3 B2B Lessons from the Education World
ByTom Swanson, Engagement Manager at Heinz Marketing
Coming from the education world into B2B marketing seems like quite a big shift. As part of my past work, I led communications and storytelling for an education research organization. My role involved leading teams to create and publicize meaningful content that explored new ideas and expanded the way people think. Eventually, I decided to return to the business world to sharpen my communications and marketing skills, expecting to feel lost while I entered this exciting new arena of B2B.
However, I have been quite shocked to find that there are far more commonalities between driving change in education and doing the same for businesses than I would have expected. The interesting root of it all is that communication-driven change is a universal concept. Stories move the needle and if you can bring those fundamentals, creating change is possible in any setting. There is more to it than just storytelling, so here are three of the lessons I learned in education, and how they apply to B2B.
Part one: Understand agency to drive change
The need to understand complex decision committees, the personas that make them up, and their journeys is a big commonality between education and B2B. In our initial attempts at driving change, we thought this was enough, but it really isn’t. The whole point of working on these foundational marketing components is to understand how change happens. This is an easy step to miss as it requires you to go just a bit further.
We found numerous studies that show how change at the classroom level ultimately drives change upwards to the school, district, and even national level. This was an essential finding for our strategy. Suddenly everything started to click into place as we realized connecting with individual educators was not only a viable path, but a verified way to drive the change we wanted to see.
Agency is the key piece here, and it is made up of ability and drive. We needed to identify the areas where teachers had agency in their work, and then target those with our content to drive action that would ladder up to our desired outcome.
Change comes when your audience has the agency to make the change. Marketers would do well to get a better understanding of the managerial practices surrounding professional agency at work. Find where your personas have agency in their work, and generate content that connects your product to that.
Part two: Find the easy proof of concept
You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks public school curriculum is perfect in its current state, but driving change in that space requires herculean effort. Thankfully, businesses are more open to change, but the process of getting a business to recognize a problem and take the actions you want them to take to solve it is quite similar to a school. You have to convince a complex decisions committee that what you are proposing is the best way to solve a recognized issue.
When we were on to a good idea, success came from finding ways to carry out that idea in the wild. Test environments are essential, but biological systems (as business are, like it or not) are unpredictable as factors you cannot anticipate intersect and pile up. When public schools were not ready for a change, we would start with private schools, after-school programs, and outside organizations. These gave us real-life environments where parents had opinions, kids didn’t show up on time, and technical difficulties mounted. We generated data and, critically, stories to show not only the benefits of a solution, but the durability of it in the face of chaos and uncertainty.
Where can you bring your product such that it will generate those stories and show the durability of your solution? While we were targeting change for public schools, we started in places more open to change in order to generate content that would move people. This is what you need to do. Large enterprise companies are unlikely to adopt an untested product, so start smaller. Pull on your network, draw in influencers, maybe even go outside of your actual target.
The key to all of this is to document it. It can be hard in a busy day to do this, but it is critical. Track the story from start to finish, so you can generate meaningful content that drives decisions.
Part three: Explore the meaning of success
There is a big push right now for tying marketing activities to revenue, and rightly so if you ask me. As a pragmatic person, I always look to provable utility, and what better way to define that than revenue? Well, my past job was both in education, and at a philanthropy the goal was not to sell anything, there was no revenue, we traded in ideas and change. But this isn’t a trackable concept, right?
What we found was the metrics we would normally rely on to indicate awareness and imply change didn’t work. Educators and professionals could be aware of a problem, and even have the agency to make a change, but that didn’t mean they would. We went through multiple iterations of defining success from number of talks accepted at conferences to journal articles published to qualified website traffic, but none of it indicated actual change.
Instead, we dove into stories. If an educator found our work, integrated it into their practice, and never told us about it, we would still count that as a success, but it would not help us improve. So we started to seek out those stories as our primary metric. Were educators using our work, and were they passionate enough to share their experiences with us? Suddenly, we had a way to tell which of our ideas, content, and efforts were most successful, while also generating key partnerships, expanding our network, and building an outstanding database of content.
Defining success for a marketing program suffers the same challenge. Connecting everything to revenue makes theoretical sense, but it also narrows the scope for what makes a “good idea”. Powerful revenue technology tools enable us to expand that scope again through advanced attribution techniques, but sometimes you need to break out of that revenue-only mindset to really get at the creative ideas.
At the end of the day, there is no escaping the bottom line. All of the thought leadership in the world is meaningless if nobody buys the product. However, what drives those decisions is sometimes different than you would expect, and this comes down to your reporting. As you go deeper into your marketing organization, make sure the metrics reflect those less tangible things that ultimately create the revenue. It is our challenge as marketers to know what those are and be able to tell convincing stories of how they connect to revenue and the other metrics that executives track.
Lessons learned come from so many different places, and often times the best ones come from vastly different concepts colliding. It has been exciting to see how the things I learned from working in education have mirrored the B2B world, and as I continue digging in, I look forward to sharing more of these. If you have any thoughts on this, lessons to share, or just want to chat about education/B2B/anything else, please feel free to email me.