Content Marketing: Why It Matters for Your K-12 Sales

by Glen McCandless

Win K-12 RFPsNo doubt you've heard the whoopla about Content Marketing (CM).  My goodness, there's even a conference and trade show called Content Marketing World! You would think that CM is the Holy Grail for attracting new business. But will it engage K-12 educators you want to become your customers?

Perhaps your company is already investing in CM or maybe you're considering it. Why is CM so important for driving sales to school administrators? Should you make it a priority? What is an appropriate budget? If you're already doing CM, how can you get better results? Great questions! I hope to provide you with solid answers and advice based on more than 20 years of CM experience.

Content Marketing Is a Century Old – and It Works. So Why the Reluctance?

Just to be sure we're on the same page: content marketing isn't new and it certainly isn't a fad.  In fact, CM is more than 100 years old! John Deere Corporation receives most of the credit for the original concept with a magazine called The Furrow introduced in 1895. It's a magazine written by agricultural experts, packed with useful free information for farmers. The magazine is not a sales pitch for John Deere tractors or farm equipment!  Rather, it establishes John Deere as the best source for valuable farming information and insights.

More than a century later, The Furrow is now available in 40 countries and in 12 languages!  Now that's a sustainable marketing program! The management team at John Deere stuck with it. They built their brand and their business with a CM program at the core.  Someone there, likely the leaders of that company, understand the value of marketing programs. (If you aren't sure what a marketing program is or how it differs from a promotional campaign or other approaches to drive your sales, check out my article on this topic.) http://www.sellingtoschools.com/articles/school-sales-promotions-or-educ...

During my 20-year tenure as a marketing and sales consultant to leaders of companies in the ed tech industry, I've observed that most senior management teams are hesitant to invest and lack the patience for long-term marketing programs.  They prefer to hire sales reps to do most of the work.  The marketing budget has traditionally been limited and has centered on conference exhibits, and other types of face-to-face sales events.  More recently, some managers have relied on promotional email campaigns and product demo webinars. They say they can't afford a CM program or they can't wait for it to produce results. Others are skeptical that CM delivers sales.  Yet these same reluctant managers struggle to establish their company brand and to attract customers. The focus has been on product leadership rather than thought leadership, even though being the market leader is the only sustainable growth strategy.

How I Became a Content Marketing Evangelist

My first experience with a CM program was in 1987. I was part of the education marketing team at Apple. We hired a publishing firm, experts in content development, to help us map out our strategy and create our content plan. At the core of the program was a newsletter called Syllabus.  This quarterly publication highlighted how faculty used instructional technology to change teaching and learning. When I experienced the positive impact of Syllabus on sales of Apple products, how it established the Apple brand with educators and positioned us as thought leaders in the emerging field of ed tech, I was sold on content marketing.

To hear more about this experience, and another perspective on the value of CM, take 15 minutes to listen to my interview on STS Radio with Katie Povejsil, CMO of PresenceLearning, who was a key person in making this program a huge success.

Content Is King, Especially for Educators -- and for You, Too!

Why does content marketing engage educators so well? There is a simple answer.  Content is king – it's their business! Educators are in the content business and they thrive on all sorts of content: print, video and graphics. Teaching and learning is all about content from subject matter experts. When I realized this, some years after my Apple days were over, it was one of those DUH moments when a light bulb went off in my head.  So for the past twenty years, I have evangelized CM with my prospects and clients who are seeking ways to get and retain more education customers. I've written about CM, presented tips and ideas about it at conferences, and I rely on CM to drive my own consulting practice.

You are part of that engagement, along with thousands of others who have benefited from hundreds of articles on this website, interviews with education industry experts on the SellingToSchools (STS) radio channel,  discussions on the STS LinkedIn group. Now, a new STS SlideShare channel is the latest outlet for valuable free information that K-12 sales professionals need. Many thousands of education industry professionals are now in my official opt-in list, my own expanding industry database. My clients and many more recommend me to others all over the world who are seeking ways to expand their businesses. Content marketing has been a reliable and consistent source of new clients, has given my firm a commanding SEO position and driven thousands of Twitter followers - more each day. I practice what I preach.

Content Marketing On Steroids

Even though content marketing is not new (it used to be called 'thought leadership' marketing) the ways you can drive an effective CM program are amazing. The range of content you can produce and the types of outlets for it expand constantly.  New opportunities to supercharge CM, to put it on steroids, arise every day. What started over a century ago at John Deere with one print magazine now can cater to every learning style and schedule. The Internet, social media, marketing automation platforms and inexpensive production technologies have made content marketing easier, more effective, more affordable and more relevant than ever before.  So, here's the key question. What are you doing to tap into this incredible business driver?

