Call It Back to School 2.0

Retailers this year are taking anything but an old-school approach to their back-to-school campaigns.

JCPenney, OfficeMax and Staples are all heavying up on their social media outreach this year, reasoning that that’s where their target customer is. Some analysts, however, point out that the medium is unproven and teens seem to often regard marketing messaging in social networks as an intrusion.

Such campaigns augment pushes via traditional media like TV and print. For instance, JCPenney rolled out a TV campaign via Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, which coincides with an online push including a Web site where users can browse single items or full outfits. The site also links to a Facebook page, called “JCP Teen,” where visitors can talk about the clothes and connect with JCPenney’s teenage skateboarding spokesman Ryan Sheckler.

OfficeMax, meanwhile, is bringing back its “Penny Pranks” videos via YouTube, which feature comedian Matt McCarthy paying for services like car repairs using only pennies. Those videos promoted “Penny Promos” OfficeMax products on sale for one cent. This year, the company will also host events for parental bloggers on Twitter and elsewhere designed to aid them in staying organized and to facilitate discussion about issues of the back-to-school season. The Escape Pod, Chicago, handles that effort.

Finally, Staples has teamed with New York agency Mr. Youth for a social media program centered around a virtual backpack, which teens can send around Facebook and fill with 11 school supplies. The effort also includes an Adopt a Pack application on Facebook, a fan page on the online social network and a tie-in with Do Something, the charitable organization. 

Though each retailer said they were stepping up their social media presence this year, spending was not disclosed. JCPenney last year spent $2 million on Internet ads during the back-to-school season, per TNS Media Intelligence. OfficeMax spent $100,000 and Staples spent $1 million during the period.

Marketers say the stepped-up social media efforts this year reflect the fact that the medium is now central for reaching teens, who influence their parents’ purchases.  Social media is “not just a rising force in the teen market, it is a force in the teen market,” said Ruby Anik, vp, brand marketing at JCPenney.  

The campaigns come as there’s mounting evidence that teens are skeptical about advertising messages via social media and that Facebook is losing its appeal among the demo as older consumers sign up. According to Rob Callender, trends director at TRU, a research company focusing on young adults, teens are generally unreceptive to marketing messages via social media. “Adults use the Internet in different ways, as a novelty. But it’s a way of life for teens,” he said. For that reason, they “don’t want to be bugged too much.”

Still, Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, said the medium is still a “much more effective use of advertising dollars to reach that particular segment of the market.”