A Report Card on Back to School: The Season’s Trends and What They Mean for Holiday

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Think with Google

 

 

 

THE RUNDOWN

As summer draws to a close, we took a look at back-to-school shopping trends across Google and YouTube to see how this year compared to past years. Not only have searches grown over the last year, but the season is lasting longer than ever, becoming the unofficial start to holiday shopping. It’s also the start of potentially lifelong brand affinities for millennials. As the college-bound leave the nest for the first time, they’re making all-important purchases that will set the tone for years to come. They have more choices than ever and are turning to the web—especially video and mobile—to discover and shop. This year, they sought out products that save them time, space and money. And if they can’t find exactly what they want, they’ll make it (hello, washi tape). Study up on the trends—they’ll help you this holiday season.

Back-to-school season is longer than ever

Taking a look at searches on Google, we found that the start of summer is actually the start of the back to school shopping season. Back-to-school is the second-largest retail event of the year, and it’s growing.

  • Almost as soon as school’s out, back-to-school shopping begins. Searches started as early as May and peaked in August (chart 1).
  • That peak lasted 1-2 weeks longer than it did last year, and interest is still high, indicating that shoppers are still in the market (chart 1).
  • Back-to-school searches on Google are higher than ever. Overall, searches grew 45% YoY (through August 15) (chart 1).

Chart 1: Searches for “Back to School”

Source: Google Data, January 2013–August 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States

Retailers are likely spurring this early interest with mid-summer deals like those offered by Walmart and Staples. Indeed, searches for “back to school sales” also spiked sooner and are trending higher than they did in previous years.

Another big factor: the web. According to Deloitte Vice Chairman Alison Paul, “24/7 online convenience allows parents—and students—to shop any time, not just during the traditional mid- to late-summer back-to-school period. Consumers are more precise about what they buy and may no longer feel the need to stock up as they did in the days before the internet.”

Not only is the web open 24/7, but people are using it to shop throughout the day (and even more at night) on smartphones. According to Google data, so far this month, 40% of back-to-school searches were done on mobile. That’s a 25% increase from last year.

As back to school stretches into fall, it’s being met by early holiday demand. Fifteen percent of consumers have already started shopping for the holiday season and 5% more will start before Labor Day, according to a July Google consumer survey. Looking at last year’s Google Search trends, we see that apparel searches started rising in July and continued an upward climb through December (chart 2). Marketers now have an earlier look at what consumers might be interested in this holiday season, and that means more chances to capture interest with ads, promotions, discounts and more.

Chart 2: Apparel Category Searches

Source: Google Data, January 2012–August 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States

YouTube creators are the new influencers for college-bound millennials

More marketers are focusing specific back-to-school efforts on the college set, and for good reason. These students and their parents drive the biggest back-to-school spending, and the NRF found that it’s up 10% from last year. Young adults headed off to college are about to make a lot of purchasing decisions that they’ve never made before—these are big opportunities for brands to win new and loyal customers.

To decide what to bring, college students are turning to haul videos on YouTube. These videos, featuring shoppers with their latest finds, started trending a few years back and are gaining in popularity. According to Google/YouTube data:

  • Searches for “back to school haul” on YouTube are up 70% this year.
  • Searches for “dorm hauls” on YouTube increase more than 2x in the first 10 days of August YoY.
  • YouTube creators are getting ahead of the game. Compared to 2013, twice as many back-to-school haul videos were posted in the first seven months of the year (chart 3).

Chart 3: “Dorm Haul” Video Uploads to YouTube by Month

Source: YouTube Data, January 2013–August 2014, Indexed Video Uploads, United States

Another source of inspiration for students is dorm tour videos. In these, students show how they turned a small, impersonal space into a place they’re proud to call home.

  • “Dorm tour” searches on YouTube are rapidly trending with searches up 1.7x this August as compared to last year (chart 4).
  • “Dorm tour” has some interesting correlations that hint at consumer interests, including brand affinities (“covergirl and olay”), beauty tips (“eyeliner on top lid”) and evasion techniques (“ways to look sick”).

