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Why EdTech Brands Need to Be Audience-Obsessed: A Conversation With Jacob Hanson
Episode 1719th May 2022 • Marketing and Education • Elana Leoni | Leoni Consulting Group
00:00:00 00:57:18

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Elana sits down with Jacob Hanson, CEO and Storyteller at PRP Group. Jacob had a lot to say about EdTech companies and their interactions with the market they serve, including how they can understand and improve that dynamic for everyone involved.

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Elana:

Hello, and welcome to All Things Marketing and Education. My name is Elana Leoni, and I’ve devoted my career to helping education brands build their brand awareness and engagement. Each week I sit down with educators, EdTech entrepreneurs, and experts in educational marketing and community building. All of them will share their successes and failures using social media, inbound marketing or content marketing, and community building. I’m excited to guide you on your journey to transform your marketing efforts into something that provides consistent value and ultimately improves the lives of your audience.

Hi, everyone. I’m Elana Leoni, CEO of Leoni Consulting Group, and welcome to this week’s episode of All Things Marketing and Education. Today I have the absolute joy of sitting down with Jacob Hanson, CEO of PRP Group, which is formerly known as PR with Panache. Some of you old-school EdTech folks might know that name. They are a public relations and marketing-intelligence firm for education. I love sitting down with all folks EdTech. Jacob has been around. He knows a lot of EdTech companies. I’m excited to pick his brain.

I’ve known Jacob for maybe five or so years, something like that, and I think you officially took over PR Panache – when it was PR Panache – at the same time as I launched LCG. I look back at this moment, and there were a lot of people making moves at that time. My friend, Steve Dembo, ended up working with me. He went into consulting. A lot of people went and did their own thing at the same time, Katie Test and her group. There was a lot moving and shaking, it felt like, five years ago in this world. LCG just celebrated our five-year anniversary.

Jacob:

Congratulations.

Elana:

There’s lots of fun going on. Basically, Jacob and I were in the same world. We would see each other, and I always thought you were such a friendly face. You always wanted to work together and collaborate. Any time that we talked, you were very open in sharing your knowledge and helping us through this crazy world of EdTech, especially within the pandemic. I remember us just talking one day, going, “What? I don’t know. How do we make this work?”

Jacob:

Yeah.

Elana:

Every time I chat with you, Jacob, I leave inspired. I wanted to have you on the show for a very long time. I am excited for you to share your knowledge with our audience. A little bit about Jacob, before he gets started: Jacob currently serves on the board of directors for High Tech Kids, which sounds super awesome. It’s a nonprofit that makes STEM more accessible to kids in Minnesota, where he’s based. He is a father to a seven-year-old son, Sawyer, and a five-year-old daughter, Bexley, beautiful name. Jacob and I are going to talk about – we didn’t really know what to call it, but it’s really all things educator support, and knowing your market and audience.

We’ll tell you a bit more about what that means in a second, but I think this is a very, very important conversation. As an EdTech mentor to start-ups, and being in the industry for decades now, I can tell you, across the board, EdTech start-ups and companies and brands fail to truly understand their audience. Let’s pause there. I want you, if you’re an EdTech organization listening to this – "Do I really know my audience and all the different facets and stakeholders within it?" Sometimes you fail to know the market. The market’s shifting like crazy right now, especially with pandemic and whatnot in education.

We’re going to be focusing on some strategies to really understand your audience and how to support educators in this whole process and, educators, potentially how you can advocate for yourself and work together with EdTech organizations. So, that is a lot. We might not get through it all, but we will get to really good stuff. Welcome, Jacob, to All Things Marketing and Education. We’re so excited to have you.

Jacob:

Well, thank you so much, and Elana, I feel like if anyone reaches out to me, I’m going to really have to step up my game after that intro. I appreciate that, and for all of you out there, I would say, take about 80 percent of what Elana said, and then we’ll be good. I think you’re right. I think we met through a mutual client, actually, that saw a need for us to meet, Don Rescigno at Insight Advance.

Elana:

Oh, it was Don.

