Why Edtech Companies Can’t Explain What They Do

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Lobbying for Common Core in Texas may be less painful than figuring out what many edtech companies actually offer based on their opaque websites.

After spending the past month tagging and categorizing math tools for our Edtech Concierge service, I truly sympathize with educators and administrators who have to wade through page after page of jargon as they attempt to understand what a product offers.

Many company web pages land along a spectrum from Internet 1.0 to extremely polished. But sometimes even the best looking websites do a poor job of answering the most basic questions:

  • Which grade levels does the product serve?
  • What does academic goal setting look like? Do teachers choose the specific standards a student learns? Is the choice less granular? Is the product adaptive?
  • What is the scope and sequence of the curriculum?

Why are there so many product websites that lack this information? A few crude explanations could be that companies withhold information to hide product defects. Or maybe they see it as a strategy to entice someone into a sales call.

Insights from four education technology executives reveal a tension between making a website general enough to appeal to a wide range of potential customers, yet specific enough to communicate the value of the product or service.

Tyler Borek, co-founder of Literably, notes that “companies want to communicate on a high level what they do and how the customer can use the product in their classroom.” At the same time, there is a recognition that being too specific with details can deter potential customers. In Literably's case, the vast majority of users are K-6 students. But the product also works well for some 7th, 8th graders, and high school students. Should Literably market itself as a K-6 tool—and potentially miss out on helping older students?

Julie Huston, Vice President of Sales at Three Ring and founder of education sales blog Selling B2E, argues “you actually sell more when you’re more specific.” Sometimes, school needs can be so complex that a product can serve multiple use cases—even ones that the company may not know about. Consider, for instance, a product that offers a comprehensive English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum. If a district already has an ELA textbook, the product could be positioned as a supplemental resource. But it could also be marketed as a core curriculum tool if the district has nothing in place.

Should the product be marked as a supplemental or core resource? Sometimes, “we’re so afraid to give up either pieces of business— that we don’t formally claim what we do,” says Huston. “A lot of times one of those arguments is really a stretch. So you really need to be who you are.” She believes any company should state the primary identity and value of the product above all else. When websites are too general, “the right customer could walk in,” miss the connection between their needs and the product, and lament: “if only it were for me!”

If establishing the primary identity of the product is most important, how should companies craft the actual words? What are the challenges involved with messaging?

The education technology industry changes so rapidly that eSpark Learning’s CEO, David Vinca, calls it the “Wild Wild West.” Constantly shifting educational priorities among districts, combined with hundreds of new products being created each year, contributes to the confusion behind how to craft a compelling value proposition. This difficulty is also compounded by a long sales process that make it difficult for companies to learn quickly what messaging is actually resonating with the educator audience and contributing to sales.

There is also a “huge divide between the people creating the software and the people actually using it,” Vinca adds. “You’d think they’d understand each other and understand what they’re buying, but they don’t!” Part of the problem, he observes, is that sales teams can sometimes project “their worldview and the product’s worldview” instead of looking at things from the “lens of buyers.”

All the above challenges are compounded for companies with multiple product lines, such as Compass Learning, which offers six different products. Luis Guido, the company’s Marketing Communications Director, notes: “the way you talk about accelerating learning for all those products is a difficult task.”

So what can companies do to ensure that their websites are offering information that educators are looking for?

  • Interview your top customers: Julie Huston’s advice is to talk to existing customers and ask them to describe in their words what the product does and what keeps them coming back. Take good notes on the exact language and “that’s your website!”
  • Get the marketing team outside the building: David Vinca’s solution is to encourage his marketing team to visit and interview superintendents and curriculum directors with zero sales agenda and instead really understand their point of view and language.
  • Make customer personas: “Instead of being everything to everyone,” Luis Guido’s team is honing in on the top three customer profiles that visit Compass Learning’s website: curriculum specialists, superintendents, and teachers.

Here’s what company executives unanimously agree on: an actual conversation with potential customers is valuable. Person-to-person communication is the easiest way to understand the subtleties of school needs and explain various product complexities.

Many companies do think a lot about crafting a compelling website. But much of the confusion for visitors stems from companies’ desire to appeal to a broad enough audience yet remain specific enough to be meaningful. And this disconnect is easily compounded by several factors: a lack of understanding of educators’ needs, a slow sales cycle, and a rapidly changing education market where each week sees new products and buzzwords.

I will be exploring this and other topics related to finding and selecting great edtech tools for your students, teachers, and schools in the coming weeks. If you have a perspective on this topic, make some noise, tweet @shuaibraham and let me know what topics you’d like to see explored. 

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