How to Get the Most Bang for Your Education Marketing Buck

How to spend your education marketing budgetBy Glen McCandless

One of the most frequent questions I hear from managers of companies who offer products and services to educators, especially start-ups, is how much should they spend on sales and marketing, and what they should spend it on. There is a general lack of understanding about budgeting and related confusion about how much money to invest and when that will translate to sales. 

While I have no magic formula to offer and every situation is different – yours included — one thing is consistent: most conversations I have about the education marketing budget start with “We don’t have a lot of money to spend. We’re a start-up and our funds are very limited.” I wonder what “a lot of money” is because that is in the eyes of the beholder, but nearly always it is a fraction of what is required to make real impact on potential buyers. Even managers of established companies struggle to know how much to spend on marketing and are unsure what the return-on-investment will be.

Where, When, and What to Do

OK, I get it! I was VP of sales and marketing for an ed tech start up. We had precious little to spend to promote our product and the founders were skeptical of marketing. They were convinced that the product was so awesome that it would sell itself. For more on that topic, you might want to read a companion piece on STS, Field of Dreams. 

“Where should I spend my marketing budget?” That’s the core question. Yet often behind this question is hope that my answer will reveal a silver bullet that includes when and what. Everyone hopes for that one tactic that will cause every educator to know about their product and to be compelled to issue a purchase order for it. The reality is, there are no silver bullets, but there are categories of school marketing that are “must-dos” that should be done in concert, there are some “maybes” and others I would call “if you have money to burn.”

Before I lift the curtain and reveal my advice on this subject, I want to be sure you understand this advice is for those who are strapped for cash, usually start-ups. However, there is something here for everyone, because in my experience, even well-established players struggle to build a strategic marketing plan and related effective tactical marketing budget. 

First Things First

All of us have a tendency to focus on tactics, that is, what to do, instead of having answers for some very important “why” questions. I don’t like to prescribe this medicine, but you need a marketing strategy before you consider tactics. Without this careful and thoughtful exercise, best with help from someone with experience in the school market, the tactics may not be wise investments.

If you’re unsure how to create a sales and marketing plan, there are advice articles on STS and countless excellent free resources on the web.  No matter what approach you decide to take, there are basic elements of all good marketing plans and I strongly encourage you to pay attention to them and avoid the temptation to short cut. Most important, if you do the right job with strategy, the most effective tactics will be revealed and your risk of a poor result is minimized.

I know my suggestion that you spend time to develop a strategic plan may be painful, so I’m now going to recommended a balance of awareness-building, demand-generation, and sales-support investments that I have found to be effective for most K-12 focused companies including start-ups with limited cash. My recommendations are exclusive of essential sales and marketing infrastructure and start-up costs, like a CRM, solid market research and competitive analysis, basic brand development work, and a nuts-and-bolts web site.

Must-do for Marketing to Educators

PR (Social Media and Content Marketing). Traditional PR (public relations) is still important folks, in fact, it is a must. News releases, media relations, product reviews, and related content marketing – all of that is really essential, and this investment has got to be sustained. Of course, today, social media has taken front and center and many people assume that it’s all you need to do. That is simply not the case. Any expert in PR who understands and has experience and success in the school market recommends the tight integration of traditional PR with social media channels and content marketing, and knows which social media channels will have the best traction with your target audience. Social media and content marketing is a particularly good fit with the relational nature of the education market. I want again to remind you that investing in PR, and related social media and content marketing is for the long haul and is not likely to generate immediate sales. However, these are a must and will deliver the best bang for the buck for the long term. Be prepared to invest in this or pay the price later! Read more about the value of content marketing on STS!

Direct Marketing. Email marketing, for many, is considered the only way to promote products and there is an idea that it is almost free. When email started taking hold many years ago, it quickly became the Holy Grail. There is widespread opinion that direct mail, aka “snail mail,” no longer has any value, as if nobody reads mail and is too expensive. This view is baloney, in my experience. Mail and email work beautifully together and educators, like all consumers, do read their mail and remarkably still live in a print-centric world compared to the rest of the us.

Regardless what direct marketing method you use, you need to invest in high quality, reliable data and contact lists. The source has to have experience and expertise with the audience you hope to engage. A good list, very solid data, is the most important element for success in direct marketing. You also need “best practices” when it comes to direct marketing or the risk that the results will fall short goes up. That old cliché, “The devil is in the details” could not be more true! You must hit the bull’s eye with your list, and then test, test, test. You have to make adjustments and have a very strong call to action and offer and you have to be persistent, in fact, relentless. Direct marketing is very powerful if done by professionals and can be frustrating and disappointing when looking for a one-shot campaign or ways to short cut or do it on the cheap. Do it often and do it right!

Website. Having a good web presence that includes an easy to navigate, professional looking website is absolutely essential. Search engines are the first step in most buying processes by educators, just like the rest of us. If your product or company doesn’t come up with a search on the most likely search words and phrases, you have a problem!

