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I suppose the logical angle to take with a World Book Day-themed blog about shrinking school budgets would have been to tie it in nicely with Alice in Wonderland and her incredible shrinking potion. But while that’s one of Katie’s favourite books, there’s another genre of novel that’s much more up my street…
No, not the bodice-ripping period drama! I’m talking about a good old fashioned, page-turning whodunit.
And what better mystery for me to write about than one that I’m asked to solve on an almost weekly basis by sellers to schools reaching out to Sprint Education…
In the six years I've been managing clients' marketing campaigns at Sprint Education, I've lost count of the times I've been told that it's getting harder to sell to schools. Even so, I've recently noticed that more education businesses than ever before are adopting this viewpoint and I think we need to look carefully at what's happening in our industry and why it feels to some like things are getting tougher.
Because, in truth, the finger pointing is by no means confined to just shrinking school budgets; that's only one of several factors that gets the blame when things start getting tough. In this blog we'll be looking at the list of possible suspects, sifting through the red herrings to uncover the real guilty party.
The GDPR has undoubtedly led to many people questioning the role of outreach email campaigns in their marketing strategy, either because they think that the two things are mutually exclusive (which is just incorrect) or because they think that the former has diminished the effectiveness of the latter (which we'll look at below).
Recently we did some analysis of our clients' email campaigns to teachers over the last 8 months (see the results here). What we found was that the GDPR did indeed have a negative impact upon open and unsubscribe rates, however this was extremely short lived.
In fact, what our analysis seems to show is that the GDPR has actually had a positive impact on the results of our clients' campaigns in the medium term – so much so that open and unsubscribe rates are currently the best they've been for over 18 months!
Is that because everyone has simply forgotten about GDPR? No, I don't think so. I think it shows that the GDPR is achieving exactly what it set out to do: not eradicate outreach marketing, but improve it by ensuring those businesses that put the interests of their data subjects at the heart of what they do succeed, while others flounder and fail.
If you're blaming GDPR for making it harder to sell to schools then you need to look at how you're currently doing it, because that's where the problem lies.
Verdict: Not Guilty
This is another extremely popular candidate for blame and there is some truth to the view that schools' ever-evolving email security systems are making it harder to reach teachers' inboxes.
However, just like GDPR, we need to look at the facts. Open rates are currently running at 27.2% for our clients, which is higher than at any time in the last 18 months. School filter systems are becoming more sophisticated and this is indeed making it more difficult for any old Tom, Dick and Harry to reach the inboxes of their staff.
But that's a good thing right? Or certainly it's a good thing for those of us that are properly investing in our sending infrastructure because it means that teachers' inboxes are not being deluged by emails sent by businesses and agencies that think they can cut corners.
At Sprint Education, we spend £197,000 every single year on our sending infrastructure which is built and maintained entirely in-house. We're constantly tweaking and optimising it because we know that high deliverability has to be earned over and over again as filtering systems constantly evolve.
For those businesses or agencies that cannot react in real-time to this evolution then yes, this is making it harder for them or their clients to sell to schools. We, however, see it as an opportunity for us to help our clients' marketing stand out even more.
Verdict: Not Guilty
Regardless of what you think the root cause is, there’s no denying that schools are feeling the pinch at the moment with many openly stating that they’re having to scale back all ‘non-essential’ spending.
But while the perception exists that this means schools are no longer spending money on third party products and services, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The key word here is ‘essential’. Simply put, you must make sure that teachers see your product or service as integral to both the day-to-day running of their school and their improvement plans.
I recently spoke with Paul Jackson, the Head Teacher at an Outstanding rated primary school in Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived areas of London. When I asked him if shrinking school budgets meant that he was having to scale back his ambitions for the school, or if he was having to stop looking to the private sector for solutions, he was quick to shake his head.
“If schools take the budgets they are given at the start of the financial year and set their annual objectives and expected outcomes to these budgets, then what will be achieved will no doubt be limited. This approach will also be really depressing for all involved in our schools. The money given will never be enough.
But if we look at things in a different way and start, not with the amount of money that is available, but with what it is that we want to achieve, then I think this leads us to think more creatively and to be innovative with our resources.”
The key here is to make sure the benefits of using your product or service are so compelling, and so quantifiable, that they become not just a ‘nice to have’ but essential to the school.
Verdict: Not Guilty
If you added the word ‘boring’ to the above statement then I’d agree with it wholeheartedly. Teachers don’t read boring emails anymore.
This is nothing new. Teachers have always been ruthless when it comes to marketing. However, it has become increasingly true in a world where they see marketing messages every hour of every day, be that on their phones, in their inboxes, or on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Their instincts have become so incredibly fine-tuned that they’re able to identify an email with no genuine value attached to it within a matter of 3 or 4 seconds. They’re all but immune to the same old tired marketing messages being trotted out time after time after time. It takes something new, something different to grab their attention.
That’s why we’ve recently created a library of over 30 different email campaign ‘themes’ which we use to keep clients’ marketing fresh, exciting, and above all surprising. Some of these themes you’ll probably already be familiar with, but there are some that are completely new, and others that completely rip up the rule book!
These themes are designed to wake teachers up from the monotony of marketing and make them view your emails as a forward-thinking, exciting alternative to their everyday inbox clutter. And they’re already having a fantastic impact on some of our clients’ engagement rates.
So, while I completely understand it when I hear a potential client telling me that teachers don’t read marketing emails anymore, I’m afraid I can’t agree with it.
Verdict: Not Guilty
Brexit. No debate would be complete without it. Even as I type the word I can feel my chest tighten slightly and sense my Directors’ breath on the back of my neck (Do. Not. Say. Anything. Controversial.).
Brexit is either the biggest mistake this country has ever made or the greatest opportunity in a generation (delete according to your particular Remainer / Brexiteer bias) but we can probably all agree that we live in an uncertain political climate.
What impact this will have on school budgets is not yet clear, which means uncertainty of course. And while my personal opinion is that no future Government is going to be electable campaigning on the basis of major cuts to the education budget, I also think that it really comes back to the previous point: make sure you’re positioning your product or service as essential instead of a luxury.
Certainly at the moment I view Brexit as a massive red herring in this debate. Strong open and click rates (both at an 18 month high) suggest that teachers are looking towards the private sector more than ever for solutions to their challenges, while success stories such as Grant’s suggest that the opportunities for growing your business rapidly remain strong when you get your messaging right.
Verdict: Not Guilty
What?! A whodunnit without a culprit? How can that be I hear you ask? Ah but every whodunnit has a killer twist in its tale, which is why I'd now like to unveil suspect number 6...
Ah I bet you didn't see that coming did you!
In my experience, the single biggest reason why it becomes harder to sell to schools is that people become so fearful of Suspects 1-5 that they decide to dial down their marketing. They become convinced that market conditions are so treacherous that the only thing to do is cut their marketing budget back to its bare bones, sit tight, and see if they can ride out the storm.
The trouble with this approach is that this vision of doom becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Doing less marketing (and doing marketing 'on the cheap') leads to a situation where there are less leads coming in, there are less sales being made, and where you see both of those things as confirmation of all your worst fears.
Marketing is always seen as such a luxury. It's seen as unnecessary when things are going well and unaffordable when things are going badly. But ultimately, it's the lifeblood of any education business and the one thing you should never underinvest in.
My final tip for overcoming cynicism in your marketing to schools is to ensure that your message looks like it’s coming...
Welcome to December’s edition of Stu’s Edu News. I've been given a month off in January, but don’t worry, the very latest stats and facts will return in February. This month’s edition is a word count special!