As a MAT COO I hated dealing with EdTech companies

Most people would agree that schools, teachers, and students all stand to benefit from having better EdTech at their disposal. Yet, despite this collective buy-in, adoption has been slow. 

So what’s going on here?

I’ve been in EdTech since 2011 selling hardware, software, and running my own company along the way. As an EdTech seller, I get how hard it is to sell to schools.

Then in 2019, I joined a Multi-Academy Trust, taking on the COO role. Overnight I went from an EdTech seller to an EdTech buyer. Being on the receiving end of many a sales & marketing machine gave me an invaluable insight into what is going wrong for many EdTechs. More importantly, it showed me what can be done to fix it.

Learning 1: Excessive cold emails will get you blocked

Within a month of being in post, I’d unplugged my external phone line and tasked the IT department with beefing up our email filtering. Every day I would receive 100+ sales emails, every one of them cold and generic.

It’s all too tempting to download a Freedom of Information school contact list and begin blasting out emails non-stop (I did this in my early career), however, being on the receiving end showed me just how ineffective this tactic is. 

In my time at the MAT, I never read a single cold email and once the IT department was on the case, the worst offenders went straight into spam folders, never to appear in an inbox again. This policy was implemented across all 6 sites, on all of our public email addresses. A number of companies, due to their excessive emailing, lost the opportunity to ever market to the Trust again.

Here are a few tips on email marketing:

  • Email marketing can be a valuable marketing tool, but it must be used sparingly and you need to think really hard about your call to action. Generic messages don’t break through the noise. Don’t ask someone you don’t know to “book a meeting”. You need to add an incredible level of value to generate clickthrough to your website or to signup up for something.
  • If you’re not providing value to your recipient, you’ll eventually be tagged as spam and this might mean all future emails from your company get filtered into spam.
  • Cyber attacks are becoming more common in schools and unsolicited emails are the most common source of malware and viruses. Email filtering will be strengthened and the DfE is currently drawing up a set of standards that will be released to all schools. If you’re heavily reliant on email marketing, now is the time to divest into other channels.

Learning 2: How do you manage your online presence?

The school market is often said to be a ‘word of mouth’ market but this is an outdated perception. A 2019 national research project from BESA found that only 4 out of 10 schools now rely on word of mouth recommendations as their primary source for finding new EdTech. Twice as many rely on an Internet search and the pandemic is likely to have accelerated this shift further.

There are two key reasons for this shift. The first is a demographic shift that has taken place in UK education. The last few years have seen a raft of headteacher retirements and this has brought the average age of a UK teacher down to 39, the lowest of any of the OECD nations. At 39, these individuals are old enough to be in a decision-making position and young enough to be heavy internet users. It’s only natural that they turn to the internet for EdTech procurement. 

The second is a structural change brought about by The Academies Programme. Academies have fewer opportunities to interact with LA schools as they sit outside of the funding pool, missing out on LA-funded training, events, and support. If the Academy goes on to join a MAT (with around 50% now belonging to one), the Academy joins their Trust’s working groups and may find themselves working with schools in different LAs.

The result is that geographical ties to local schools weaken over time until long-standing networks break down. I experienced this during my time at the MAT. We had two LA schools within 100m of the office but we didn’t know the names of the headteachers, let alone what EdTech they might be using. When it came time to procure a number of systems for the MAT (which included; CPD, leadership and management, careers guidance, MIS, finance, and risk management software) I started with an Internet search every time, researching three suitable suppliers, before inviting them to meet. 

Here are a few tips to manage your online presence:

  • Educators are actively looking for new EdTech solutions on the Internet, and if you’re not investing in your online presence, you’re not going to show up. 
  • Benchmark your online presence against competitors. Schools almost always undertake a comparison and even category leaders are losing market share against new, digital savvy companies.
  • The pace of change is increasing as Academies are much more comfortable with changing platforms. Think about your year-round marketing presence, not just the next conference or tradeshow. It’s no coincidence that the best performing EdTechs also happen to place a high emphasis on digital channels.

Learning 3: Where’s your proof? 

In June I ran a fireside chat with James Browning, the Chief Digital Officer at Academies Enterprise Trust, and amongst other topics we talked about how suppliers can improve their pitch to MATs. To paraphrase James, his feedback was that “Suppliers who can’t evidence their claims damage their chances of being invited to meet and risk being excluded from future opportunities.” 

EdTech is a bit of a wild-west when it comes to some of the claims being presented with customer testimonials frequently presented as fact or research. Sometimes the benefits that suppliers claim seem to be plucked from thin air. I experienced this first-hand when I procured a new MIS system for the Trust. One of the bidding suppliers stated their solution would save my school administrators 8 hours per week, and happily gave me the sales brochure with the same statement. When I asked them to provide the evidence to verify this claim they couldn’t. Worse, they couldn’t even provide me with a set of assumptions for how it might be possible to save 8 hours per week. This supplier didn’t win the contract. 

You don’t need to undertake scientific studies to demonstrate the efficacy of your solution but you do need to be able to defend any claims that you make. One good testimonial isn’t validation, and don’t misrepresent testimonials as facts. If a school gives you a great quote, always use it in your marketing but make sure you cite the school / individual that provided it to you. 

Here are a few tips for evidencing your claims: 

  • Case studies are old news. Pretty much every supplier can produce three shining case studies, but schools are wise that these are cherry-picked. Case studies are now par for the course. Schools are more interested in reading reviews from other schools / teachers.
  • Recency is a critical factor in any of the evidence you present. Education policy changes every year, and priorities within school can change by the term. Testimonials or case studies that are over a year old have limited relevance. Schools trust reviews or evidence that is from the last 3 months.
  • Be mindful of your audience. Academies and MATs are seeing an influx of staff from the private sector and procurement processes are becoming more stringent as a result. I know a small primary school MAT where the CFO is ex-KPMG, and larger MATs are increasingly employing procurement professionals, many bringing years of buying experience into the organisation. If you stretch the truth, you’re going to be caught out by these people.

If you’re interested in selling to Multi-Academy Trusts or keen to better demonstrate the quality of your EdTech solution, join EdTech Impact for free or book a demo to learn more.

Updated on: 22 April 2022

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