Deloitte’s latest report on 2019’s back to school season projected spending would reach $27.8 billion this year. We looked at the data to see which stories and publishers have risen above the noise, and if the promotions are actually starting earlier each year.

We’ll start with the bird’s eye-view of the past four years. We saw spikes in “back to school” content and promotions as early as the last week of June and the latest stories stretching into mid-September. There are inevitably a few promotional pushes in July, but the bulk of coverage and sales really peaks in the first couple weeks of August. From our data we’ve determined the bulk of conversation surrounding back to school happens from July 22nd – Sept 2nd, a solid six week time frame that has been consistent for the past four years.

With the exception of 2019, engagements to back to school content have fallen a bit each year since 2016, though they’ve followed very similar patterns as far as spikes in coverage, reflecting the weeks outlined above. If you feel like back to school content starts earlier and earlier each year, you’d be right. But it’s not as drastic as it seems. In the past four years, promotions, and coverage thereof, picks up around the end of July, but this year, engagement spiked at 800k in June and flew into the millions come August.

2019 had particularly high engagement due to a high volume of stories reporting on the El Paso Shooting, where customers shopping for back to school supplies were fired upon as they browsed the aisles. The most engaged article came from, generating over 650k interactions on their coverage alone. In order to accurately show which stories were focused solely on back to school shopping itself, we’ll round up the usual top ten most engaged stories across social while emitting explicit coverage of the shooting, though we wanted to mention it for completeness.

The top story for back to school this year actually came from The Mirror. Coverage of a grant that would help pay for student uniforms had over 100k engagements and spread quickly across Facebook in particular, getting shared 47k times.

The narrative for this year’s back to school top ten featured fewer promotions, and instead was peppered with stories about guns, bulletproof backpacks and outrage at back to school rifle sales. You might think this has to do with the news right now, but the trend goes as far back as 2017, with stories about guns having made the top ten during back to school season since then, regardless of whether or not a shooting happened in recent memory.

Back in 2016, the top ten stories featured more coverage of promotions, sales and round-ups of the best items with which to send your child back to school. The narrative was focused on getting the best out of the promotional period and tips for back to school.

In 2018, three of the top ten focus on guns while the rest highlight more promotions and deals than any of the four years we looked at. The top article offered tactics for getting into your dream college, and both Target and Staples had great earned media coverage for their back to school promotions in 2018.

The narrative during back to school has continued to evolve and change throughout the years, and for brands that focus heavily on back to school campaigns, breaking through the news cycle is getting increasingly difficult. Target, Staples and Walmart consistently make headlines during this season, pushing promotions and getting included in roundups for the best deals, but 2019’s news cycle has drowned out the typical “best deals for back to school” stories that used to permeate the top ten.

Top brands’ earned media for back to school 2019

Following U.S. News’ guide to the best brands for back to school shopping, we surfaced the engagement data for ten of them, a few of which we saw come through in the top 50 most engaged articles organically each year (Target, Walmart, Staples).

Target’s engagement is out of this world for back to school compared to everyone else – their announcement of bringing back teacher discounts on school supplies at the end of June brought in over 700k engagements alone. The rest were featured in roundups of “great sales to shop” but did not receive the same widespread attention.

Target, Lenovo, Staples and Walmart made the top 15 most engaged stories during this year’s back to school season, but undoubtedly, one sale rules them all. More than clothes or shoes, school supplies and steep teacher discounts dominate headlines and prompt sharing across social.

Finally, social media was alight with your typical back to school memes, sales and sharing of first day of school photos. Pinterest however, had a boost in engagement, with many recipes and tips for organization making the rounds.

While back to school is a huge season, ripe with ways to engage customers and audiences, for next year’s promotions, consider these key takeaways:

  • Prime time for spending according to Deloitte’s report is in the first two weeks of August, but it’s also the noisiest time on social to be announcing sales
    • Consider the last two weeks in July, so as not to get ahead of yourself on promotions and get lost that way, but catch audiences during a less crowded time of year
  • As mentioned, media coverage peaks during the first two weeks of August, and in order to break through the noise
    • Think about promoting content on alternative platforms like Pinterest or Instagram to reach different audiences
  • Stories that previously did well (roundups of sales, etc.) have fallen in engagement in recent years
    • Try a different angle, emotional storytelling (ex: Michael Buble’s video about his child growing up) spreads quickly and widely across social

If you’d like deeper insights into different shopping seasons or help with media monitoring over time, check out NewsWhip Analytics.



Katherine Ellis

Katherine is a Content Strategist working at the confluence of journalism + marketing. She’s most interested in bridging the gap between business and editorial and exploring ways publishers can use data to inform their storytelling.

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