Simply put, advisory councils are a group of individuals who faithfully represent your target audience and have agreed to provide you with advice and counsel when you need it. Advisory councils are one of the most valuable weapons you can use in your education marketing arsenal — especially when you are developing programs for K-12 market, which is a peer-to-peer selling environment.
Repeatedly I advise my clients and others who market and sell to educators that customers are the best channel and that educators value the opinions of their peers more than any other source when they are investigating new products or considering buying yours. Those of you who already have an advisory group are nodding your heads in agreement. Those of you who don't may not be convinced.
Advisory councils will help you develop customer-driven marketing strategies. It's tough to stay on top of changes in the school market, educational technology, the curriculum, and the impact of legislation like NCLB without this kind of reality check. Your education marketing programs will be more focused and more in line with the dynamic needs of educators today if you have a regular conduit to the audience you serve.
Advisory councils are an ongoing forum. The continuous dialogue that advisor groups provide is of far greater value than static information obtained through popular market research like focus groups and surveys. Don't get me wrong: surveys and other market studies are foundational to formulating marketing strategy, and the K-12 industry in general does very little. But the market changes rapidly and "just in time" feedback is incredibly valuable.
Advisory councils are an excellent way to gain credibility with educators. Educators are skeptical of outsiders. They want to know you are one of them. Featuring the names of your advisors in marketing communications and your school sales presentations is one way to create or strengthen this link. Recognition is also a motivation for the participants. For both reasons, the names and bios of your advisors should be prominent on your company website and referenced whenever appropriate in your marcomm materials and media releases in education-industry publications.
Advisory councils give you an opportunity to reinforce your relationship with important customers and drive repeat business. An added benefit of more regular communications with your best customers is greater brand loyalty and more repeat business. With regular rotation, you strengthen the ties with the people who value your products and services and are often in a position to buy more.
Advisory councils help you stay abreast of opportunities and trends in the education market. The educational technology market has never been more competitive, and an advisory council can often be your best source of competitive intelligence. With an ear to the ground and on the receiving end of promotions and sales calls from your competitors, they will give you information that would cost you time and money otherwise, or worse, that you would miss entirely, costing you sales opportunities.
Advisory councils can help you get new business. By including prospects and others who are not your customers on your council, you'll have an opportunity to promote your solutions without having to sell. Once the members of your council who are not your customers find out about what you do and are exposed to your best customers, guess what? They buy, too! Selling to schools couldn't be easier.
Yes, for at least a half-dozen reasons, advisory councils are a fabulous investment. Councils will give you a high return on your marketing dollars. But, if poorly created or improperly managed, advisory councils can cause a lot of ill will, too. As I stated earlier, in a market where your success depends on peer-to-peer influence, poor implementation of a council program or failure to serve the needs of the members (while they are serving you) could cause your program to backfire.
Recently I helped a major computer hardware manufacturer put together an educator advisory council program. As part of that process, I interviewed many senior-level administrators who serve or served as advisors to educational publishers and technology companies. As you might expect, I heard the good, the bad, and the ugly. Well-intentioned marketing managers have created some bad press out there, folks. I hope you are not among them! One of the biggest offenses is not respecting your council members as consultants but, instead, asking them always to react to things you've already decided to do. There are also numerous other indiscretions and land mines to avoid.
Among the other common problems I've seen is staging a "love-in" — a council composed entirely of your best customers, those who have an unusually close relationship with (and positive opinion of) your company and your products. While interacting with these folks on a regular basis is fun, their advice may not be balanced enough to give you the unbiased perspective you need to create market-driven strategies.
If you don't have an advisory council, or you are considering putting one in place, I encourage you to get help from someone with experience developing and managing such a program. Besides Focus Marketing, several excellent resources can help you reap the full benefit from all six of the areas I described in this article. Obviously, I'd be thrilled if you checked with me first to see how I could help. I've learned many ways to squeeze every ounce of juice from these groups. But, in any case, I urge you to seek assistance. Like any investment with a potential for stellar returns, there is a significant downside risk. In this situation the perspective of an outside expert will really pay off!
Working with educators on advisory councils has been very rewarding for me during my twenty years of selling and marketing educational technology. I've made lifelong friends and received sage advice that helped me create some great marketing programs (and helped me avoid some marketing miscues). The lessons I learned continue to pay dividends. This is one program that really makes sense! Just do it!