How to Get a Bigger Slice of the K-12 Sales Pie

You have aggressive goals ahead. Your company needs more K-12 business, but your voice messages to school administrators are not returned. Emails go unanswered. Pushbacks and endless delays in the K-12 sales cycle make you crazy.  

What is hindering you from getting a bigger slice of the K-12 sales pie? Could it be that you're trying to reach too many people? Or could it be that you are pursuing the wrong people or that your message isn't attracting their attention? If any of this hits home, it may be time for market segmentation analysis. 

Segmentation analysis sounds like it should be someone else's job. But I learned a valuable lesson early in my sales career. I was trying to boil the ocean (a very large territory) and I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall. My manager insisted that I spend time for market analysis (the dreaded "A" word) to help me prioritize my work. I didn't know how to go about it, but he convinced me it was a necessary process. Now could be the right time for you to do some analysis and to refocus your sales and marketing strategy with the goal of different — and better — results ahead.

Right. Right. You Bloody Well Right!

The word "analysis" sometimes causes us to think too scientifically, when actually, developing a targeted marketing approach is both art and science. The essence — the end game — enables you to attract the right people with the right message with the right media at the right time with the right product at the right price... RIGHT?  Right!

Now, here's the rub.  When you commit to marketing with the goal of attracting the right audience with the right message, you are also, by necessity, deciding to say "No," to some opportunities. Narrowing the target — really focusing — strikes many people as a risky, counter-intuitive strategy. But, be assured, the reason to analyze the market is to identify niches, the people in the school market most likely to value your product or service. If you do this properly, and certainly in a balanced way, some of the frustrations you feel about the K-12 market will ease up. Positive financial results will come with owning at least one segment before expanding to others.  By "own" I mean having a market share position that makes you the supplier of choice for your segment.

The School Market is Very Relational. The Slices are People!

There’s a key point which I'm reminded of when people contact me to get K-12 sales and marketing advice. One of the first things I ask them to do is to describe their target market.  Usually what I hear are things like Title 1 Districts, elementary reading, the early childhood market, high schools, middle school math departments, or private schools. Even marketing managers and senior executives describe their target audience as geographic locations, institutions, subjects, or demographic segments. And, when you look at customer databases for education market companies, you see the same thing. The typical customer database is organized as list of states, regions, K-12 school districts, and names of schools — not people. Countries, states, buildings, academic disciplines and grade levels, positions on a market map — all of those are useful data points, but they are inanimate. A sterile data-driven view of the K-12 sales pie contributes to impersonalization of our sales and marketing strategies. In a market of buyers who are very relational, an impersonal approach is high risk.  The K-12 school market is highly relational.

I coach myself and I encourage you, as well, to picture your market segment as a group of people, not just a spreadsheet of data, a position on a "market map" or a slice of a pie.  Markets are not just maps, buildings, grade levels or academic disciplines. Markets are human beings. And this is where the art comes in. Your buyers are flesh. But they are more than physical objects like school buildings — not just skeleton and muscle. Like you, your prospects have emotions and attitudes that drive their buying behavior more than logic. We have to know the mindset of the people who are part of our target audience so we understand their needs and can more effectively communicate how they will benefit (personally, at an emotional level) from what we have to offer.

The Secret Sauce to K-12 Sales and Marketing Success

Most segmentation analysis is too centered on the science (demographics) and takes too little account of the art (psychographics).  I'm guilty of being out of balance, too, because the mindset stuff is very time consuming and shifting the emphasis with clients is very difficult.  But I'm convinced that psychographic analysis is the secret sauce to sales and marketing success. The right formulation goes beyond collecting the raw data and the "speeds and feeds" of the market. It has to be more than just mapping the market. You have to do the work to really understand the people who make up your highest opportunity segment. You need to know their interests, their personal values, their attitudes, and even their stage of life.  

We have always been able to get demographic data for the school market quickly and easily from the government.  The main source is the federally funded NCES and the census. So the data part is pretty easy. We also have some really cool tools and services available to us for data analysis and for creating market maps. But how do you gain insight about the people behind the data? How can you know about the individuals in positions on market maps who might be ready to buy your product or service and who would really benefit from doing business with you?

Do School Administrators Drive Subarus?