Chart 4: “Dorm Tour” Searches on YouTube

Source: YouTube Data, August 2013 and August 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States

Brands are getting in on this action, too. Target launched a YouTube video series called Best Year Ever that gives tips for designing dorm or off-campus spaces. Hosted by four YouTube stars, Todrick HallMikey BoltsTiffany Garciaand Ann Le, it’s running on both Target’s YouTube channel and the stars’ own pages. So far, there have been over 3.2M views combined. Aeropostale recently worked with another YouTube creator, Bethany Mota, on a room design line.

Smart move. Mota is an influencer for millennials—her YouTube fans often ask about her style—and her back-to-school videos are among her most popular. Three of her 15 most-watched videos of all time cover back to school (totaling 15.7M views), and her latest got 2.5x more likes per view than the average for her regular August videos.

Young DIYers are looking for cheap, clever ways to decorate their dorms

No longer do students need to have the same futon and mini fridge as everyone else. The web offers infinite ideas and options for one-of-a-kind dorm decor, and people are using Search to find them.

  • “Dorm decor” searches on Google are up 37% YoY.
  • We’ve seen a 30% YoY growth in dorm-related Google searches for Dormify, Apartment Therapy, Buzzfeed, HGTV, Seventeen and Pinterest.

Products that help provide customization are on the rise. For example, dorm dwellers are looking for cheap, easy-to-use items, such as washi tape and wall decals, to “hack” mass market items.

  • Washi tape is a growing trend in general, and it’s becoming more popular around back-to-school time (chart 5).
  • Consumers searching for dorm room-related topics are about 100x more likely to be searching for washi tape than the average Google user and about 150x more likely to be searching for wall decals. (Google Data)
  • Publishers like HGTVDazzleDIY and AwesomenessTV are sharing washi tape decorating ideas to capture this interest.

Chart 5: Searches for “Washi Tape”

Source: Google Data, January 2012–August 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States

On campus, smartphones are more essential than TVs

The period when students are heading to college is a critical time for brands to earn loyalty, and no one knows this more than consumer electronics manufacturers. “When shopping for electronics, students decide what they want before searching for the lowest price,” comments Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer of The Intelligence Group, in eMarketer. Even if millennials are not spending their own money (though many are), they have a lot of influence over the purchase. “A parent is not going to buy their kid a Samsung if they’re saying, ‘I want an Apple,’” Gutfreund says.

The must-have tech for students? Smartphones. They’re as essential to college kids as the snooze button.

  • Smartphones rank as the most popular electronic device owned by college students (Deloitte).
  • People searching for “dorm” are also searching for “mobile” more than either “computer” or “tablet.” This is a big shift from four years ago (Google Data).
  • Back-to-school searches in the mobile and wireless category are up 32% (Google Data).

Mobile devices are even becoming the new TVs on college campuses. According to a Google Consumer Survey conducted in August, college students are 30x more likely to list a phone as their favorite device than a TV. Looking to save space and money, students are using their mobile phones for networked gaming, streaming videos and more. We can see this trend in views of those dorm haul videos on YouTube.

  • So far in August, 43% of views of haul videos on YouTube happened on mobile devices. That’s 1.5x the mobile share of views in January (Google Data).
  • Mobile trails only TV as the platform that has the longest view time per view of haul videos, exceeding computer totals by 15% (Google Data).

Students are looking for products that save space, time and money

Going to college is a very different experience for today’s constantly connected millennials than it was for previous generations. But one thing hasn’t changed much: the size (or lack thereof) of dorm rooms. When it comes to tech products they’re looking for those that save space as well as time and money. For example:

  • Wireless chargers for smartphones and laptops prevent tangled messes and—worst of all—mi ssed texts. They’ve been trending over the past months—up 72% since June, and 14% YoY (Google Data).
  • Individual coffee makers provide quick caffeine hits. Keurig released acollege-branded product line late last year, and “Keurig college” searches were up 48% YoY in August (Google Data).

Now that we’ve gone back to school, here’s a cheat sheet for the holiday season

As the season gets longer, back to school can be seen as the unofficial start to the holidays and a great bellwether of trends.

  • To capture interest throughout this time, keep your campaigns going strong.
  • Adapt your holiday plans based on what you’ve learned from back-to-school campaigns.
  • Make sure you’re thinking about mobile constantly (take a page from our playbook).
  • See what’s big on YouTube and look to popular creators as potential spokespeople.
  • Position your products for the DIYer. Share tips and tricks on using your products in creative ways.
  • Gear promotions and sales to capture interest in products that save space, time and money.