Jacob:

Yes. I think that’s how we met. That was prior to you, I think, hanging your shingle officially, but it was right around that time. I think I remember when you actually did. It has been a bit of a wild ride. I think a few other folks in my world had decided to do the same thing as well. Maybe it wasn’t just the pandemic that accelerated the Great Resignation or the Great Turnover, whatever you want to call it, which I think is part of the reason why I gave you such a scatterbrained idea of different topics that maybe we could talk about today. Everything goes back to that teacher shortage, people leaving, in my world, at least.

Elana:

Yes. Fundamentally I like this, because it’s the foundation of everything. Know your audience. Know your market. The rest of the things will follow suit. From the LCG perspective, we build communities and organic social media presence because we want to show you how you can build consistent relationships with your stakeholders, your target audience, and your users, and how that can fundamentally transform your organization.

Why don’t we start a little bit about you, just so people can understand you and the PRP Group? You recently went through a transition. How did you get to leading the PRP Group? What’s your transition? Maybe just bring us in a little bit of who you are. How’d you get into this fun but crazy world of EdTech?

Jacob:

Sure. Well, I’ll try to give an abbreviated version. Out of college, I found a career in land development out west, and then at the onset of the Great Recession, was like, "Hey, this probably isn’t a good spot for me to be." Given some of the work I did out there, I really had to help the ranchers around – the ranches we were buying, breaking up, and selling – to understand why this was a good thing for them, and it wasn’t outsiders coming in and destroying their area. I ended up doing a lot of PR, and that was really my first taste of PR. My official title was sales, but I had to convince these folks, “Please don’t shoot up our signs. Please don’t bulldoze our roads when we’re going to have sales. We put power lines into the pumps that you run on your cattle ponds that you never had water to. We ran phone lines in here. Now you have phones here at your ranch houses that never had it. We ran water lines in here.” All of that stuff, but when the Great Recession hit, that was no longer an option. At least, I didn’t feel like it was. I had done some freelancing for my mom prior to graduating from college in PR, so I talked to my mom. I said, “Look, I don’t need to get into a full-time gig, but if you have a client I can help in sales, let me know.”

a company. We incorporated in:

That’s how I found my way into this, but my whole life, my mom was a first-generation college grad, so education was always really important. I’ve always been told or been shown that education is the great equalizer. When a child or a kid is given the opportunity and access to a high-quality education, they will succeed. I guess when the opportunity presented itself, there was just nowhere else to go, education and EdTech. I’ve bumbled and fumbled my way through, and here I am.

Elana:

You’ve done it very well. What I like, your perspective, and lots of other guests that we have on, is that you have a vantage point of working with lots and lots of companies. It’s really helped my perspective, too, going out of house. Where I was at Edutopia, just working within one company or within one brand, now it’s like, “Wow. We’re also seeing this over here, and we’re seeing it here.” We can understand the trends and the nuances a lot more, the more we work with multiple brands. I’m excited to dive into that with you.

Jacob:

You know, actually that dovetails nicely. You had mentioned a rebrand. I don’t want to spend too much time just talking about us, but one of the big reasons behind that rebrand was just the name of our company, as well as what we felt; the messaging behind that just didn’t represent us anymore. It’s not that it was wildly inaccurate. It’s not like we don’t do anything that our old website or old messaging, old brand, communicated. It was that we as a company had chosen an updated belief system and had focused on our culture and changed. That brand represented that, but a lot of that was forced, or we felt that a catalyst was what our clients’ changing needs are.

Along with that rebrand, we also reorganized based on specifically, what are our buyers coming to us for? What do they actually need from us? Not only did we change our brand and change how we talk about ourselves; we have changed what we do, how we deliver it, and how we go about it based on – really, it comes down to the changed needs, behaviors, those kinds of things, of the people that we serve. For those out there, we work primarily with vendors. Here and there we do work with educational institutions. The vast majority of my contact with educators, administrators, comes through the companies I work with. For the most part, the folks that I’m working directly with are vendors.