Good segment analysis answers those questions by going beyond demographics and cool looking market maps. It leans on primary investigative research driven by surveys, focus groups, and most importantly by asking questions when we meet and talk with prospects and customers. Sales people are coached to be consultative. Sales trainers tell us to listen and ask questions before launching into a sales pitch. But even the great sales coaches I've worked with don't talk much about the personal questions you could (and should) ask prospects. Call reports and CRM entries rarely include the psychographic information that would provide us with important clues to targeted marketing.  

When I used to call on school administrators, I'd pay close attention and make note of things in my prospect's office. I'd ask them about their hobbies. I'd make note of books on the prospect's desk, and even the clothes he or she was wearing. And then I started noticing patterns. The patterns proved invaluable in helping me more quickly identify good prospects for what I was selling and have a more productive work life. In this day and age of email and phone prospecting this type of observation isn't easy but is still possible by asking the right questions and with good listening skills.

It's really important to remind yourself (over and over again) and set expectations with skeptics you work with that segmentation analysis will not produce a clean dividing line between those who are an ideal prospect and those who aren't. Nothing about human nature is black and white or consistent. The goal of a comprehensive (and ongoing) segmentation analysis is to look for factors and particular traits that are more or less common with your target audience than with the general population of K-12 buyers. It's about being able to predict who will be more likely than average to resonate with your offer.

Another thing I've learned over the many years I've been doing this type of work is that segmentation factors and predictive traits may not be obviously related to your product or service. This is well-accepted concept in consumer marketing, but may seem odd and irrelevant for K-12 sales and marketing. For example, if you sell a reading intervention product and you discover that 75% of your best customers drive a Subaru. This type of non-intuitive brand association, which can often be related to your buyer's attitudes and beliefs, opens up a huge range of powerful sales and marketing opportunities.  Do you know this type of information about your customers? 

Here are a few of the type of questions you might think about as you move to more clearly profile your targeted segment. Do decision makers share any particular personality traits? Do they wear certain types of clothes or have a particular political viewpoint? Do they like certain colors, foods or sports? How might their personality traits or behaviors affect your marketing message, or the way you try to attract them? How can you allow for these similarities and differences in your marketing?

Become a Segmentation Artist - the Real "A" Word!

You won’t find all the answers to all your questions about every audience segment you identify, and you won't find all the answers all at once. However, the more information you gather now and keep gathering about the attitudes and beliefs of your prospects, the richer you can make your audience profiles. The more deeply you understand them, the easier it will be to develop sales and marketing programs that resonate with them. The more they are attracted to you, the sooner you'll see positive results in meeting your goals.  You have to change your mindset to make this work and seem more natural.

As I conclude this article on a critically important topic, I am reminded again that the key take away is for us to reset our ideas about target marketing. Developing audience profiles is the art of marketing. Gathering the hard data about the market and drawing a map of what the market looks like are part of the process because they form the basis for our market position. We have some powerful marketing analytic tools to make this a richer part of the process. But you will also need to understand what makes your prospects tick (and why) and use insight and creativity to complete the portrait of your ideal segment, a segment you can own.

Start with as many facts as you can find (the science) and the layout of the market. Then, flesh out that picture based on what you learn from psychographic profiling.  That word "flesh" really is the word to remember from this article, because segments are people — real flesh - not pie slices, places on a market map, or numbers in a spreadsheet.  Remember also that the segmentation exercise is never complete. Just like your daily exercise routine, the personal part of segment analysis is will help you keep your marketing plan in shape and your financials healthy. You can learn more about your audience and deepen the relationship every day, even if you spend thirty minutes each day to do it. The more often you spend getting to really know your customers, the more clear the picture becomes of who your best prospects are and the more effective and rewarding your sales and marketing work will be. You should be able to tell a detailed story about a hypothetical customer — a story that paints a picture of a person — a buyer — who is part of the segment you've decided to focus on and can serve totally. Can you do that today? If not, it's time today - right now- for you to set your goal to become a segmentation artist - the real "A" word!


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About the Author

Glen McCandless is president of Focus Marketing Inc., a business development firm that specializes in the educational technology market. Glen has over 25 years of experience helping companies efficiently and effectively sell and market technology products and services to K-12 and higher education buyers. For more information, please contact

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