Let Your Lighthouse Accounts Show the Way Forward in the Education Market

Market Insight
Jacob Hanson

Lighthouse accounts—your earliest customers—can be incredibly powerful resources in sharing your message with potential future clients. But these special customers need time to get to know your product and your company before you have the ability to convert them into brand champions and advocates for your solution(s).  

What Lighthouse Accounts Are—and What They Are Not

More often than not, “lighthouse account” is pretty much synonymous with “early adopter,” which I think of as a mindset or persona. Early adopters are the folks who are always in line for the newest iPhone because they want to be the first one with the new device and access to the newest features. They’re folks who seek out and take advantage of opportunities to be on the cutting edge.

When I hear “lighthouse account” I don't attach it to quite the same thing. Now obviously, these people need to have the mindset that they're willing to try something new and take on the risks of being an early adopter, but the term “lighthouse” is particular to a specific company or product.

In fact, lighthouse accounts may be hugely risk-averse most of the time and never want to be the first people trying something new. But what if the founder of a new company is their brother-in-law or their niece developed the app? What if they have a particular challenge and a new product is the only solution they’ve found so far? There are lots of circumstances in which a person or company who is decidedly not an early adopter can become the first account for a given company, thus becoming a lighthouse account.


The Value of Lighthouse Testimonials are as Different as the Clients Themselves

No two lighthouse accounts are equal. Some may not even know they’re a lighthouse account, because few startups want to tell someone, “You’re our first customer.”

Others may be actual beta testers, the users who are signing on to help develop and refine the product prior to its public launch. They may get a better deal, or even get to use the product for free in exchange for giving feedback.

In any case, if you treat them well and keep them around, they can provide testimonials that speak to longevity. The customer who’s been in beta testing for six months can talk about the iteration process from a user perspective, how frequently improvements roll out, and customer service. They’re able to tell other prospects how willing a company is to shift based on user needs and feedback or otherwise address issues that the company didn’t anticipate or features that that were more valuable than they knew at the beginning. Lastly, the hope is that they are able to talk about the results they hoped to achieve compared to those they realized.

The true value in lighthouse accounts is their ability to become thought partners who provide valuable information for the development and iteration process. This may not lead to testimonials immediately, but it could lead to some very powerful testimonials and case studies down the road. Your first users are the ones who will find your warts, and they’re the ones who will see how quickly you address them. You’ll want to use these lighthouse accounts to ensure that future prospects don’t feel as though they are first to use your product, but that they have the opportunity to benefit from those early adopters’ feedback and success with the product.

Eventually, your lighthouse accounts can testify not just to the quality of your product, but to the culture of your company.

How to Identify the Lighthouse You Want to Tap

When identifying lighthouse accounts to partner with, longevity is not the only metric to consider. If you have data you can access to see what kinds of results users are seeing with your product, that’s important information, too. Principal Smith might be a phenomenal champion for a company she’s been with since the beginning, but when the company looks into usage stats they may find only a couple of teachers have actually used it. If that’s the case, Principal Smith probably isn’t a great choice, no matter how strongly she believes in the company and its product.

If there’s no usage data available—and even when there is—another important metric to look at is communication. Are they reaching out and openly discussing their suggestions, questions, and other thoughts? When you reach out, are they responding?

What you’re really trying to find out by looking at these things—longevity, usage, and communication—is how strong is the relationship? If the other two components are really strong, longevity may not even be particularly relevant.

 How to Approach a Lighthouse

When trying to figure out how to work with a lighthouse account to get the most value from the partnership, it’s important to start with what you’re asking of them and what benefit they’ll see from it.

If you lean on them for research and development or product improvement—turning them into beta testers or pilot customers, as well as lighthouse accounts—that benefits them because you’re hearing their feedback and improving the product they use. People see those as real benefits—and you’re letting them know you think they’re special along the way.

If you’re leveraging their story for PR or marketing opportunities, the same questions apply: What are you going to ask? What should they expect in return?

At PRP, we talk all the time with educators who don’t need anything more than their name in print. They’re just so excited about the opportunity that seeing their results showcased in a case study or article or webinar is a reward in and of itself.

But we also talk to people who are a bit more curmudgeonly—they may even be contractually obligated to do a case study or something—and just aren’t super interested in the opportunity. Eager partners are the best partners, so if there’s any way to sweeten the deal for more reluctant folks, it’s always a good idea to do it.

Asking yourself what the win is for them is just incredibly important. People get tired of being asked for their time and effort without getting anything in return. Fortunately, companies have a lot of wins to offer up, from naming a customer an educator advisor to offering a guest blogger spot.


What to Avoid

The biggest thing to avoid is asking for too much. Across the board, I see people being pretty cautious about how much they ask of their champion customers, but sometimes I’ll work with an end user and our client will say, “Oh, by the way, they’re coming with me to pitch investors next week, and they’re presenting at a conference for us in a month.” That might be okay if this customer sees and values the wins these opportunities afford them, but overburdening champion customers is something to keep top of mind.

Another pitfall I see sometimes when we’re interviewing customers is that the product they signed up for and use is not really the same as the one currently available. Perhaps, as an early customer, they’ve received so much customization that it’s not really scalable and can’t be offered to other users. That customer feels special, and that’s great, but the reader is going to look at an article highlighting the lighthouse account and realize they can’t actually get the product that user is talking about.

A final challenge is pretty similar to that one. What does pricing look like for the lighthouse account? Early customers and beta testers often get discounts for their contributions. Educators and administrators are pretty savvy folks, so they may well reach out to someone they see featured by a company and ask what they paid, then use that information as leverage to get a lower price out of you.

To prevent issues like that, it’s important to have a conversation with lighthouse users about any information you’d prefer wasn’t public knowledge.

 Lighthouses Are about the Long Game

Lighthouse accounts can be a fantastic resource, but they need to grow and mature. Just because you have your first customer doesn’t mean you have your first lighthouse. They work best as partners, and partnerships take time and attention to develop.


About the Author

Jacob Hanson is the CEO of PR with Panache!, an award winning integrated marketing and PR firm that serves the PreK-12 education market. Follow him on twitter, @PRPanacheJacob , connect on LinkedIn or subscribe to PRP’s blog to get more of these types of tips in your inbox every week.

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