One of the things that I think we realized, or that I look at, is, you mentioned start-ups. I think that all companies, of any industry, can fall into this trap. You may have figured out at one time, but if you’re not continually making sure you’ve got that figured out, you’re eventually going to become the old dinosaur before you even realize it yourself. It’s not just about, "What does my product do for this person, how does it help?" It’s, "What else is going on in that person’s world? How do I fit into the bigger picture?" None of this, I think, is monumentally different than how people think, but it’s critical to be putting some of these things together so that you’re not wasting your time, and you’re not wasting theirs. Everything you do should be to earn trust, earn mindshare of the folks that you’re trying to target versus trying to convince them to buy what you got.

Elana:

I think also transitions to what we really wanted to talk about; audience, knowing your audience. The audience is the signal to potentially how you need to pivot. Porter, some of you know, she’s the Director of Joy over at our organization. We talk about together this magic in the middle. We don’t want to just follow what our audience needs. We certainly want to keep abreast with our audience's needs, and to do that you need to know your audience deeply. You got this audience need in one hand, but then you also have your organizational priorities. What do you want to do strategically as a business?

Then sometimes we overlap another circle. Really, what is our capacity and budget to do so? How do you find that magic middle? The first thing you need to do is figure out, "How do I make sure I have a constant pulse on what may audience is, how it’s changing?" Do you want to talk a little bit about if there’s somebody, even a start-up starting something new? Or maybe they’re trying to figure out who they are and reinvent themselves, or they’re established education organization. How do you begin to tap into that? It’s a hard question, and there’s lots of ways.

Jacob:

It really is. Right now I’m a little distracted. You talk about the magic in the middle, and now I just really want an Oreo.

Elana:

[Laughs] And a Venn diagram and all that stuff.

Jacob:

[Laughs] I love that term, by the way. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you use that. That’s fantastic. I think the biggest thing to do is to start with your mindset. I think a lot of people – me included, I fall victim to this – you’ve got a one-track mind, or you put your blinders on. This is what I’m doing. You don’t make room for curiosity and to actually ask the questions, or ask other people the questions. Am I solving a real problem, or am I making a problem up or making it bigger than it is?

I think one of the examples, unfortunately, I point to are educators themselves that create a solution for their classroom and then say, “Hey, if I needed this, everyone else needed it.” They realize what a crowded space it actually is for whatever app they might have created. It’s not unique to educators. Lots of folks from outside education, that have gotten millions and millions and millions of dollars in investment, have done the same thing. That’s where I think it really starts, this curiosity, is, do I have this right, and constantly asking those questions.

It comes down to everything from reflecting on a conversation you might have with a customer, to results you get on an email, to maybe polling your customers on certain questions. There’s a lot of different ways to get curious, but that’s one of the driving forces behind what we’re doing. We have to get curious and stay curious on "What are we getting wrong here? What are we getting right?"

Elana:

Yes. I think it’s a combination of being curious from at Cal Berkely, where – a graduate, go Bears – we talk about students always. It’s one of our defining principles. You always want to be learning, curiosity, but sometimes you need a little bit of organizational backbone to it. Amy Porterfield is an amazing marketer. I follow her on her podcast. We’ll put her in the Show Notes. She has something about knowing your ideal customer avatar. She uses ICA. I think sometimes people say “your ideal customer profile,” ICP. Whatever it is, I don’t care, po-tay-to, po-tah-to. She has a recipe. You have to go call a certain amount of people, ask them a certain amount of questions, so you can really fully understand who they are. I love that.

I also went through Lean Startups, Steve Blank’s thing, at Cal. He did the same thing. We had to interview so many people to figure it out. Do you have any experience or advice around whose job is it? How do we systematize it a little bit and keep it top of mind?

Jacob:

Lots of layers there, lots of good questions. I think, depending on the size of organization, where are you at in your life cycle will determine just how many of these – we call them buyer personas, ideal customer profiles works, whatever term you use – you can actually focus on. It will determine how many of their ancillary personas or satellite personas can you focus on. You may have a curriculum director as your buyer, but they’ve got a team around them. You’ve got to earn their trust, too, and it’s often not through that curriculum director.

