At Poppin, Back-to-School Spells Organic Social

A mobile-driven experience

Author: Tricia Carr

July 7, 2017

Office supplies retailer Poppin—known for its modern, bold-colored designs—has an audience comprised of business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) buyers. Come July, the retailer begins its annual nine-week push to target students as they start back-to-school shopping. Zachary Abbell, senior director of ecommerce and digital marketing at Poppin, spoke with eMarketer’s Tricia Carr about why this year’s focus is on user-generated content rather than advertising.

eMarketer: What is your back-to-school audience like?

Zachary Abbell

Zachary Abbell: Our school shoppers tend to be mobile-driven—that’s different from the rest of our business, which is desktop-heavy. This audience is all about mobile and tablet. We assume it’s the result of discovery happening in stores [where Poppin is available]. They see something in Staples or Barnes & Noble College and they go online to see all the colors and products we have that the store doesn’t carry.

eMarketer: Do you consider students to be the primary decision-maker and your target audience rather than parents?

Abbell: We predominantly market to teens as well as consumers in their early 20s who are often college or grad school students—not parents. These consumers make their own decisions. Because we market to older students, our marketing tends to be more about individual expression. Even though high school students might not buy their own supplies, they tell their parents exactly what they like.

eMarketer: Can millennial and Gen Z students tell the difference between something that’s organic and something that’s an ad, and how does that impact your marketing strategy?

Abbell: These demographics are very savvy—they understand what’s organic and what’s staged. We don’t spend a large amount of marketing dollars on pushing our staged advertising to them. We tend to rely on user-generated content and influencers. The photos that our customers post are inspirational, and the quality of the imagery is often so good—it looks professionally shot. We’ll also send products to influencers so they can shoot them at their own desk, and it feels organic.

For us, the product often markets itself. It becomes less about marketing copy, positioning and targeting, and more about showing the lifestyle around the product—that’s what resonates with this consumer group.

eMarketer: What about social ads? Are students receptive to advertising on social channels?

“This year, we’re looking at paid Instagram and Pinterest placements that feel a lot more organic.”

Abbell: In the past we’ve used Facebook’s audience targeting to see if we can move the needle with certain groups. For example, we did some segmentation with teachers to hit high-value customers, and we did some geotargeting around big college towns where we have a retail presence.

While we saw some good activation, we didn’t see as much activity as we’d like for paid placements. It may have helped in-store sales in those locations, but it was tough to justify the spend. We got much better results from organic posts. This year, we’re looking at paid Instagram and Pinterest placements that feel a lot more organic.

eMarketer: Why do you expect paid Instagram and Pinterest posts to be more effective than what you’ve done in the past?

Abbell: We feel that our audience is on Instagram and Pinterest—Pinterest a little more so. We look at them as future growth channels for both our back-to-school and our office sides of the business. There’s a lot of sharing, resharing and repining happening there. After we backed off a bit last year, we hope this will be cost-effective and we can use it in our marketing toolbox for back-to-school next year.

eMarketer: Will you continue to focus on social and more organic forms of marketing to reach the back-to-school audience?

Abbell: In the future, we expect back-to-school marketing to get more and more social. It’s not the audience of our paid Google advertising like the other part of our business. It’s increasingly social and increasingly driven by influencers.