Contributor: Jessie Arora, Founder Teacher Square
So, you’ve done some customer development, prototyping and on-going product iteration and are convinced you’ve built something that will impact teaching and learning. You’ve even consulted with a few teachers and your get early-adopters to get feedback, but how do you go about promoting your product to the broader education community?
Many startups face challenges with distribution, but in the fragmented edtech landscape it is even more challenging to reach your target users, who often differ from actual purchasers. While unified by common goals, teachers, parents, students and district leaders are all focused on slightly different factors when making purchasing and implementation decisions.
Understanding your target users
The first question to ask yourself, who is your (initial) customer? To which there will likely be a few different answers, which is why it’s important to focus on your initial customer. You may start by targeting teachers, but your ultimate goal is to upsell to districts. You may start with teachers but then want to upsell to parents. You might go straight to district leaders, but the end users are teachers and students. Whatever the case may be (and it will most likely evolve over time) always begin by focusing on how to delight your initial target user. Delighting your early adopters will not only lead to the feedback essential to making smart product iteration decisions, but will also provide an opportunity to empower these initial happy ‘customers’ to become evangelists for your product and help you reach your next set of customers.
Engage your early adopters in helping craft your story. Why do they love your product? How is your product helping them improve their experience of teaching & learning in the classroom? Including direct feedback from your power users not only make them feel special but helps you establish an authentic story around how your product solves a real problem.
Top 5 Things to Keep in Mind when Telling your Story to Schools:
- There is a difference between stakeholders, users & purchasers- Tailor your story to address the specific problems you are solving for that audience. You will often need several versions of the same marketing collateral, one for each audience.
- Sales cycles with districts are fairly long and it can take 9-18 months to close a deal- have a phased approach as well as a backup plan when thinking about financial sustainability
- Teachers culturally have an aversion to change- This is particularly relevant for more mature teachers who have seen countless ‘reforms/solutions’ come and go
- Teachers have often had a traumatic, mainly top-down, introduction to using technology, which fuels their inherent skepticism to test out new tools. Rather than pitching a teacher present your tool in the form of a lesson plan, showing them exactly how using your product will help them reach their classroom goals.
- Free does not mean free– Time is a huge constraint and in the previously mentioned traumatic introduction of tech tools, they don’t always deliver on their promise to save time or make things run more efficiently.
Sharing your Story with a Broader Community
Expert marketer and blogger Neil Patel outlines tips for low-budget storytelling through his post on 21 Big Marketing Ideas for Small Marketing Budgets. Building on this framework, I’ve highlighted the top 5 ways to start with a lens from the edtech perspective.
- Comment on blogs:
Edutopia and Mindshift are great places to start as they already have vibrant communities that contribute posts and comments. Join the conversation by following a few key authors and establish your own voice through consistent commenting.
- Start blogging yourself:
Use your own blog as a platform to share information about your product and progress, as well as general trends in a specific aspect of edtech. Choose 1-2 key areas (ex. STEM, Blended Learning, Mobile Learning, PD, etc…) and provide useful updates/tips on what’s going on in that space. There are many great blogging platforms (Tumblr, Posterous) but teachers love WordPress and if your blog takes off a bit, this is another way to build community with educators through following and commenting. Invite your early-adopters to guest blog. This deepens their engagement, provides an authentic voice (educators love hearing from other educators rather than product folks) and offers fresh content.
- Leverage social networks: Engagement > Size/Reach
If your startup has been around for more than 5 minutes, then it’s likely that you already have a FB page and a Twitter handle. Social Media Marketing can be entirely it’s own section (and we might create that) but for now the top tip is engagement matters more than the size of your community. On FB, this means looking at the number of people talking about your page rather than just the total likes. On Twitter, follow the Top Edu Tweeters and join the weekly chats (ie. #edchat) to share updates and get a sense of what educators are talking about. Lastly, Edmodo, striving to be FB for schools, also has a feature where you can create a community around specific content areas or tools/services and engage with the teacher and students who are on their site. With over 6 million users (as of March 2012 and is gearing up international expansion) this is the largest centralized community of educators anywhere on the web and it’s growing fast!
- Case Studies: LearnBoost
Another benefit that comes from early adopters are enthusiastic testimonials. Take time to develop these into case studies, even a couple 1-pgrs can be useful to spread the word about your effectiveness and build your brand. Remember, educators love hearing from other educators and case studies can help you capture the enthusiasm and results from your initial users. Want examples? Check out how LearnBoost has captured early user stories.
- Speak at Events
The edtech scene is heating up and with that comes an increase of events and speaking engagements. Meredith Ely runs the monthly EdTech Meetup (first Thurs of the month in SF) and often seeks to shine the spotlight on members, giving startups a chance to share their story. This is great practice for more formal speaking events and even pitching to investors. EdSurge, the weekly edtech newsletter, always highlights upcoming events (it’s long so scroll all the way down) and reach out to the organizers to see if you can join a panel or even give a quick pitch.
Lastly, as you gain momentum and begin to move beyond beta mode look for larger national partnerships (ex. Teach For America, Build, Citizen Schools, CMOs) that can help you reach a broader audience at scale.