It is in talking to your customers. It’s pilots, betas, some of the tried and true tactics, I think, that people do, but you forget about. Companies will do them at the beginning. They’ll get great feedback. They’ll act on it, but then two years later they’re still acting on that same feedback that they got, still operating as if that’s current. For some, it may be true. I know textbooks don’t change much in a two-year span, but that’s not the same for everything. In some cases, two years can be a lot of time. You think about literacy right now. Think of where we’re at in the conversation on the science of reading right now, versus where we were two years ago. I hate to say this, but the reading wars are all but dead here. You can see which side is winning. Two years ago it was raging. It was a bonfire still.

It’s polling those folks in that, but other areas are – one of the things that we do, we call them think tanks. It’s a fancy name for a panel, getting folks who are not in your inner circle who will answer your tough questions. In those areas we, a lot of times, want to prove and disprove. That’s the way that we look at our curiosity. We’re hearing these value statements. We’re hearing these things from our client or from a company. We’re hearing certain things from their customers. We’ll go and ask the panel, and we’ll dig deep into, does this matter in your geographic region? Are you going to respond to the same thing that they said yes to? Again, that same ideal customer profile, that super in Southern Florida, may not apply to that super in rural Washington State.

Elana:

Bringing some practical application. If you’re listening, think about how you can incorporate it in your day-to-day. It doesn’t need to be huge. I’ve seen some leadership folks say, “OK, I’m picking up the phone, just one time a week, and talking to one of my customers or potential customers, just talking to them and asking them: What do they do? What do they do for fun?" All of these things really help when you’re trying to figure out what do they care about. How can I be as relevant as possible to them? I think integration into your normal day-to-day is really helpful, but at Edutopia, I didn’t know. I was probably the closest to the audience at the time. At the time, we were launching a big membership. People would email me. This is a little bit before social media, if you can imagine a world without social media. I had the idea to bring in an educator to our staff meetings. It can be as simple as that. Bring in your target buyer or your current customer, whatever, and then just have them give you feedback. I can tell you, it fundamentally shifted some of our priorities. We tried to not say, “OK, we’re just creating it for this educator,” but it gave us a layer or a nuance to really think with our audience in mind.

Jacob:

I want to comment on that. I would agree completely. Just bring in an educator. It’s not always that easy, and it’s maybe not always as simple as bringing that one educator. For those of you out there that can get away with the one educator, just do it regularly and frequently, but make sure that you’re checking some of those demographics. If you’re targeting English-language learners, are you only talking to those that are helping primarily Spanish-speaking kids? Where I’m at in Minnesota, the primary second languages are East African, not Spanish. When I think ELL, I think Somalian. I think Ethiopian, not Mexican or Central American, where in Southern California, that’s what you’d gravitate towards.

It’s testing those assumptions, but you can do that in simple, quick questions, like you mentioned. You can do it in regular surveys, whether to your customers or outside of that. A lot of companies have adopted some form of educator or superintendent in residence, that they’ve got that advisor, that companion. I think that’s fantastic. It’s something that, if you can tap that and do that, great. It’s even, sometimes, as simple as adding that question, or an optional question, to the login to your platform. Just ask your customers. If they bought from you, they’re going to give you the right answers. Don’t shove it down their throat. Don’t make them do it, but, “Hey, help us out. Can you answer two questions?”

Make it simple for them, and they’ll do it. They’re using your product. They’re logging in. If they don’t want to do it, then don’t ask them again. That’s a super-easy way. I have a client right now that did similar to that, and it’s insane. They created a resource. I won’t disclose who they are, but they created a resource based on what they learned that has had 100,000 unique completions, student and educator, in the last three weeks. It’s insane, because it created something really helpful that their users asked for. They’re giving it away. It’s not something they’re charging for. They’re giving it away, and it’s primarily their users, but talk about something simple. It probably took them all of a half a day to create this, but 100,000 people, students and teachers, that’s a big impact on such a small effort that they had to make to learn that detail.

