Forward to the past: How technology is bringing back grassroots educational marketing

At the SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum in New York last month, one source of buzz was “consumerization.”  The term appeared a few days later in an  Education Week article focusing on Schoology and other “freemium” models. While I agree it’s an important trend, I demur on the new term.  These models don’t really involve the “consumer” at all (with some exceptions, but that’s another story).  Instead, they capitalize on online program delivery to revive a very old and proven way to sell into schools: start with the teacher.

In the “old days,” say up to about 10 years ago, a common way for small and scrappy start-ups (hereinafter SASSUs) to get around their lack of name recognition, huge salesforces, and enormous adoption machines was direct marketing to teachers (and librarians, and school Title I coordinators, and sometimes even principals – in other words, school-based educators).  Some SASSUs did it locally by hobnobbing with teachers and attending local conferences.  Some did it regionally or nationally with direct mail (later including email), national shows, and journal ads.  But the idea was always the same: Get a few teachers to adopt the product, use their experience to sell their peers in their own school or those nearby, and eventually build critical mass for larger and higher-level sales.

That strategy got tougher in recent years as it grew harder and more expensive to get responses from teachers (especially due to email saturation and decline in conference attendance), and especially as districts centralized decision-making and clamped their hands around the purse-strings.  But now two things are converging to bring the old model back, even better: a return to site-based decision-making, and online delivery.

Site-based decision-making means that in many districts, principals can once again spend their schools’ funds as best they see fit – as long as they deliver required results in terms of test scores at the end of the year.  Online delivery means vendors can provide products to lots of people a) cheaply, b) provisionally, c) with different features sets depending on needs and ability to pay.

Schoology, in the EdWeek article, uses one of the common strategies. Their single-teacher course-management system is free, but if schools or districts want an enterprise version, they pay a subscription fee – and get central management, advanced data analytics, and professional development resources.  (Schoology is also typical in another respect: Mr. Pomeroy, the district director of technology the article quotes,  had never heard of them, even though nearly 10% of the district’s students were using it through teacher-level adoption).

Another “freemium” strategy can be to offer limited features or content free, and charge users for upgrades and schools for even more features and administrative capabilities. One SASSU doing that is  Nearpod ; their story was presented at SIIA by my colleague Neal Goff, who works with them. Neal said in 6 months the product – which lets teachers push content to iPads in 1:1 classrooms – has spread to more than 50,000 teachers in 100 countries and is starting to generate schoolwide adoptions at a satisfactory rate.

Then there’s the (by now) standard model of the limited-time free pilot of the full product.  The problems with that model can be very low conversion rates (especially if the product requires much training or is very complex to implement); coupled with the low entry-barrier to accepting “free,” that means you have to generate an awful lot of trials to make a sale.  So you have to generate a lot of leads and be very conscious of Cost Per Lead and sales cost.  These problems can also apply in different ways to the freemium models, of course.

Advantages to what we might broadly call the “free-but” model (in its various incarnations) include that low barrier to trial, the goodwill that comes from offering help to teachers without payment, the potential to go “viral” and build referrals, and the ability to get quick feedback on a new product and change it quickly in the field to fit new intelligence about what the market needs.  The downside is that there has to be enough value in the upgrade to make users feel it’s worth paying for instead of just sticking with the “free.”  And at some point you still need salespeople to make the conversion, though it can help to have users in the school or district, so you can tell your equivalent of Mr. Pomeroy: “Don’t believe me – ask your teachers.”

To make this work, you do need to have a product with a relatively simple and clear benefit.  It has to help the teacher quickly enough and substantially enough that he/she is willing to go to bat for you.  Which means it’s really got to solve a problem, and help kids learn quicker, easier, and/or better.

But since that’s why we’re all in this business anyway – that really should be doable, shouldn’t it?

About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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