The Magical Trip To The Digital Marketing Forest Is Full Of Traps. Here’s How Open EdTech Startups Can Avoid Them

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So you want to jump into the EdTech market\arena. Godspeed! EdTech is a growing space with ample opportunity and countless challenges. Learners and organizations around the world are on a restless hunt for solutions to challenges big and small. It sounds promising, and it is. For the most part. As more entrepreneurs jump in, a bit of inevitable chaos and noise puts tidy strategies at risk. Only a clear grasp on your brand, your message, and above all, your value proposition, can help you chart a course across the tides and stormy weathers.

Complexity is inevitable. But not necessarily a cause for failure.

Here are some of the issues young entrepreneurs, and a few veterans who’ve fallen prey to the inertia, tend to overlook when venturing into the digital marketing arena. Find a unique response to them, and you just might have stroke gold.

Measure, measure, measure

I have to begin with this one because it is a perennial paint point of mine and many. I keep on my years-long search for a centralized dashboard. One that allows me to track operational, learning and financial data, all in the same place. A man can dream: I want to be able to make correlations and estimate benefits, cost reductions, or a random scenario.

Will I have to settle for an enterprise-level Business Intelligence system?

What I definitely should not do, nor you, is to use that as an excuse not to keep track of what’s going on in learning. That goes for the business side as well. Every new consulting project includes, at the very least:

  • A cost breakdown with basic categories. Usually two kinds of categories are all I need:
    • Startup (one-time) vs. recurring costs
    • Talent, Technology and administrative\other supplies
  • Management metrics (KPIs if you feel fancy). Those are the kind of measurements that would work for any type of project. Efficiency, progress over schedule, bottom-line results. You would measure these at the beginning of your project, to get a baseline; and track them often, finding a balance between burden and your feeling of “grasp” on the project.
  • Learning\Educational outcomes. Those specific to your project. You can follow some existing examples, but it’s alright (in some cases desirable even—see next section) to set up your own ways to track your success. Review them early and often, beware the Goodhart paradox, and you’re off to a good start. Share your outcomes to the community at large, and you’ll be adding immense social value to your project!

While I keep on looking for my dream dashboard, I am not beneath dusting off my spreadsheet skills. It is, after all, the one place I can actually merge multiple sources of data and play around with summaries, correlations and visualizations. You might have more fun than you would expect playing with Excel scenarios!

Mind your benefit-per-dollar advertising

It is one of many common traps for ambitious innovators. And unfortunately, one with no easy answers. You do need to spend some time and money in promoting your product. You do need to find a “sweet spot” in timing: Too early and you risk coming off as amateur or unprofessional; too late and you risk building a product dissociated from their real users.

And above all, you do need to keep an eye on costs, as studies show advertising spending too easily follows the herd rather than the pot of gold. If you failed to get a basic graps on your metrics (see previous section), chances are you end up following everyone else mistakenly thinking that’s what works. When in reality, there’s several reasons why it might not:

  • Advertising is the brainchild of strategy. Unless you don’t know why you are ultimately doing it, you cannot tell if it’s working or not. All you could end up doing is validating someone else’s hypothesis. This holds true no matter how similar your competitor is to you: When it comes to branding, narratives are always unique. They elicit different things from the same people, even through the same channels.
  • In the case of learning and education-related products, It bears stressing the narrative of vantage point: You cannot thoroughly compensate a dull or uninspired brand story by doubling on advertising spending. This is even more true for technology brands, where your journey matters much more than your product. Users don’t buy a software license for where your product is, but where they think it’s going. (And taking them.)
  • It might not always be the case, but it is a common pitfall in booming industries: Advertising costs could rise sharply at a moment’s notice. Not only these costs are not linked to better performance, they could actually indicate its effectiveness is compromise. Look no further than Facebook, who is behaving like a social marketing monopoly forcing you to spend higher without ensuring any long term engagement from its ads.
  • A final reminder: Your ads are not your product. There is no such thing as “channel fidelity,” a more relevant truism in the digital world than ever before. Ads, however, can speak truthfully about you, therefore about your thoughts behind your product. It is not difficult to differentiate your EdTech, and your ads are not the best way to do it. Make consistent efforts to listen to your customers, find out the channels they inhabit more often, and meet them there. (Cost-benefit analyses notwithstanding.)