Elana:

Yes, and fundamentally, when you know your audience, you know that it may reaffirm, or it may cause you to move or change or update your product to make sure that you’re solving an actual, relevant, timely need in the classroom. The world has changed quite a bit with EdTech in the pandemic, too, and the audience will help ground you to that. Fundamentally, you have to make sure you have that. We just talked to Rayna about procurement. She talked about, if you’re doing a pilot, really the number one success factor you have is making sure it actually solves a real problem.

Jacob, you were just talking about just because it worked in your classroom doesn’t mean you’re going to scale it nationally. You have to make sure and test and know all facets of the market itself. Beyond the audience, maybe let’s get into, how do you get to know the EdTech market? Maybe I’m in the EdTech industry now, but I came from finance, or I came from Google, and I’m recruited into this firm, but this is new to me. Maybe the world is changing, crazy. How do I start getting to know, fundamentally, the EdTech market? I know that’s a bleeding question, and we can go anywhere you want with it. We’ve talked a little bit about tips and tricks on the audience side, but the market is a whole 'nother wonderful world.

Jacob:

Yes. You brought up, more so, people from the private sector. I would also include your educator audience here, because some of those folks are the ones that may be thinking about trying to spread their wings. Because I’m in education doesn’t make me a teacher. I can’t do what they do. Bless their hearts. I just can’t do it. Just because you’re a teacher, you’re an educator, doesn’t mean that you know the education market, either. How many start-ups have we seen come in? “I solved this problem for doctors, and now I’m going to crush it in education.” Two years later nobody even remembers their name.

There’s a few different ways, I think. One of them is just consuming information. I was new to this industry at one point. So were you. It’s the first thing people ask you when you get into a new gig or something like that. “Are you from the industry?” They may even ask your coworkers about that before you even come into the conversation. That’s the first thing I want to know. Are we speaking the same language or, for lack of a better term, do I have to dumb it down a little bit, because you’re not going to be able to keep up? I consume a lot of information, still, to keep up, but it really came down to trusting associations, trusting visible people that were out there, that talked about the issues that I cared about.

I wouldn’t refer to them as influencers, because I don’t think the people I’m talking about right now are trying to influence anything other than – this is, again, prior to social media. I think I’d just gotten a Facebook account. They’d just opened it up to non-college kids. This is prior to social media as well. That’s a great place, but also I’ve seen that, for the vast majority of the people I meet in this industry, they want you here. They want you to stay. When someone gets a new job, the first thing I ask is, “Are you staying in the industry? You’re leaving? Aw.” In any case, trust the people around you, and ask them. Don’t expect that the skills that you have from another industry, another walk of education, is going to serve you the same way it does in another part of the industry.

I still do, though. I still read publications. I trust a lot of different ones to give good information. I follow a few pertinent folks, but I think there’s a lot more to learn about the education industry that’s not just being talked about in education media, that kind of thing. The best thing, I think, for the vendors out there, for the teachers out there, is again, how can you immerse that person or those people in this atmosphere, in the environment? Do you have customers that are local-ish that this person can go and sit in and listen in? Do you have more local conferences that they can go and experience that? I think maybe I’m talking more to companies that have larger resources. For that early start-up, maybe traveling to a conference, that kind of thing, isn’t in the cards, but there are a ton of virtual opportunities that you could take a look at, as well.

Elana:

I love how you were talking to the educators, because that’s a really big transition, too. They know education, but they don’t know the business side or the EdTech industry. That’s fundamentally why I started this podcast, too. I do feel like sometimes we speak different languages, and the more we can speak the same language, the more better we can be together. That is what I think a lot of organizations aspire to do, as well. SXSW EDU, it’s 100 percent what their mission was. Let’s get educators in the room. Let’s get EdTech people in the room. Let’s get them to talk in a way that’s mutually symbiotic for both of them. There’s some bad turns here and there, but we need to work through it to make sure that we’re talking together consistently and getting the feedback, so we can create awesome things and ultimately do great things for educators and students. That’s why we’re here.

