Nearly every EdTech company has an incorrect definition of marketing. Marketers ask sales staff what they’d like to do, and they always say more events. Every EdTech vendor spends enormous amounts of money on events. Events are technically not marketing; they are an activity of sales.
After the Dotcom bust over twenty years ago, thousands of tech sales staff that had pioneered selling tech back when it was a literal revolution to change operations and use computer and networking tech in any industry, jumped out on their Golden Parachutes and landed as top executives in new, smaller companies. Those reps did a tremendous amount of cold-calling originally to build big tech business and later emailing, much later. They had that old definition of sales as in being fast-talkers who came up with innumerable arguments for why you needed to buy something. They traveled to meetings and exhibited at industry shows. They went door to door. When they boomed their companies before the bust, they hired behind them large numbers of “salespeople,” which were really order takers, that the original skilled salespeople barely had time to train in the old-time ways. These new reps had never lived the drudgery of raw cold calling but were capable at talking features and benefits of products and wrangling final paperwork to close business. They did not have to be highly imaginative to “get in” in the first place because earlier trailblazers had created a tsunami of interest and they were given small and predictable territories to govern.
Marketing meanwhile pre-bust was defined by advertising and public relations. Just that, it wasn’t confined to lead generation through social media posting, placing Google ad-words, creating brochures and websites. Marketers of that earlier time were unconcerned about what went on in sales except from a very high-level view, as if they were the air support flying fighter jets over the battlefield below and dropping marketing bombs meant to drive interest. They were the “Mad Men” of old, now applied to the tech industry. There are very, very few of these in EdTech.
Marketing’s original definition was leading with ideas, narratives and images. They framed the story of the brand and the big “why” to potential buyers. If a company didn’t have an internal agency, they used Madison Avenue in New York or Media Gulch in San Francisco which hosted tons of advertising agencies to develop campaigns. Yet today most EdTech companies use only public relations, the poor substitute for advertising that tends to bore readers and is non-visual. Real advertising, not the modern-day ad-word ranking, is carried in on sought-after subscriber material. This doesn’t seem to be a concern for many EdTech companies today – having their message arrive on a carrier wave of already-wanted-information.
Now marketing is defined as lead generation. Why? Because sales reps aren’t hunters anymore, they are mostly gatherers. They are usually quick to blame marketing for lack of leads when in fact the older definition of sales was hunting, and marketing was air support to soften prospects up to receive the incoming calls. Now the idea of outbound cold calling is met with a blank stare by many reps who may not even know who the right titles would be to create a community of interest and budget authority in a district prospect. They may honestly think that the “Procurement Manager” or the “Tech Director” is the right person to call in all instances, when in fact it’s more probably the people running the academics who would decide on wide initiatives because they effect their direct staff – the teachers. They may think that the Superintendent or Principal is a fine target but lack the ability to contextualize an individual product within a greater scheme of all the tech already in use or lead the reasoning that would cause those leaders to drive institution-wide initiatives despite push-back from teachers.
The best of the best of old-time marketers funded or sponsored major non-product-oriented activities that would ignite the imagination of potential buyers. Major brands still include to this day things like major research surveys, independent whitepapers and reports, all things that “envelope” or provide a new understanding and logic that influences all the brands in a category to drive the entirety. It’s the “rising tide raises all boats” type of marketing. They found or invented a way of presenting or understanding a situation that reflected and promoted a particular point of view or set of values that would drive their brand.
Sales people typically do not do this unless they are trained to do so. Most would not be interested in such things. They arrive in dialogue with a prospect, if they arrive at actually talking to anyone at all these days, with a view of their own tech but no or limited view to the greater tech scene in schools. Or to the directionality of that tech, where it is taking schools, the burden on the various functions, the missing tech and missing understandings leading to their sales failure.
Sales failure, in the old days, was considered first a marketing failure. Leaders of companies went back to the basic of how they are messaging their products, against the rest of their industry, and rarely blamed sales staff and fired them. Marketing was in the hot seat first.
Today, an EdTech company will fire sales reps far faster than pro-marketers if they have pro-marketers at all. They will not question how their message is getting in, they will question what people who work for them are doing to get the message in. They will rarely question the message itself and why it’s unappealing or just stonewalled. For this reason, EdTech salespeople should defend marketing for its true definition: idea creation and dissemination, enveloping messaging, advertising and not lead gen. This separation of duties between marketing and sales protects sales jobs.
Companies may think they are marketing EdTech, but they are not – they are fielding people and arriving at events as almost the only thing they really do with impact. They will defend this face-to-face activity as marketing. They will not even think of the scale of their small army as incredibly negligible against the massiveness of the market.
Why is this so endemic in the EdTech industry but not others? Having worked in other fields, education is by far the most reliant on events and PR. Other fields have very little they invest in outside PR companies doing routine press releases.
One clue is that the education industry distributes through people as well, having a teacher-centric mechanism in traditional schools, and if a teacher is doing poorly or off-the-rails in some way they are fired. Administrations think of their mechanism to cause learning as people. Since most leaders of EdTech companies are former teachers and leaders in education institutions, this thinking has carried into how they go to market. K-12 schools are rarely advertisers, as anyone can see. Now that competition is the chaos of the open markets and staggering increases in homeschooling, many of them are seeing that they will need to.