Don’t pitch your tech, pitch your understanding

Whether you create proprietary or open source software, the core rules of engagement in today’s digital world are more or less the same. Apps and cloud-based software have taught us to expect continuous improvements and new features.

Be careful, though. I’ve become painfully aware of how certain words, including “features” and “improvements,” pop up indiscriminately across websites and landing pages. It’s taken me to automatically suspect and ask: Improvement how? Their tech could be top notch, but are they really making things better in a way that benefits me? (*cough*) So your tech is Free and Open Source, what’s in it for me whether you are going to GNU heaven? As a believer in unabashed openness, I’m also painfully aware of the inordinate presence of holier-than-thou attitudes in the community, which only succeed at turning people away from our core values.

As a rule of thumb: Build Open Source to get your message across. By which I mean: The message you want to send.

I still have many unanswered questions about open source, especially from an economist perspective. But I know the most valuable tool is that which is, you know, put to use. And there is few better ways to put tools in the hands of people than engaging in their community. I will not always benefit directly from the value generated by my work on the Open Source movement and technologies, and that is alright.

Don’t fall asleep on steady water

We have entered an age of trending buzzwords. It is an art to be able to tell, let alone benefit from, the flurry of terms and ideas that fill everyone’s feeds and inboxes. Remaining on top of the conversation while staying true to your core values is a matter of fine-tuning your message, your risk appetite, and your ability to leverage technological quality to address short-term.

Feel welcome to veer into the darkness of content marketing, but get ahold of a star map:

  1. Assuming you have an online presence that you intend to keep on to date, it is highly recommended that you begin with a “Foundation”: A series of items (articles are fine to begin with) and related content designed to stay relevant with minimal revision over the months or years. You do need to update them periodically.
  2. Make sure this Foundation is valuable and clear in terms of your value proposition. Making sure it passes SEO muster, is clean and properly structured, is only half of it. The content must be relevant to your target audience, and perhaps more importantly, it must match intent.
  3. With a solid core, it will be orders or magnitude easier to leverage trending topics, hashtags, keywords and breaking news. Don’t fear joining the conversation with interesting perspectives. Try to be as little “salesy” as possible, try not to end up with “fellow kids” material (and if you do, be aware and protect your authenticity); and above all: Read the room.
  4. If you find an interesting trend that your content does not fulfill, make sure it is relevant and reoccurring enough that it is worth adding onto your content foundation. Rinse and repeat.

Network your way out of paid traffic

Paying to put your ads on top of people’s feeds can be an equally positive and perilous effort. Many of the reasons why are related to the issue before. Before we summarize, let’s make sure there is at least one clear takeaway: Always deliver value. From the first interaction with your potential customer all the way through, make sure your message, and later on your technology, generously reflect your experience and insight.

By all means spend to your heart’s content on ads and show up on top of people’s feeds. But:

  • It’s up to you to keep a hold of them. (The relevant ones anyway, as suspicion increases regarding how relevant the audience to whom social media sites show your message is.)
  • If you don’t match the right audience and intent, might as well donate to Linux or do something just as helpful for your company. Furthermore, if you show up indiscriminately you might come off as “spammy.”
  • If your brand has a weak narrative behind it, people would not care too much about supporting you over the long haul. You might counteract this by lowering your prices and offering all sorts of discounts, which will last as long as a better story or pricing comes along. There is a bit of a disclaimer here: You might not need to have your own, authentic story. If you support the right kind of creators and stories, you can still grab some of the positive associations for your brand.
  • Leverage Open Source, but be clear and know the limitations, lest you want to be accused of “openwashing.”

We want to hear from you. How is your 2019 Digital\Content Marketing strategy? We’d love to help, or feature you in an article! Reach out at any time.

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