The Halloween Effect – A Study in Seasonality

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Kids have everything so much easier these days than when I was young.

“Really? You’re going with that angle?” I hear you say. “That’s a completely generic observation that people have been making forever, which says more about how you feel about yourself than it does about anything in the real world.”

Ah – I reply: not on this occasion! Anyone who has attempted to make a Halloween lantern out of a turnip rather than a pumpkin will immediately confirm that I am objectively correct.

Many a frustrating hour did my brother and I spend in autumns past scraping out the contents of tennis ball-sized fibrous root vegetables to make something that looked very unlike the magnificent squashes we saw then only on American TV programmes and which today we see everywhere. For me, the smell of candle-scorched swede transports me back to the Octobers of my youth in a way that even the finest pumpkin never can. 

The point? I’m sure I had one when I started...

Oh yes. Halloween season is well and truly upon us, and it’s not just pay day for squash farmers and manufacturers of rubber masks any more. It is massive business, for adults and children alike. “It’s a thing now,” as the young people say.

Obviously, it was a thing before but it was a different kind of thing – smaller, more home-made, harder to scoop out. 

The Halloween Effect

In recent years, the supermarkets have done more than anyone to make Halloween into a major annual event. I asked retail analyst Steve Dresser of Grocery Insight about the Halloween phenomenon in that sector. 

“This year, each large retailer is equally strong, with Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury's all offering strong ranges with lots of in-store theatre to attract shoppers,” Steve told me.

“It’s good margins for the retailers and a real 'clean' exit from the season into Christmas - customers like Halloween, but it's disposable, with new things purchased each year (rather than holding onto old costumes, hats and other items).”

“Food is a growing part too, and it’s not just fun-size sweets anymore, other manufacturers are getting involved - Soreen have a Green Toffee Apple flavoured Malt Loaf for example....”

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Halloween display in Morrisons
(Grocery Insight)

British consumers splash out more than £200 million on Halloween each year, says Ben Sillitoe, the editor of Essential Retail, with themed in-store events playing an ever bigger part.

“Wide access to online games, social media and new mobile apps also provide an opportunity for retailers to fuel youngsters' imaginations around Halloween, which in turn raises its profile and can result in more sales,” Ben explains.

“The gamification of retail really comes into its own around events such as these, but it'll be the retailers that create the right mix and develop a consistent marketing message across their various physical and digital platforms that will succeed during this new mini peak trading season.”

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Display in Tesco (Grocery Insight)

For online marketers, the Halloween phenomenon is one of the best examples around demonstrating the importance of being sensitive to seasonality in reaching out to your audience. As the green malt loaf shows, the opportunities that are out there are not always just the obvious ones.

Indeed, this Nielsen report shows how the Halloween effect has turned pumpkin into THE flavour of autumn itself.

While we’re back on pumpkins, I don’t think I’ve ever bought one at any other time of the year. Right now though, I want one.  In a couple of weeks I will have forgotten all about pumpkins, and I will be suddenly interested in sparklers and natural sedatives for a dog who hates fireworks. Does your data predict that? Or is it just common sense?

Seasonality = Recurring, Predictable Behaviour Patterns

The best definition of “seasonality” from a marketing perspective that I have seen is in this article by Robert Brecht. To paraphrase: seasonal trends are recurring time frames when consumer behaviour changes in predictable but temporary ways. During these periods, certain audiences expect to be marketed to in certain ways and they are predisposed to respond to seasonal material.

It’s kind of obvious, but if your job is to sell as many widgets as possible all year round, it can be easy to overlook.

In our recent eBook on content strategy – you can download a free copy from here if you haven’t already got it – my colleagues Adrienne Burns and Billy Maddocks explain how researching and testing your user personas is essential to successful online strategy, and they provide a simple and effective framework for putting that advice into practice.

Seasonality is a key aspect of that, and what any given time of year means to any given audience varies – and can be surprising. Financial investors have long regarded Halloween as the turning point between the selling season and the buying season, for example. Indeed, a global-level study found that this is not just stockbroker superstition and that market returns are 4.5% higher between November and April than the rest of the year.

But to really take advantage of seasonal opportunities, they need to be fully embedded in your ongoing strategy. It’s not just a matter of throwing together a few articles around a topical theme and hoping for the best. To make the most of seasonal opportunities, you must:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of your customers, to see how what’s important to them changes – as well as how it stays the same

  • Track behaviour data over sustained periods of time; month-on-month is not always the best comparator

  • Look for new angles on familiar themes – think Ben’s “gamification of retail” comment

  • Have planned and be ready to implement your next seasonal campaign the second the current one is over

After all, even people who hate Halloween can at least appreciate that it stops Christmas season from starting before November...

How can banks tap seasonality in their content?