Are your school marketing and sales initiatives as efficient and effective as you would like them to be? Perhaps it’s tough to gain consensus about how to spend your precious budget to drive sales. Your experience of late may be similar to what I’ve heard from education marketing managers of companies pursuing the K-12 market. Overall, we're seeing lower email response rates, smaller attendance and reduced results from educator conference exhibits, and a tougher time getting through to school administrators who make the big purchasing decisions. These conditions are symptomatic and should remind you of the dynamics that have created a buyer-driven education market. As we’ve witnessed in consumer and business markets, senior decision-makers who manage our schools are not engaged by push tactics and sales promotions as they were ten years ago. The methods our industry traditionally relied on to move sales through the pipeline are not performing as well as in the past. Don’t expect things to return to “normal.” If you want the another perspective, be sure to listen to my interview with education marketing programs expert, Claire Erwin, on STS Radio. Claire has been managing marketing programs for over a decade and can tell you about their impact.
I remember the good old days when I was a marketing manager for an educational software company. The answer to my sales issues was to get louder by putting more feet on the street (I was always looking to find another independent rep!). Then, a sales promotion (price discount, bundle offer, premium incentive, and other enticements) at the end of the calendar quarter or academic year broadcast out to a database list or prospects was the way to hit my sales target. For sales managers and sales reps, price discounting was always seen as an answer to getting reluctant buyers to commit. But now, for an increasingly savvy buyer audience, reps banging on their doors and the “white-sale” tactics we relied on are not having the impact they did just a few years ago. Cutting price threatens your profit margin, already pressured in a highly competitive education market with shrinking budgets for products and services. Competing on product features isn’t the answer to the problem, either. Prospective buyers tune out the marketing messages they see repeatedly in email subject lines and on websites from almost every supplier. Everybody and everything sounds the same. People promise their solution is the best solution to a problem. Hopefully, I’ve made my point that now could be the right time for you and your colleagues to retool your education marketing and channel plans.
I have always advocated marketing programs over promotions. I earned a reputation for developing and implementing successful programs when I was responsible for education marketing at Apple several years ago. But I think innovative education marketing programs are more relevant now than ever before. Before I continue to make the case to change your marketing strategy, let's make sure you know the difference between a sales promotion and a marketing program, or when you would benefit most from one approach compared to another. Because there is no consistent lexicon, misunderstandings occur. The table below shows the distinctions. These boil down to strategic business and channel development -- profit-oriented moves -- contrasted with tactical short-term revenue-focused sales methods.
You are already being affected by several developments in the K-12 school market that negatively impact traditional school sales and marketing methods. These trends will continue to impose limitations on your efficiency in reaching your current customers and finding new ones. The changes we’ve witnessed for the last few years are only the beginning. The train has left the station, as the old saying goes: You can either enjoy the ride or be thrashed around by it. Here are five trends that have, and will continue to, put pressure on your education marketing and sales plans:
The ubiquity of the web. Universal access to faster, higher bandwidth networks means educators you want to do business with can get the information they want and interact with the people they choose to when it is convenient for them, and in a variety of satisfying formats. They still love face-to-face interaction and prefer to press the flesh but, increasingly, budgets and schedules make it less practical to do so.
Information overload. Voice mail and email combined with wireless access and ubiquitous mobile communications devices create an information overload that make it challenging for decision-makers to manage their time and stay focused. Effectively, they have tuned you out.
Declining results from traditional methods. Response to traditional discrete push-type communications channels is dropping. Attendance at educational conferences is stagnant due to travel restrictions, especially at many national conferences. Conversion rates from direct mail, email, and other forms of outbound communication is declining, making it more difficult for suppliers to reach the audience of school administrators who make buying decisions.
Product oversaturation and hype. Product feature sets are no longer the primary source for meaningful competitive advantage for education marketing. In many core solutions — areas reading and math, for example — the number of products to choose from is staggering. Administrators don't have time to sort it all out. Instead, they look for added value and more substantive, continuous relationships with their suppliers.
Education marketing programs have never been more appropriate than they are now, yet few mangers in our industry have embraced them or begun shifting their investments accordingly. The old methods of block-and-tackle field sales, cold calling, trade-show exhibits, and doing product demos have huge inertia. It seems that our paradigms blind us from new ideas, or fear and doubt hold us back from the commitment to investing in more meaningful and sustainable sales and marketing strategies. I'm sure your company offers webinars and other types of web-based marketing, mostly to demonstrate products or deliver some type of sales pitch. That’s a move in the right direction.
But does this channel strategy distinguish your company and product from a crowded field? Scheduling more sales webinars is not the answer to building sustainable value for your company, given the incredibly challenging sales environment ahead. I am not suggesting that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm not proposing that you cancel your trade show schedule, stop doing press releases, or cut out things that are productive. My challenge to you is to begin rebalancing your sales and marketing portfolio and to start taking advantage of higher returns offered through value-oriented, sustainable, and integrated channel positions. You probably have some questions right now. Here are a few that may be on your mind.