It would seem obvious to jump on the CM bandwagon or crank up the volume of your CM program. But, since many people are finally starting to understand the value of it, the noise level is higher. At the same time, the complexity of creating and sustaining an effective Content Marketing program has increased.  Lots of companies in the K-12 school market are doing it, and as you might expect, not everyone is doing it well or creatively.  The devil is in the details, as that old saying goes. Like most marketing programs, lack of strategy, lack of creativity, and short cuts in production and budget may cause CM to fall short of expectations.  Then, someone decides CM doesn't work, or it's too expensive.

The Great Content Marketing Dilemma

I talk to many managers who work for K-12 focused companies who are planning on a lot of new business and to make big sales to school administrators. In a highly competitive selling environment where the audience is bombarded with phone calls, email messages and sales pitches, marketing managers I speak with are beginning to acknowledge the importance of CM. But sometimes senior executives, usually not those managing the marketing department, may have been disappointed by a webinar with poor attendance, or a white paper that didn't get as many downloads as they hoped for.  They remain skeptical or simply can't shake loose their old ways. They are unwilling to make a long-term invest in the type of quality programming it takes to make CM deliver results and drive sales. The old methods of block and tackle sales, mass email blasts and giving product demos at conferences seems less risky and results more tangible.

Does Content Marketing Mean the End of Cold Calling?

What am I encouraging you to do?  First, try to set aside your myths and misconceptions about Content Marketing. CM is not about writing on a blog or scheduling a couple of webinars, especially if they are product demos or a sales pitch for your company.  Content Marketing, like all successful marketing programs, is built on a strategy that aligns with sales goals, actions your brand and softly sells your expertise and the value of your product or service. It is built around content strands and subtopics, has a production schedule and a budget.  There is a long-term plan and a financial commitment. There are human resources to deliver high-quality, high-value consistently, to assess results and adjust the strategy.  When done with a focus on best practices, and doing it correctly and consistently, CM means the end of cold calls, less dead ends, and fewer explanations of who you are and what your product does. You will begin to lower the obstacles that have been holding you back from achieving your sales goals. The front end bottlenecks to your sales cycle will be opened up and hurdles to new sales lowered.

Let's Get Specific. Take This One To the Bank!

Here's an example.  In 2012, one of my clients contracted with me to develop their Content Marketing strategy. I worked with their marketing VP to map out the program. It took nearly six months of planning and preparation before we had content ready and were able to begin implementing the plan. Four years later, there are tens of thousands of targeted and verified names of school administrators who are engaged and hundreds of new customers. The program has been so effective that it won the industry's highest marketing award from the Association of Educational Publishers. You can see more about the program including links to the content on my LinkedIn Profile page.

Adopt a Content Marketing Mindset for All Your Promotions

I'm not suggesting you stop exhibiting at conferences or doing email blasts or promoting your product in other ways. What I recommend is that you integrate all your initiatives into a sustainable, long-term CM program. At conferences, for instance, instead of just having an exhibit booth or a presentation session, you can do interviews with customers and prospects, shoot videos of people seeing your product for the first time or you can record presentations. Then you can publish the content in multiple formats. Instead of one-time events, your conferences become a stage for you to produce valuable content to feed blogs and podcasts or to create eBooks and infographics for many months – even years – afterwards. Every sales call is an opportunity to share and to generate content!

How much of your demand generation and marketing budget should be invested in Content Marketing? In my view, nearly 100%. What I'm saying is, you need to rethink what you are doing to drive your business and start thinking about creating content at every turn in the road. That's because content is the driver for K-12 sales and the sooner you get on the CM highway, the sooner you will get to your desired destination.

Go Make History!

I hope this article has given you a taste of what is possible and why good, sustainable CM is so important. Obviously there is no way to unpack this topic in an article like this.  So let me close by encouraging you to make John Deere your example: their management team decided to do something different – and better – in 1895, and the rest is history.  Those of us in the education market are not selling tractors to farmers, but believe me, selling any type of product or service to school administrators can be just as hard as farming the hard clay soil in Georgia - tough, almost impossible to work!  What does The Farrow look like for you?  Would it look like SellingToSchools.com? Let me hear from you, now that you've heard from me!

About the Author

Glen McCandless is president of Focus Marketing Inc., a business development firm that specializes in the educational technology market. Glen has over 25 years of experience helping companies efficiently and effectively sell and market technology products and services to K-12 and higher education buyers. For more information, please contact sts-info@agile-ed.com.