Interview with Tara Walpert Levy of Google & YouTube

TaraWalpertLevy2013 Advertising Hall of Achievement Interview: Tara Walpert Levy, Managing Director, Ads Marketing, Google & YouTube

Tara Walpert Levy brings 17 years of experience to Google, where she leads Ads Marketing for Google and YouTube. In this role, she is responsible for the company’s communications and market development for Google and YouTube’s advertising offerings, globally. On Tuesday, November 5th, Tara will be inducted, along with six others, into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Achievement.

You came to Google with a passion to bridge the digital divide. In the past two years, have traditional advertisers and technology companies been able to close the gap at all? What sort of improvements have you seen?

When I came to Google a few years ago, Mary Meeker was still showing the significant gap between the time people spent on digital and the attention marketers gave to the medium.  Time spent on digital was more than twice the budget brands were allocating. Since that time, the two are much closer to parity, so the gap is closing!

The traditional and digital worlds have evolved from fighting over which way is best to learning to take the best from each other. Digital marketing today retains a lot more of the beauty and insight of traditional creative than it did two years ago. Traditional marketers are using substantially more data and insights to influence their online and offline efforts than they did before.

So, the challenge today is less about bridging the divide and more about helping every marketer get the most out of the web. How to take advantage of the elements of digital that make it unique – the ability to reach a passionate audience, to tell your brand story in the most amazing ways, and to drive deeper engagement through participation. The big winners at Cannes the last few years have all taken this to heart – brands like Nike and Dove. But doing this at scale requires changes to organizational approach, to campaign strategy, and to measuring impact.

There’s no playbook; that’s the challenge. But the brands who are investing today in figuring out how to build their brands and businesses in a different way are the ones who in 3-5 years will have a competitive advantage others can’t catch. They will be to brand building what Amazon and Ebay were to SEM.  And hopefully we will have been a part of  to make the web work for them.

You’ve been spending a lot of time with YouTube lately. As head of B2B marketing for YouTube, what sort of information are you presenting to advertisers to convince them that digital is more than a secondary medium?

Honestly, I’m not sure we have to convince most marketers that digital is more than a secondary medium anymore. Most top brands have a deep understanding of their consumers’ evolving behavior and their shift to constant connectivity. We check our phones an average of 110 times a day. We move across devices 90% of the time before accomplishing a task. Marketers get that, and understand the importance of being where their customers are.

Honestly, I’m not sure we have to convince most marketers that digital is more than a secondary medium anymore.

One of the challenges that pops up though is when marketers themselves are not using the platforms their customers are using. Marketing at the end of the day is often personal. I love ESPN, so I understand advertising on ESPN. I use Facebook so I understand how to advertise on Facebook. But when there’s a disconnect between user behavior and marketer’s personal behavior, you often see a bigger lag. YouTube is a great example of this. It reaches more 18-34 year olds than any cable network, but many marketers can’t name more than one YouTube channel, if that.

So, our challenge is helping marketers understand an experience that can be foreign to them, and understand content that doesn’t look like the content they grew up watching, even though millions of people spend billions of hours watching it every month. Tools like our quarterly report, YouTube Insights, or our weekly content digest, YouTube Re:View, aim to make it easier for marketers to “get it” if they’re not naturally drawn to the platform.

You’re a proponent of engagement over exposure, and you have said that the brands who buy into this philosophy will be the ones that come out on top. As leaders and prime examples of success in this industry, what have both Google and YouTube done, or what are they doing now, to put this into practice?

That one’s easy – Google was built on this principle. Here’s a quick test, to see if you agree. How did you hear about Google? Was it a TV ad? A billboard? No, it was almost certainly originally by word of mouth from passionate super-fans. In fact, Google didn’t run its first ad on TV until just a few years ago. Google was built by super-serving a core group of people, and then using the resulting insights and advocacy to grow out from there.

It’s not just Google who has used this approach successfully, btw. Think about many of the hot brands of the past 15 years: Amazon, AirBnB, Chipotle, Warby Parker. These are brands who grew up in a time when participatory, engagement-driven media were available, and that’s where they naturally gravitated because they had no legacy to overcome. Brands with longer history are now doing the same – think Nike, Samsung, P&G – but it’s harder because it’s a bigger change.