Jacob:

Exactly. I was talking to an old friend of mine. His name’s Matt Kinnaman. His brother, for a long, long time ran district administration. We were talking yesterday. He started a new – he referred to it as association, but he started a new organization that, I think, embodies just what you said. It’s really for leadership. It’s called New Era Superintendents. You can find it, New Era Sups. Politics, culture issues, all that be damned. Can we unite around the fact that, if we just focus on what will help students achieve, can’t we just do it? Isn’t that going to solve everything? Isn’t that going to – if we just focus on student achievement, and how do we help them move forward, it’ll melt the other stuff away?

I was going to say, just going back to the question, you mentioned educators, I do want to say to all of you educators listening, my goal here isn’t really to help facilitate your exit from the classroom. I believe in you, and my children and other people’s children need you. I hope that you can continue to find the joy in the classroom, but if not, I hope that you can find joy staying in the industry and helping in another way. I just need to get that disclosure out, Elana.

Elana:

Yes, I’m glad you did, too. Although we have talked in previous episodes on how you can incorporate educators into the fold of an EdTech organization, it’s bittersweet, because we know how many kids will miss them and how many lives they might not be able to affect on that depth level. Then we also talk on the EdTech side. OK, now I can affect hundreds of thousands of people. If anyone is curious about that as an educator trying to transition, we have two episodes. One, we talk with Lily Jones. She is the founder of Educator Forever. She runs a community all about that. Maybe you can dip your toe into EdTech, but you find your joy wherever it may be. Then Serena over at Soundtrap also talks about it, how she transitioned over just recently to Soundtrap, a for-profit, but was an educator, what she learned, and what it’s really like; a little bit of a side note, but I’m glad you brought it up.

Jacob:

Funny. I’m glad you expanded on that as well. You have to dig, but there are former educators in significant leadership positions in many of the larger companies, and smaller companies, in education here. One of the ones that I’ve gotten the pleasure to work for a very long time is Todd Brekhus. He’s the chief product officer at Renaissance. He was a teacher when he first started out, and now he’s the chief product officer of one of the largest companies in education. It happened all because of his time in the classroom and where he started, but he realized his calling, and the impact he could make, was greater outside of the classroom.

I did want to go back to, maybe, the original question that started us down this road, around audience and knowing them, and your customer profiles and those kinds of things. I wanted to point out, for those that are actually watching this, I’m wearing a baseball hat. I’ve got the top button down on my shirt. I contemplated wearing a branded sweatshirt to this. I’m saying all of this stuff if you can’t see me, because outlook on things has changed dramatically because of this pandemic. I worry a lot less about how ready am I from a visible perspective. How much am I caring about the people around me? How much am I caring about my clients? Am I dedicating my time in places I can actually make a difference? Do they really care if I tied a tie or not today?

Maybe that’s just my example, because I don’t like wearing ties; but knowing what is going on in people’s lives, outside of why you can solve a problem for them, is just as critical. Right now we have principals driving school buses. We have English teachers serving kids lunch. It’s insane. Having the curiosity, like we talked about earlier, and the wherewithal to understand that your product may be great to you, or your idea may be great to you, but there is much more going on in these people’s work lives. They’re people just like us. They have families and marriages and issues with health of their parents and all that kind of stuff, too. It’s another area where you can’t know these people from a personal perspective, but understanding what’s going on around them is almost just as important as understanding where and how you fit into their bigger picture, because if you’re contacting that person for the right reasons at the wrong time, or the wrong reasons at the right time, you lose anyways. All of that work goes down the drain anyway.

Elana:

Jacob, let’s get into knowing their audience a little deeper, too. We talked about some steps, and there’s a lot of practical things you can do to interweave your day-to-day; but it has to be a focus, too. It can’t be just more than some beliefs on your website. We talked a little bit about some strategic priorities that you need to do as an organization to shift, so you know that maybe this is risk mitigation for making sure your product is as relevant as possible. We also talked about practical things you can do. When you look at EdTechs, or you work with lots of them, what are some signs that they show if they don’t know their audience?

