Special education and other rapidly expanding niche markets offer great promise for companies that sell to schools. But education marketing staff and sales managers need to beware of pitfalls in order to take advantage of federal funds like Title I that schools can use to buy a wide range of products and services. Here are seven tips that will help you avoid the pitfalls and effectively sell your products and services to these niche markets.
Tip #1: Develop In-Depth Knowledge About Several of the Largest Niche Markets. Special education, Title I, and eRate are complex. But you can help schools tap into these funds to buy your products if you understand the legal framework, the principles underlying these programs, and how the programs operate. If you don't, then you and your sales staff may need training to acquire the language of the niche and oft-used acronyms as well as verboten phrases (e.g., "students with disabilities" rather than "handicapped students").
Tip #2: Unlearn Traditional Education Marketing Advice. Some school marketing rules do not apply to niche marketing. For example, most educational marketers target high-wealth schools. The opposite should occur in Title I. Also important to keep in mind is that, rather than targeting districts with large Title I funding, focus on districts with recent and unexpected increases in Title I funding where you are more likely to get results.
Tip #3: Position Products and Services to Increase Comfort Level. The key decision-makers in niche markets are administrators, such as special education district coordinators, principals, and technology coordinators. If you sell instructional products, position them as research-based proven approaches to increase student performance. Your product positioning and education marketing message should also increase the comfort level of these administrators; for example, make sure your pricing options accommodate the niche funding and budgeting process.
Tip #4: Don't Assume School Administrators Are Aware of Flexibility on Allowable Uses of Federal Funds. Even though federal officials have strongly encouraged districts to take advantage of flexibility provisions, many local superintendents and even coordinators of federal programs are not aware of these flexibility provisions and, in some cases where they are aware, are not taking full advantage of them. When you sell to these individuals, do not assume they know about the flexibility provided in the programs. Indeed, one of the most effective means you can use to get through to them is to make them aware. For example, for a direct-marketing campaign we developed, the opening sentence to principals of school-wide programs was, "Now that you as a principal in a school-wide program can comingle Title I and IDEA funds for purchasing a student information system..." This received an unusually high response rate.
Tip #5: Use Consultative Selling to Educate Niche Market Decision Makers. Key to successful consultative selling is providing new, useful information to district administrators of federal programs. Many people who sell to schools complain that it takes 10 to 12 phone calls to get through to a large urban Title I coordinator. One sure way to get immediate attention is to tell whoever answers the phone that you would like to make the Title I coordinator aware that they will be receiving an increase in federal funding next year of approximately "x" amount. Dropping the name of the district superintendent or the name of the Director of Special Education Programs may actually backfire in many districts because such niches represent "encampments" of an overall feudal system in which bureaucratic turf battles with Title I often occur. If you are looking for districts likely to receive eRate refunds, for example, it is much safer and effective to have a principal or other decision-maker who wishes to purchase your product but doesn't have the money to contact the eRate office to determine whether any eRate refunds are available for purchasing. If you cold-call the eRate office, you are walking through a political land mine. The payoff for providing new information about funding increases, or other items noted above, is increased likelihood that these individuals will call back later about updates. This can lead to a long-term professional relationship and a loyal customer.
Tip #6: Be Prepared to Move Quickly to Take Advantage of Targets of Opportunity. If you want to take advantage of special opportunities, you need to be ready. Successful selling also requires good timing in these niche markets. For example, the allocation process and purchasing cycle for Title I and special education funds have changed dramatically. In 2000, for instance, districts received 60% of their Title I funds in July and August, with the remaining sent out a week before Thanksgiving. But the following school year, only 25% was allocated during the summer, with 75% withheld until after October 1. If your sales and marketing plan were based on outdated K-12 purchasing cycles, then you would have missed the opportunity!