school messaging, you can give a fresh value-add to your seasonal pattern while bringing back-to-school into your customer’s minds earlier. Combining both creates a potential to move more products in the near term, while grabbing mind-share for the peak season.

Acquiring New Customers

Testing is key to your acquisition efforts.

A message that works in one channel earlier in the season may not be as effective in another channel later in the season. You’ll want to understand those differences so you can maximize return on investment (ROI).

As you do so, be creative with your promotion efforts. For instance, if your customers are motivated by value messaging, think about using a bounce-back offer for new customers. Offer them a percentage off their second purchase, before school starts, if they start their shopping now.

And if you have a loyalty program, promote its benefits early and often. A deep, one-time discount may not compare to benefits accrued over time and savvy shoppers can evaluate that difference quickly. For new customers, it may be their first back-to-school season. Kids’ clothing is a long-term partnership between a customer and brand, and the perks of your program can make the difference in a customer’s decision as to whether you’re the best fit over time. Value decisions for customers are becoming lifetime value in nature.

Retain Customers Through Back-to-School Messaging

Learn through email.

We all know it: email is the lifeblood of your engagement efforts. Why not leverage that advantage and start learning what content can – and should – be brought onto your site? You can do that, easily, by segmenting different customer types and testing different messaging. Then, promote the winner.

Similarly, try re-engaging your customers by highlighting seasonal trends and other products that can help you confirm whether a customer has kids. That information, which can be difficult to keep updated if your customers only shop with you during the back-to-school season, becomes highly valuable when it’s used to target with specific messages.

Speaking to your once-a-year customers is paramount to keeping them engaged with your brand and increasing your chances to get them back to you sooner than next year. But email isn’t the only channel for that. Social is another logical space and it’s a great way to engage your community for insight, content, and promotion. After all, everyone likes to talk about their kids.

The key theme, though? Get out early and learn.

By testing acquisition programs to find your most engaged groups, you can work through the right customer attributes to target your existing customer base.Back-to-school is a long season, but it’s also full of parents searching for the right partners to get the kids ready for class. To learn more about back-to-school retail trends, take a look at Monetate’s Back-to-School Shopping Study.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in ClickZ, where Nathan is a guest columnist.

Happy back-to-school student image courtesy of Shutterstock.