Finding the balance between best practice and innovation is essential for marketers: after all, if you follow the same playbook as last year or that your competitors use, your message will likely be forgotten. At the same time, there are some strategic frameworks that can provide structure to the experiments and brand you’re trying to build, and should be leveraged.
This is especially true in emerging industries and those that are changing particularly rapidly. Fintech (finance technology) and edtech (education technology) are two such examples, but for this article, we’ll focus on edtech.
In the rapidly-evolving space of education technology, it’s easy to overlook nuances that define the space. The biggest mistake I see marketing teams make is relying on experience from other industries, and defining their funnel as strictly B2B or B2C depending on the target buyer, without understanding the differences between those models and the funding and buying cycles in education.
Before you develop a marketing strategy, be mindful of these common mistakes.
1.Defining the sales funnel by standard process, not market research
Many first-time (and even second or third) edtech marketing execs make this mistake; they’re seasoned software or consumer marketers, and think that a standard enterprise vs. SMB or B2B vs. B2C funnel delineation will sufficiently define their buying cycle.
This is simply not so. If you’re selling at the district level, a B2B funnel is directionally accurate as a starting point, but faces numerous regulatory, budgetary, and stakeholder dynamics that are not common in enterprise B2B. Without sufficient market research, it may sound good to say you want to take an Account Based Marketing approach targeting Superintendents – who are the ultimate budget decision makers– but will likely fall completely flat without awareness and buy-in from other educators. There is an entire ecosystem at play, which varies by state and district, and is beholden to more facets of public interest than exist in enterprise or consumer spaces. After all, the Superintendent’s boss is the taxpayers, who are also the students’ parents – and thus often the ultimate end users. This cyclical loop of influence, where students and parents who don’t have budget, are also the ones the ultimate buyer reports to, is unique. Ignore it, and you’re likely to spend a lot of time and money focusing on a persona that won’t convert without grassroots buy-in.
2.Lack of understanding of budgets and decision-makers: Misidentifying the buyer, end users, and influential stakeholders
Like any industry, it’s important to develop targeted yet cohesive positioning based on demographic and psychographic profiles. If parents or teachers are your buyers, a B2C model is the closest standard practice – but will need to be heavily modified.
If you’re selling products per-license, it may sound logical to target teachers, as they’ll have 30-120+ students in a given school year, as opposed to parents who probably have fewer than 4 kids in a relevant age group. Teachers, as buyers, are impacted much more by both social and market norms than traditional end-user consumers. Loosely translated: their product research tends to me more influenced by emotional buying decisions based on a company’s brand reputation and input from their peers. In this market, influencers are effective differently than in B2C retail or consumer goods: influencers that are effective in edtech tend to advocate systems, culture, and input that’s not as directly promotional. See Gerry Brooks, Todd Nesloney, or Andrew Arevalo for examples. They’ll credibly showcase what’s working for students in their classroom, and are less likely to be overly promotional.
Geography, state funding and accountability models, and even union priorities all impact budget priorities and product adoption.
If you’re attempting to close larger deals at the district, campus, or even state level, it’s still important to understand that stakeholders like teachers, PTAs, and students are influential. Student feedback directly impacts adoption and perception by teachers, who in turn decide whether to utilize the product. This impact on end user adoption directly drives active users and renewals – the ultimate growth metric that determines the viability of an edtech company.
Trust among parents and teachers is also key for proactive crisis aversion. The confidence that parents and teachers have in the products they’re using impacts brand identity and future PR – especially if a competitor or company in a related space makes a mistake that your company shouldn’t be associated with. Privacy and student data are the most obvious ones – if (or more likely, when) tech giants like Facebook or Apple come under fire for privacy concerns, the perception of your end users is the biggest preventative tool you have to avoid being lumped in with the mistakes of others.
3. Branding: Failing to develop a unique tone of voice based on mission and vision
We’ve all seen this: “___ Company Uses AI to Transform Education.”
It’s safe to throw out generalizations and buzzwords, and focus on the actual value you deliver to schools. “AI” as a concept isn’t inherently valuable to schools: it’s the impact they experience that determines value. As a concept, AI may even carry negative connotations based on misapplication by other companies (see #2), and is yet another reason not to get distracted by the shortcut of describing what you product does by simply stating how it does it. In an industry at the intersection of such diverse personas, cutting to the core of your offer is especially key.
Edutopia’s promise of “evidence and practitioner-based learning strategies that empower you to improve K-12 education” is among my favorites. It’s specific and tangible. GoGuardian’s “Unleash Curiosity: Safer Students. Better Learning” is another. It focuses on the actual value delivered, not generalities or technical specifics.
Keep in mind the differences in positioning to schools/customers and investors, too. Edtech sits at the intersection of two disparate industries: the highly regulated and notorious slow-moving public-sector of education, and the rapidly-evolving world of tech. Investors love to hear that a company is only 4 years old and growing 80% YoY – but educators often worry that a young company may not be around for the long haul. Given their lengthy buying cycles and budget approval process, being a young company is a decided disadvantage. Keep in mind who you’re talking to as you decide which elements of your company to highlight.
4. Trying to be a thought leader without credible research or expertise
This is a cringe-worthy test of how well an executive or marketing team understands their customers. Any edtech marketer who thinks of themselves as more of an industry expert than their customers probably misunderstood how “thought leadership” should be leveraged in education. As marketers, you have the opportunity to listen to and elevate customers and non-profit experts. Unless you have a credible background in the field you’re serving – say, as a long-time school administrator and teacher – you run the very probable risk of insulting your customers while undermining your company’s credibility. If you understand that, comparatively, you’re not an expert and not likely to be a source of best practices (unlike a marketing team selling marketing software, for example, who very well could be the source of best practices), your content strategy will have a more valuable foundation. Leverage and elevate the expertise of others: it’s more authentic, can build stronger brand loyalty, and is often also less work for your team.