What the heck does all this mean, practically speaking? What types of education marketing programs should I be considering? Why invest in something new when everyone in the company seems convinced that doing webinars and exhibiting at trade shows is still the best way to drive sales and my budget is being cut anyway? How will I convince the boss (or the board of directors) to invest in a marketing program that won’t instantly deliver a stack of leads (even if they aren’t qualified!)? Maybe you simply want to look me in the eye and say, “Prove it!”
I know there are many skeptics out there. Sometimes even facts fail to convince people. Maybe you are doubtful or have objections stirring in your head right now. I’ve heard dozens of excuses and rationalizations for not making the leap to create a sustainable, long-term education marketing program, and some of them are legitimate. But evidence exists that this strategy makes sense for many companies. Let me give you one example that may jump-start your thinking or help you change some minds in your company.
Several years ago (before high-bandwidth ubiquitous networks), I was hired to design an education marketing program for Adobe. The program I developed is called “Partners by Design.” This initiative was a response to Adobe's need to establish a stronger loyalty base, to reliably secure renewal revenue and account expansion. The focus was to secure a strategically-important niche: top-design schools that feed the commercial graphics design industry, and to address competitive pressures. Unlike price promotions or trade-show exhibits, I built the program around professional development opportunities for educators, community-building to ignite word-of-mouth advertising, and a fabulous awards program. The high-profile annual design competition, “Adobe Design Achievement Awards,” captured the attention of the entire industry and gave Adobe a very strong competitive position both in the education market and in the commercial segment. Perhaps you noticed Adobe’s strong revenue and profit performance. I certainly don’t take credit for that, but Adobe has consistently made good strategic choices when it comes to sales and marketing investments, and the results speak for themselves. If you want to know more, visit the Adobe Partners by Design Web page.
I have been working diligently for the last few years to take the successful education marketing program models I constructed in the past (like Partners by Design) to a new level. Newer versions of the tried-and-true are enabled by technology enhancements — notably, the Web, high-bandwidth ubiquitous networks, inexpensive communications devices, and the obvious trends toward these tools getting more powerful and less expensive. I’m excited about some of the new ideas I’m working on with my clients. There’s no guarantee that every marketing program will be a big success. There are few guarantees in life. Certainly, for companies operating on a shoestring and unable to invest in marketing, this is not a solution. These strategic programs have to be well designed and carefully executed, with a real corporate commitment, proper timing, and a bit of luck. But I am convinced that three to five years from now, technology enhancements and market trends combined will produce high returns on well-constructed initiatives and improve the value of education marketing programs. I suggest you seriously consider three fundamental principles and foundational approaches to education marketing programs that are supercharged by technology-enabled enhancements:
Suppliers and customers as partners. Effective marketing programs use a tightly integrated sustainable approach that forges lasting and collaborative relationships between solutions providers and school administrators, breaking down traditional supplier-customer barriers to create meaningful communication and build strong brand loyalty.
Discussion and collaboration. Including relevant “pull-centric” and “virtual” components is a basis for focused discussions and collaboration that leverages peer-to-peer influence and educators’ natural desire for supporting one another.
If you are fortunate enough to have a reliable marketing budget and you are in a position to commit to the long term, then constructing value-focused education marketing programs is the way to go. I realize some of you may still not understand this concept completely. You may be skeptical of new things, or you and your management team may be afraid to commit to the programmatic plunge. You may dig your heels in and conclude, “We can’t afford it.” The easiest thing to do is to continue with the same marketing and sales methods you’ve done for years or to go with the flow and do what everybody else is doing, which, of course, ensures you will see the same results. If that's okay, then who can argue? But, if you agree that the trends listed earlier in this article are real, then how confident are you that methods of the past will sustain your company's growth for the future? If you are happy with the sales results and profits you are getting now, that’s terrific. But I still stand by my opinion, based on many years of experience, that a well-designed, sustained marketing program will beat the pants off most of the channels in which you have been investing. Why am I so convinced? Besides the programs I personally have developed during my 25-plus-year career in the educational technology industry, there are excellent examples of other savvy education marketing professionals who have decided to do things differently and have nice profit margins and commanding market share to prove that their ideas worked. The 10Qs of these companies have the numbers to prove it so you don't have to trust my advice.
Emphasizing programs over promotions isn’t my idea. I just grabbed hold of the concept early in my career. I believed in the concept, ran with it, and it worked. I've seen powerful results from a few like-minded company managers in the education industry that reinforce my belief. Remarkably, I still have to make a pitch like this long article to try to convince others to get with the program! You can do this, too, even if you don’t have a big marketing budget. It just takes leadership to make the change and a willingness to do something different. You don't have to set up shop at the next ten trade shows to keep your bottom line looking good. I’d be happy to share examples with you anytime: just give me a call. Let me close this article by saying that in today’s market, you will get ahead only by stepping out of the pack. Your choice is to continue to pay a high cost of sales that is hammering your bottom line, or you can consider the incredible value of sustainable education marketing programs and innovations that will move your company into a market-leader position. It’s really about becoming a market leader. Isn’t that the position you’d like to be in?