Marketing Mix For K12 Education Companies

1135507_paletteHow is the marketing mix for companies that sell to K12 schools evolving? At a time when we are experiencing an explosion in the number and type of marketing programs we are also seeing rebalanced budgets and a consolidation among the large support organizations. The economic downturn has only accelerated these trends – it isn’t responsible for them.

The Paradigm is Shifting – Slowly

To begin with – maturing internet search and peer to peer social media networks are changing some of the underlying assumptions of what marketing does. Put simply, it is far more important to be found today when someone is searching than it is to interrupt them when they are not. A customer who has typed in relevant search terms and come upon your site or who reaches out to their network to help them solve a problem and been referred to you is the highest quality lead you can possess. They are actively seeking a solution that may include your products.

Put another way – when you mail a catalog 99 out of 100 people are not interested enough in what you have to say to act on it. By contrast 99 out of 100 of the leads from the web or social network are ACTIVELY in the process of seeking solutions.

This causes a severe case of cognitive dissonance in traditional marketers. They gotta talk to a whole lot of people to be effective – more people, more contacts, mass reach is the name of the game. The new media numbers scare the bejesus out of them because they look so small. If it helps – imagine a line of 99 people standing behind each web lead. 100 visitors to your website translates into a 10,000 piece direct mail campaign with a 1% response rate.

What are companies doing about this? The ones who are growing are investing marketing effort and budgets in driving traffic and social media presence.

Here are some of the marketing activities:

  • Write a company blog
  • Add valuable commentary to other blogs – like this one (;->
  • Social media network presence (Facebook, We Are Teachers, etc.)
  • Optimize your web site for search and e-commerce
  • Establish a Twitter fan base
  • Loyalty and retention programs

To get a sense of the slow build here I like to joke with people starting a blog that there is good news and bad news. The bad news? For the first six months no one is reading your posts. The good news? You have six months to experiment and find your voice as a blogger. Don’t be shy – get started and sustain it.

The problem for traditional direct marketers used to immediate results is that they put up 5 or six posts – don’t see any meaningful traffic – and they move on. So many blogs go absolutely no where that Google won’t even take you seriously until you have at least 20 posts. For real traction shoot for 40-50. If you have a reasonable posting schedule of 1-2 posts a week it can take the better part of 6 months to get to this point.

If you don’t see results in six weeks don’t move on to the next shiny marketing object. You need to invest for 12-18 months to see real results in this sphere. If you stick with it you will see customers your competition don’t even know exist. They will get to your site – find exactly what they were after – and take action.

Social Media and Marketing Budgets

Since sincerity and authenticity are the coin of the realm in social media it is very difficult to outsource this type of activity.

The best money you can spend here is on people to manage and engage in on-line communities. The choice of wording is precise – you don’t engage with (traditional marketing – we do it to our customers) on-line communities – you need to engage in a conversation (new marketing – you are a member of the community) – involving real give and take.

The goal is building a new kind of house list – a list of customers who want to be engaged in a sustained conversation with you.

Because traffic builds slowly and organically this requires a sustained investment in people and activity.

But peeling money away from traditional marketing to do this isn’t as easy as it might seem.

n619225168_161Traditional Marketing Still Rules

Chucking traditional marketing activities while you engage in the new stuff would be suicide. The paradigm is shifting – but the change is very slow and evolutionary. More importantly, traditional marketing activities can be successfully cross pollinated with social media based marketing.

At PCI we are having a lot of success working our catalogs and our web presence as one combined outreach effort. We cross promote them and find that customers like moving back and forth as they use each for a different kind of decision making. We also track our channel based activity and while catalogs have seen modest declines in effectiveness in the past few years they still make up the bulk of our revenue base.

Many companies have shifted direct mail to email campaigns with mixed results. It is certainly cheaper to blast out emails – but schools have grown increasingly sophisticated about blocking anything resembling spam.

We are at a point with email that you may be better off moving to a hybrid of traditional direct mail with a web response mechanism. Treat your direct mail piece as a resume’ that gets you in the door – manage your website as the interview.

Bottom line – while you may be scaling back your traditional marketing efforts you can not abandon them. In fact – by linking them explicitly to your on-line efforts you find synergies between them that improve your effectiveness.

Traditional Marketing Budgets

Even as the paradigm shifts many companies are finding it hard to shift out of their old spending patterns. The new stuff isn’t coming on-line fast enough to just cut the old – and declining returns from traditional approaches mean you have to increase your spend to see the same results you got in the past.

In this context companies are getting more and more creative. There is a lot of list swapping between companies (I mail your house list – you mail mine). People are merging old activities with web based campaigns (see above). Marketers are also becoming ever more data driven.

Managers are also grinding harder on suppliers and rewarding those who can innovate and deliver better services at a lower price. In a world where priorities are shifting and budgets are not growing this one of the most powerful ways to free up budget for the new activities.

Support Organizations

In this context there has been some real shifting around in the external support organizations that K12 Marketers rely on. Consultants, list providers, research firms, and advertising venues have all been going through transitions of their own.

At the high end there has been consolidation that mirrors what we have seen among the major publishers. Pressure on marketing budgets is also weeding out marginal players. A company like MDR – which has now subsumed QED and EdNet – is reacting to the fact that there are fewer and fewer large companies that can buy their high end list services. Remaining customers are seeking the efficiencies a larger supplier can deliver.

Marginal magazines are closing left and right – although traditional favorites like Tech&Learning and T.H.E. seem to be doing ok. This isn’t just happening in education – here is a list of 10 well known magazines that closed this year.

In response to the technology shifts several new companies are coming in at the mid range. EdRoom, EdWeb, and TeacherTube are some examples of this kind of activity.

At the small end, competition for consultants, agencies, and research is intensifying as large companies shed staff. There has never been a better time to seek highly qualified marketing people on a consulting basis. We started a LinkedIn group for Education Business Consultants about a year ago and we have over 300 members from around the globe.

Research firms seem to have been hit the hardest in this context. This insight is purely anecdotal on my part. If this is true is isn’t a smart move on the buyers’ part. Imagine you are lost, hungry and thirsty. Would your first action be chucking the map out the window? That is the equivalent of cutting research during an paradigm shift combined with a severe economic downturn. Sigh.

552703_performerIn Conclusion

In the 20 years I’ve been involved in marketing to schools there has never been a more interesting AND more challenging time to do this job. Shifting paradigms, new approaches, and severe budget pressures make managing the mix a real juggling act.

Good luck with that.