Jacob:

I think the biggest one is – I’m with the educators, so you can spot it from a mile away. If the person that wrote copy on their website or on their emails or whatever is not from the industry, they may be a great writer, but they don’t use terms or words the way that they should. That’s one big telltale sign that they have not done enough, probably haven’t done any, homework. Maybe this is a good tool for others, or not. When I’m talking to a potential new client, whether I think they’re a good fit for us or not, I still want to make sure that they leave there saying, “Hey, I got some value from that guy.” I’ll do a preliminary check on their website, some of the other things I can find online, their social platforms.

It’s not as much, "Does this website work?" or anything along those lines. It’s more of the, "Can I immediately understand why I’m here?" If I’m a curriculum director, and I need to buy this, I immediately understand why I’m here. Can I, within seconds – even shorter than a second – determine where I need to go? If I can’t, in almost every screen of that scroll of their webpage or of their newsfeed, or wherever you’re looking, as their primary buyer or primary persona, can’t immediately or very easily tell, "What do you want me do, and where do I go, and is that appropriate for where I’m at on your website, and what mindset I might be in or what phase I might be in when I land there?"

I know that you’ve got to have that, schedule a demo, but in reality, the vast majority of people that land on your homepage for the first time are not looking to schedule a demo. I’m looking at it from a standpoint of, "If I can’t find that pathway, maybe they’ve done the work, but they haven’t executed in every spot that can actually help them," because another way to scale and learn from this is to take your buyer persona, take your buyer journey, and base everything in it. Build your website’s map, your wireframe of your website, based on where does the buyer persona want – whoever it is, tech director, it doesn’t matter – but landing a stranger on your website, on your homepage, where are you guiding them to? Where do they end? They can end at different places, so never is an answer that they just exit. That’s a big thing for me. Whether they’re coming to us for help with some of that foundational marketing, or they’re coming for PR, from a PR perspective, I still have to make sure, if I’m responsible for driving traffic, I can go to a client and say, “Hey look, we’re going to bounce every visitor that comes to this page. There’s nothing for them to do. Why are we linking here?” Or, “Do we have somewhere else to link, or can you add a CTA, or can you do something?” Because then you see 60, 70, 80, 90 percent bounce rates on those pages.

I guess I’m getting to also, here, I can see it publicly, but you can see it in whatever platforms you’re using. If your bounce rates are high, you either have crappy traffic – that could be case – or your website’s not set up for your buyer personas; which to me, then, also would indicate, maybe your company’s not structured that way. Maybe you don’t operate that way across the board, that I can also ask questions to different stakeholders and find out what they say. If I get a different answer from sales and marketing, or a different answer from a C-suite, from a sales manager or something like that – we go through some of these exploratory interviews. It’s insane sometimes, the differences we hear.

It’s like, "Alright, we’re going to help bring this together so that you all are speaking the same language." Instead of, "Is this going to work?" it’s, "Is Curriculum Director Cathy going to respond to this? Is she going to like this? Is Curriculum Support Steve going to bring this to Cathy?" I know I’m making up stupid names, but the idea is that you’ve got to live it. You’ve got to breathe it. That’s part of it, too. I also see two different types of companies; those that are painfully aware of all of the things that I’m saying, and none of this is new, that maybe just don’t know what they’re missing out on or maybe how bad it really is – what is this costing them for being there? – and then there are others that are oblivious, and it is an education process.

That oblivious can come from the blinders, like we talked before. The people in Silicon Valley tell me I got a good idea, so I’m going to do it this way. I don’t need to beat a dead horse with some of the reasons. I think that’s how I can look and see. It also is telling. You do a lot more work in social than I do, a ton more than I do, but it’s pretty telling in even just what they ask for and what their cadence is on their social, how well they know their buyer. If their posts are heavier weighted on, "Here’s who we are, here’s what we do, here’s how we help," they probably haven’t done that hard work. Most of the time in that moment their product isn’t going to help. Their product may be the ultimate solution. That’s where I look.