5. Masking opportunism as empathy
If you’re selling to educators, coming off as pedantic or patronizing in the name of “empathy” – which every marketer claims to prioritize – is a cardinal sin. They’re the ones putting in long hours for little pay, supporting the academic, social-emotional, and mental growth of their students. Here are some terms that should absolutely never come from your brand:
- “We help motivate teachers”
If you think that your product is the key to “motivating” teachers, you’ve got another thing coming. In fact, if you think that teachers’ motivation is the problem in education, consider exiting the industry altogether.
This condescending phrase is symptomatic of a total lack of empathy or understanding of educators’ challenges, and by proxy, reveals a team that is likely out of touch with their users. If you’ve heard this phrase, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and go visit as many classrooms as you can.
- “We care about students as much as you do”
Really? Have you even met their students? Probably best not to compare yourself to the people in the trenches with them everyday.
- “This is where learning is going”
In any other industry, well-founded predictions are likely to be well-received. However, this phrase comes across as almost an ultimatum to the teachers who are charting the next generation of learning trends through their hard-earned and rigorously tested best practices. Claiming that your product is at the center of learning is likely baseless, and can come across as out of touch or condescending.
6. Trying to win on price
Being the least expensive option carries the same pitfalls as it does in all other industries. For one, it’s not a true indicator of customer loyalty, traction, or differentiation. By underpricing your product, you can stunt your ability to invest in R&D, reinvest in marketing, or scale more advanced backend product engineering. Limiting capital in this way may also restrict the hiring opportunities you have and the sophistication of the technical talent you can attract, which is a positive feedback loop that impacts subsequent opportunities.
This isn’t unique to edtech, but surprises many revenue leaders who understand that budgets are highly limited in education. While that’s true, consider that textbooks cost between $30 and $200 each. Districts budget according to value, and establishing a slightly longer sales cycle upfront to be budgeted according to value and the cost to run your software is a better long-term bet than underpricing to get your foot in the door, hoping to raise prices in subsequent years. Plus, you leave your sales team no room to discount as a negotiation tactic with customers, who are likely offered discounts by competitors off of a higher list price (and often higher perceived value.) Think about it: if you list your product at $8/student/year, and the sales team negotiates a 50% discount for a large district, the customer feels better about getting $8 software for $4 than they would about paying full-price for a $4 product.
Once a line item appears on a district budget, it is far more difficult to raise the value without starting the entire buying cycle over than it is in other industries. I’ve seen it done, but it needs to be delicately explained and go through more approvers than in private industries.
7. Underestimating community and Influencers
According to EdWeek, 92% of educators consider word of mouth to be the single most important source of new product information. Your Net Promoter Score is key in a finite market – the market is fixed, and the audience talks to each other through regularly scheduled professional development and conferences. Paying attention to customer satisfaction is key to understanding the organic growth loops that word of mouth, and key influencers, will carry. These don’t happen by accident, and they’re an integrated product-marketing function that sometimes means neither department is accountable in early-stage edtech companies. Ignore this at your own peril.
8. Neglecting the base: Trying to go enterprise or branch into another market with excessively different use cases.
The temptation to apply an edtech product to the enterprise space is real. Unfortunately, the workflows and use cases are so disparate between schools and private businesses, that it is exceedingly hard to do this all well within a single product developed. Instead of widening your base of potential customers, you risk diminishing any value in any industry. It can be tempting to take your education tool to the enterprise space, especially industries with substantial capital like pharmaceutical development or energy, but needs to be done highly strategically with a plan to maintain value for the existing customer base. Too often, executive teams start chasing dollars without a methodical plan in place, which almost always leads to scope creep and diminished value for all users. Kahoot! is a prime example –in an attempt to maximize revenue, they fragmented their product strategy away from education into enterprise consumers, weakening the experience for all users.
9. Asking for too many fields on the form
This may sound minor, and not unique to education, but can impact your conversion rate. Unlike in other industries, some of the fields that are of interest to your Sales team may not be known by the buyer completing your forms –like the total number of devices in a district, total number of classrooms, existing technology solutions, etc. Educators are more likely to leave the form to find the answer than other buyers are, and taking them away from the form makes them less likely to complete it (and more likely to discover competitors, run into competing priorities, etc.). If anything, Phase your form fills so the most pertinent contact information is captured on the first page, and you’re still able to follow-up even if they don’t complete subsequent fields.
This should also go without saying, but your Sales team should reference all available information about a customer before their call, and only ask for the same information as they completed on the form to confirm the information they have, not as if it’s entirely new information. This emphasis on delivering value on prospecting calls and respecting their time is vital to busy educators.
10.Confusing elementary and secondary schools and buying processes with higher education
The budgeting and buying processes are completely different in K-12 schools than they are at the college level and beyond. While a single product may be relevant in both markets, treating their sales cycles as cohesive is likely to have a marketing team applying B2B practices to a B2C funnel, or vice versa.
Edtech is one of the most rewarding fields I’ve ever worked in. Many of the core marketing principles are even more essential in edtech marketing, while some need to be modified to be relevant. Getting close to your users and incorporating them into your product and content development can make the difference between incremental and exponential growth. Whatever you do, the first step should be to visit schools – it’s the best part of the job, and will spark creative ideas about how to connect with educators.