The idea of organized institutions itself is under attack.
School leaders consider their powerful help is so irrefutably good that it would never occur to them to market, since good stuff should be viral and part of the consciousness of the community naturally. This is the same with many EdTech companies who consider that their amazing product once launched out with a press release and some reps standing at a table in a local association show will just spread like wildfire. They quickly find that this is not so. The other way to break in with EdTech is to use the “old boy” network and the wealth of giant investment groups to seduce in the big beach-head accounts, mostly by giving away company equity and sacrificing autonomy. The “old boy” network does exist, as repugnant as the unfairness of power-brokering is to both diversity and equity of opportunity for owners of new EdTech which are more frequently left out as minorities or female, but it is dying. The pandemic accelerated that loss of power of the old guard, leaving a vacuum that needs to be filled.
It has also accelerated the loss of smaller associations, and EdTech media hubs which are being starved of advertising even while companies desire to post their unpaid press releases.
It has always been wrong-headed how EdTech companies think that a good product so far outweighs the hard work and investment to get it out there, known broadly, and accepted by the media hubs in EdTech through advertising. Yes, by advertising you do buy intangible influence beyond the ads themselves. Any publisher won’t want to admit this, but it is true. There are tons of products in other industries that are pretty crappy but that manage to make amazing revenues through brilliant advertising, not necessarily sales staff. Does Amazon have sales staff? Not until very recently for their retail site online, which had already swept retail dominance in the last two decades. Do you see commercials constantly on T.V. for things you could pay less for if you shopped around a bit? Yes. Tons of highly hyped products earn enormously over their cost of production by advertising operations.
More importantly, those operations weave the logic of products, and they don’t neglect the real competition which is everything else anyone could possibly spend limited monies on.
What are the other things schools could possibly spend on? You know what they are, and the majority of that is people. Teachers and administrators at a time when there is a shortage of them should provide a nexus of opportunity for EdTech, but instead it is barely doing that.
It’s time for EdTech to take issue with the non-survival attitudes of schools which lock them into an ancient structure and relegate EdTech to a “tool” only. To “supplemental” only. EdTech companies should be taking issue with the continued lack of logistics and a distribution mechanism that depends entirely on overwhelmed humans rather than using those teachers humanely to intersect precisely and personally with students. The dabbling in technology, the skepticism, the uncoordinated randomness, must be seen for what it is and attacked as unworkable because post-pandemic, the industry of EdTech is struggling with even more resistance. Its very market is shrinking. “Going back to normal,” is a mood by educators fighting the inevitable. They either turn to distributing via tech and reorganizing to use their human teachers more wisely, or they will be no more. Again, they can’t even get the teachers they need due to a massive shortage. Live tutoring augmentation will only go so far because teachers are still limited even for them.
This all means a noisy campaign of a proper matrix of EdTech choices, of a coalition of products and not just one-off point solutions. Something that is more detailed in inventory and utility. The campaign of change should encompass all sorts of tech and leave no one out.
Selling the future, not a “classroom of the future” but a hybrid campus of options, using advanced logistics and teachers in a different way, is the way forward. Only then will EdTech help schools stop the loss of students to alternatives and the Wild West of consumerized homeschooling, off-grid learning. Individual products must be couched within a greater schema that will actually work. To market and sell otherwise is to continue to create the very thing causing the resistance – the overwhelm of choices without a cohesive vision. Frankly it’s counterproductivity complicity by so many companies is shocking.
I truly hope I am, in return, shocking some of you EdTech leaders out there. You need to be shocked.
What vision should you understand and get behind? The vision of hybrid logistics, which was worked on during the pandemic by some of the brightest minds of current educators in states and districts. It’s something you should teach to your reps. Teach them also what “matrix learning” really is. Help them through sponsorships of projects that define the whole and put your product into its essential position. The usual spend-everything on non-specific events which aren’t leading the future vision needed, will only continue to exacerbate the problem. It’s also not marketing, it’s a sales activity. EdTech companies can sales-activity their way right into bankruptcy. Interesting that I should comment on this when we produce twenty-three or more live in-field events a year, but I differentiate them from the usual pack of events in that they are entirely vision-oriented for the leaders of schools and districts. They aren’t just pitch-fests. The days of pitch-fests to my mind are largely over.
The upcoming “Leading the Learning Matrix” Special Report by Learning Counsel Research is one of the biggest projects to now get behind that is advancing the vision, deadlining in November 2022. At the very least your products should each have a Listing with logo and fifty words of text.
Another is the Hybrid Logistics Project which all EdTech companies need to be a part of to truly help schools maneuver their way forward. If you think the hybrid of the pandemic was a sore point, don’t carry that definition over. Logistics is a science being surfaced for the first real time for learning at a level previously unknown.
Perhaps true marketing should surface for EdTech at a level previously unknown.
About the author
LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing and market leadership in the high tech, education and government industries.