Sales support. The category of sales support, which is also called channel marketing, has become a lost art, and for most education-market companies it is misunderstood and undervalued. For more about this, read the companion article on STS. How much you invest for sales support depends on your channel strategy. Frankly, all of these areas of marketing are part of the support that is needed to help sales. But there are a range of must have sales tools, and without them, sales will suffer. Sales will take too long and sales reps will become frustrated. No matter who sells your product, they will need customizable email templates, digital (PDF) collateral, slide presentation templates, case studies, product demo webinars, efficacy information, and basic signage for field events. All of this is designed to ensure consistency of your brand and message and to focus the sales professional on selling, not trying to do the work of the marketing department.

Education Marketing Maybes or ‘Only if You Have Money to Burn’

Education conference exhibits and sponsorships. You may be surprised to see education conferences and exhibit marketing in my “maybe” category. That’s because this ever-popular method is nearly a “sacred-cow.” Unfortunately, the approach taken by most companies is ineffective and expectations don’t align with the realities. Conferences are best for building awareness and relationships, not generating sales leads. They are valuable for start-ups who are unknown, for getting some initial contacts, but simply setting up a basic exhibit and giving demos is usually not the best way to spend your money. I encourage you to read the many articles on this site about how to get the most from investments in educational conferences and exhibits. And, regardless of what you decide to do, my advice is that conference sponsorships of the type that are promoted by the conference sponsors rarely move the needle. Having your logo on the program or a tote bag for example, especially for a start-up with no brand awareness, is of no value to anyone except the organization who sold you the sponsorship!

Print Advertising. Ads in magazines and professional publications are great for building brand awareness, and when combined with the must-dos listed earlier in this article will provide some lift. But ads are expensive because they require frequency to be effective and are not targeted like direct marketing. Importantly, print advertising must include urgency for a call to action and a way you can measure response or they don’t deliver.  Avoid ads that are touchy feely and make you feel good but fail to present a compelling, competitively-differentiated message or offer a reason for the reader to respond quickly via a trackable system.  

Promotional items. Our industry is in love with what are often called “tchotchkes” so there are many, many reps trying to convince you to invest in all kinds of logoed items that are giveaways at trade show exhibits or leave behinds for sales calls. There is nothing wrong with them, and educators love them. Make no mistake, some of these items can be very useful and memorable, but dealing with them can become a time sink and sometimes more of a reason for a potential customer to want to engage with you than the product you offer. These items are in the “if you have money to burn” category and if you are doing the things in the must category already.

Print Marketing Materials. Product brochures and sell sheets are considered by many to be must-dos, but today, spending money to print feature-rich, product-focused pieces is questionable. Digital format, PDF, is the best way to distribute your information and best if designed to be distributed and viewed with a device – increasingly mobile devices. Print materials at educational conferences often end up in trash cans before educators leave the conference hotel or in a trash bin in an educator’s office. Like all of us, busy educators are overwhelmed by printed materials so they throw them away or set them aside to read later, but later never comes, and they eventually end up in piles of hundreds of other brochures and flyers that get swept into the garbage and then to a landfill. What a waste of our precious natural resources, our money and our time! Spend money on a content-rich website with downloadable product information and on content marketing instead of sell sheets that list your product’s features.

Physical packaging. For most of us selling digital products, and especially cloud-based products or services, packaging is no longer of any importance. You’ll want to really understand this by reading a related popular article on STS. But when selling to educators, especially school administrators, it is likely that the only person who will see your product package is someone in the receiving department or in a support role who had little or nothing to do with the buying decision.  School sales is usually not a retail, storefront experience. So unless a potential customer is likely to see your package before purchase, spend your money instead on the packaging that really matters, your website and an exceptional customer buying experience. 

Here's How to Allocate a Budget for Marketing to Schools

OK. Now that you’ve gotten the download of my recommendations based on three decades of doing this work with many, many sizes and shapes of companies and situations (and having some bruises to show for it) let’s “net it out.” I’m going to give you a pie chart that shows the breakout for how to allocate your marketing budget. A reminder that this is generic advice. There will be variation based on your strategic plan and the allocation is most applicable for edtech start-ups with little money to spend on marketing. My recommendation is not intended for established brands with market share and is not the best advice for new VC-funded tech products when investors are prepared to invest millions to take the market by storm. So here you have it:

Split 50% between sales support and PR/social media/content marketing

Split 40% between direct marketing and the website

Split the remaining 10% between private events and collateral.

Sample education marketing budget

The pie chart percentages you see here are guidelines only. There is a lot to consider, but this is a good starting point for structuring a budget. The idea is to spend your precious dollars where you are likely to get the highest impact in both the short and long term. It’s essential that you focus your investments where they will lead to qualified leads and sales. In summary, a blended, integrated approach and sustained investment is what is required for success in selling to schools. Assuming your product addresses a real urgent need that educators have, if you follow these guidelines, and if you have the patience to hang tight with what will seem like a black hole in our very slow moving school market, you have your best chance to succeed!

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.