To Succeed in Ed Tech, Become a Lifelong Learner

This is a guest post by Chris Piehler, Lead Storytller, PR with Panache!

As I sift through my memories of EdNET 2017 (the sessions, the sun, the bocce), one essential lesson stands out: the importance, in our industry, of being a lifelong learner. No one exemplifies this more than our longtime EdNET host, Vicki Smith Bigham. Vicki once told me that when she was a high school English teacher, she chose to take a programming course because, “I got so excited when I saw the children at the computer. I could see thought processes.” Vicki combined teaching and learning throughout her 40-year career, whether gathering tech-curious Texan teachers (say that 10 times fast!) for the first TCEA conference, serving as the president of ISTE, or making EdNET a warm and welcoming place to share knowledge. So thank you very much, Vicki, and enjoy your well-earned retirement.

As a launchpad for the panel discussion we hosted at this year’s conference, PR with Panache! continued our lifelong learning by conducting a national survey of educational administrators. We asked them what they liked and disliked about working with vendors. They expressed a variety of opinions but did reach one point of absolute consensus: 100% of the educators who responded said it was “very important” for vendors to show an understanding of the unique challenges they face every day.

In an age when legions of tech start-ups boast about the potential of their “disruptive” apps or software, this response was a powerful reminder that educators don’t want (or need) to be disrupted. Budget challenges, teacher attrition, and ever-changing accountability measures are disruption enough. Educators want to be helped.

How to Listen in Person and Online

To truly help the educators we aim to serve, we in the ed tech industry need to start by listening to them. Once we understand the specific problems a school or district is facing, it’s tempting to offer a quick solution that just so happens to include buying something that we’re selling—but if we’re looking to build a long-term, meaningful partnership, the push for a sale has to wait.

Remember, these are educators we’re talking to. Their mindset is based on the learning process, so we need to start by learning…about them. How long have they been in their current job? What are the demographics of their school or district? What’s the local political climate like? What are the issues that keep them up at night?

To be good students, we have to go beyond sitting still and listening. We have to ask smart questions and, when they ask us questions, respond in a way that shows that we’ve learned what they took the time to teach us. This process is relatively straightforward if you’re lucky enough to be meeting a potential customer face-to-face. But just like dating, most educator/vendor relationships these days start online, which makes listening and responding a bit more challenging.

The good news here for ed tech marketers is that, in addition to always looking for an opportunity to teach, the best educators are constantly looking to learn. And according to our survey, administrators are open to helpful information from a wide a variety of sources, including industry blogs. More than 70% of the administrators we surveyed said they would subscribe to a vendor’s blog if the information was useful.

So, don’t treat blogging as one more thing to cross off the to-do list. Use your blog as a way to share solutions to the challenges facing your customers. A well-written and actionable blog post shows educators that you’ve taken the time to learn about the issues that matter to them. When you show this evidence of learning, you’re on your way to earning their trust—and maybe, somewhere down the line, their business.

So, to sum up the lessons of EdNET 2017:

  1. Vicki Smith Bigham is second to none when it comes to making a business conference feel like a gathering of old friends; and
  2. Part of that collegial atmosphere comes from a shared passion for education and a shared habit of looking at life as a series of learning opportunities.

When it comes down to it, no matter how dazzling or disruptive your products are, the best way to create lasting connections with educators is to become a lifelong learner—and “lifelong” means “even after you’ve made the sale.” As one of our survey respondents put it, “The purchase order is the beginning, NOT the end.”