To be clear, this isn’t about digital vs. TV, or even engagement vs. exposure. It’s about a prioritization and sequencing. It’s about answering the question “what would my media plan look like if engagement were my top objective?” Exposure is still important, and most brands will still benefit from a mixture of both traditional and digital media, but what we find is that by asking that simple question, a light bulb goes off and marketers start thinking about things differently. It’s about engaged reach, vs simply reach alone.

I could bore you for pages about all the thinking on this, but it’s probably easier to check out our collection of articles from industry leaders at the Engagement Project.

What are your thoughts on the whole “disruption vs. distraction” paradigm? How can we toe the line between ads which enhance user experience, and those which take away from it?

There’s an easy way to determine which ads create value for users and which ones don’t; let people choose whether to watch or engage with your ad. At Google, we believe deeply in the power of choice. Search began by allowing for user choice and favoring the results that users choose the most often. It creates better value for users because the results that get clicked on the most rise to the top, and it creates value for marketers because they only pay to get interested parties. We’ve now extended that philosophy to video and display. Already more than 75% of the advertising on YouTube is choice based.

We believe most advertising will be choice-based in the near future.

We believe most advertising will be choice-based in the near future. In many ways, it already is. People are already making a choice by DVRing, picking up phones, or just ignoring. The difference is, by building choice deliberately into the ad mechanism, brands can benefit by not paying for un-interested users – and by gaining insights on what interests people and what doesn’t. And as for users, they benefit because the tension between disruption and distraction will slowly fade away.

Google has always been a leader in data insights, but Creative Sandbox (part of Google’s Think Insights platform) shows off a completely different side to the company. What challenges (if any) did this foray into creative present to a company so built on numbers and algorithms?

Ha, that’s funny.  It’s true, it’s taken us some time to understand and embrace the art of marketing with the same passion we did the science. But there’s nothing like a convert! We’ve definitely come to embrace the value of combining traditional and new approaches to make it easier for brands to do what they’re trying to do in the simplest, smartest, most compelling ways.

Creative Sandbox was one of the first examples of how we celebrated creativity and data coming together for marketers. Check out Art, Copy and Code, a series of experiments to re-imagine advertising for some of our latest thinking that really pushes the boundaries of what’s possible.

What these efforts have taught us is that marketers value Google not only as a place to be relevant and precise and insights-driven, but also as a place to tell beautiful, seamless stories.  The ability to take a creative idea and bring it to life in formats that are native to the experience, direct to the consumer, unfettered by typical creative constraints, across each of the moments that matter to people as they go about their day is pretty unique.  And as brands’ stories matter to people more than ever, there are incredible opportunities to offer content people value as core to how they live their lives.

And for those who still aren’t “feeling it” from a visceral, emotional standpoint? Well, we just show them the data on the difference seamless storytelling can make!

Can you tell us which industry trends or concepts you are most intrigued with currently? Where is digital headed in 2014-15?

Well, there’s always the hot buttons of social, mobile, and local. The evolution of the web to be much more visual and the unprecedented access to video. Those are important trends and platforms to understand. But what excites me most are the opportunities these trends create. Trends like these mean that people are constantly connected and as a result, we as marketers can be part of people’s lives at more of the moments that matter.

As both a marketer and a consumer, I’m excited to see a move toward greater value – to creating significant utility for people through marketing. Let’s face it, we are very good at ignoring things that aren’t interesting to us, and technology has only made it easier to tune out. This forces us as marketers to think about not only how we will get in front of people, but why they should listen, care, and respond. It’s helping us to raise our game.

As devices become more personal – first it was the phone, soon it will be glasses, watches, and other wearable technology – marketing can become more personal. 100 years ago, brands and marketing were intensely personal. It was the relationship between a merchant and his customers. Then the broadcast age came along, and the relationship with our customers became more distant, as communications went from 2 way to 1 way. We now have the opportunity to bring back that personal touch, at scale.

Finally, digital has brought us into the participation age. It’s a return to two way engagement. To knowing the customer, listening and responding to their needs and interests. To helping them be part of the conversation. A dialogue is much more exciting than a monologue.

These are the things that make me hurry to work every morning.

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