Five strong marketing moves for your edtech startup

As a long-time marketer to schools and districts, I’ve learned that getting the attention of busy teachers and school leaders is not for the meek. There are so many demands on their time and attention that it’s common to send marketing messages into the wild and get little to no response from school personnel. As an early stage company, it’s important to experiment with different approaches to marketing and be willing to fail and learn from those experiments, however, it’s important to quickly find marketing initiatives that work and can deliver an ROI that helps support the growth of the company.

As a startup operator and edtech investor, I’ve tried and the teams I’ve backed have tried many different marketing approaches. The following list is a set of activities that I have seen work in many (not all) contexts. It’s important to note that several marketing tactics including advertising, bulk email, and various forms of social media aren’t on this list. That’s not to say that they can’t work in some contexts (student- or teacher-purchased products offer more potential for success than school or district purchasers), but in most cases they aren’t valuable as these five activities:

  1. Invest in an SDR program. 

     Marketing and selling are relationship-based activities. It’s very difficult to activate many prospects based on digital or print communication alone. An effective Sales Development Rep (SDR) program can take outbound marketing to a higher level by focusing on setting initial appointments with prospects. Busy founders have little time to prospect, but can typically make the time to meet with prospective buyers. Putting an SDR at the top of the prospecting process can fill the funnel with pre-qualified meetings for a founder (or sales closer). I’ve seen highly productive SDRs average 20 new meetings per month, which is a game-changer for an early stage company trying to grow at a high rate.
  2. Give something away for free. 
     To reduce friction in the marketing and sales process, a free value-added offering is a great way to begin a relationship with a prospect. This could be a freemium product or it could be something else such as a free consultation, educational webinar, white paper, or a simple free tool like a spreadsheet. Founders may have to try a number of different approaches before finding something that works, but the goal here is to find the most basic way to engage a lot of prospects and build credibility for the startup. Combining this with an SDR program is an excellent one-two punch for turning a pool of suspects (unengaged contacts) into prospects (potential customers who want to meet).
  3. Maximize event-based marketing. 
     Attending conferences and other events is old-school marketing, but it’s an excellent way to meet with otherwise hard-to-reach school leaders. People go to conferences and other events to get away from the day-to-day hustle of their jobs, learn about new things, and meet like-minded people. I’ve found that these types of events are only as good as the preparation work that startups put into them. If all founders do is sign up to exhibit and then do nothing more than show up to their booth and wait for the crowd to find them, then they could get lucky or, more likely, they won’t get much out of it. If you build it, they will not necessarily come, so to speak. 
     On the other hand, it’s possible to get a solid ROI from an event if the startup puts in the pre-work. The pre-work comes in many forms and some of the most valuable activities include setting up meet and greet meetings with school leaders ahead of the conference, landing a breakout session or presentation, or hosting a meal or happy hour with a set of prospects.
  4. Fill the top of the funnel with productive partnerships. 
     I’ve navigated many partnerships as a business development leader in edtech and failed more than I succeeded, especially early in my career. Such is the nature of the beast, but a high chance of failure doesn’t mean founders shouldn’t try to forge these types of relationships. I found that creating productive partnerships that fill the top of the funnel with quality meetings is achievable in most edtech startups. 
     On the other hand, it’s much harder to find a partner that’s able to market and sell from the beginning to the end of the process. I’ve found that it’s hard enough to get startup employees to market and sell at the levels needed for most high-growth companies. With that in mind, why expect a partner with limited capacity and mindshare to get it done? Instead, think about incentivizing partners (e.g., trade associations and technology companies) to make more warm introductions to prospects. Once the introduction is made, the startup can take control of the process beginning with that first meeting. 
     No one is going to market and sell a product or service better than the founding team. By focusing on getting conversations started at the top of the funnel (and that’s where partners can help), startups can get more meaningful conversations with prospective buyers, which should lead to more sales. How to create these partnerships is a topic for another blog post.
  5. Estimate what an MQL is worth and do more of what meets or exceeds that number. 
     One of the questions I often ask of founders is, “What are you willing to spend for a marketing qualified lead (MQL)?” I rarely get a clear answer and I think it’s one of the most important things for founders to determine as they make investments in marketing and sales. To me, this number drives the investments founders make in their marketing initiatives. 
     If a startup is willing to invest $250 or $500 per MQL, then it’s pretty clear how to measure marketing channels. Founders then need to figure out what each channel produces and at what cost, and then invest in more of what meets or exceeds that MQL goal. There’s a lot that goes into building a productive distribution engine, but it begins with determining this number and then measuring and tracking against the goal.

I’ll unpack some of these thoughts in future blog posts, but I’d love to hear from you. What am I missing with these marketing approaches? What else have you seen work in your edtech startup?