Elana:

I was just going to add that. "I wonder if he’s going to talk about that," because every EdTech start-up I work with, they come in, and sometimes it’s just because you’re drinking the Kool-Aid. You love your product. You know it potentially can make a big difference. The hardest thing we reorient people to is that people don’t care about your product. They don’t care about you. You have to earn trust, and the way you earn trust is listening. You listen, listen, listen, lurk, listen, support, support, support. The way you support is provide value. Usually you’re providing value outside of your product, to start. You’re building that trust. You’re building your authority. I’m so glad that you’ve mentioned that, because that’s a big myth I feel like they come in with. "Yes, our product. Let’s talk more about our product. Press release. Go."

Jacob:

You know, even speaking to that last part, the market itself has changed dramatically over the last, I’d say, five-year period you kicked us off with here. What I could communicate to a client, or what I could reasonably expect as far as how much will the industry care about a press release or a certain type of press release, that kind of thing, while press releases are still a really valuable tool, in many cases when you use them, it doesn’t do the same thing. There are fewer people who even care to tell people about your new product or anything like that right now. It’s, you’ve got to earn their trust other ways for them to even give two hoots about even giving that press release any credence.

I feel like going the route of, our product is going to win the game for us, there may be a few unicorns that we could point to, that the product did light it up. This isn’t just because they’re a client but, I’d say, our de facto client Nearpod was acquired by Renaissance, who’s a client of mine. They’re maybe one that I can point to that lit on fire through word of mouth and just true teacher dedication. I used to go to shows and see they have a secret tent and a line that weaves through the hall to get in there. They’ve built a cult following with their teachers, but that is not the norm. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that again in my lifetime. I think I’ve still got a decade left in this industry. I just don’t know if something like that will happen.

There isn’t a viral product in education. It just doesn’t operate that way. We are an aircraft carrier. I think going to your point about speaking to start-ups, this can even go to more mature companies, depending on their leadership and their thought process, that are launching a new product or something. Account for the runway. Anything new in education you can probably bank on minimum two, maybe three, and up to five or six years before you’re recording a profit. If you beat that, awesome, more power to you. If you operate under that, that’s really what you see. You’ve got to grind, and you have to do the hard work.

Elana:

Yes. As you were talking, I’m like, actually I wonder what the other signs are. What I’ve seen, too, is that EdTech start-ups that don’t prioritize social media, or any type of communication to connect regularly with their audiences, don’t fundamentally know their audience. That includes – when you talked about Nearpod, they’re known for their community that they’ve created. They invested in community, not in the beginning, but they said, “OK, we do want a community of advocates.” They have the Near PioNears, their ambassador program. They do a lot more in the community space. They’re actually regarded as, probably, one of the top ten brands in EdTech communities, I would say, that do it right. If you’re not investing in your audience, you’re not going to know your audience.

Jacob:

I’m glad that you expanded on that. I 100 percent agree, but one other thing that I would say is probably not unique to Nearpod, but those that get this right, is, it’s not just an external thing. What they’re doing in that community, others that are getting it right, that’s not what’s in it. What’s happening behind the scenes should reflect what’s happening out there. Again, I don’t work directly with Nearpod, but my experience with them has been, each individual at that company and as a whole, they embody what you’re seeing coming out publicly. It’s not for show, and it is a long game.

That’s where your longevity is. They don’t know the name of every person in that community, and they don’t know every one of their faces; but they created this because they knew that they needed it, and they knew who they were. "They" (we're in air quotes for those not watching), and they listened, and they evolved, and they continue to serve. Nearpod, I think, is an extreme example of extreme success that you can have. Even though they did it over a number of years, I think it was still a short time frame. I’d say Edutopia where you started, too, Elana, that’s another exemplar. I also think that, even prior to thinking about community on such a grand scale, you have to think about it in a smaller scale.

You talked about a pilot. Do we actually solve a need? Find out from them. Build that community in that pilot and just have the community be there, but find out there. Then, to your point, do invest in social. I’d say that’s probably one of the primary things that we recommend. Even if we’re saying, “You’re not ready for PR, because you’re better off spending whatever budget you have with me,” hiring someone that knows what they’re doing in social, you’re going to get a better rate of return, at least earlier on. There’s reasons, with the life-stage cycle of start-ups, that kind of thing. PR that isn’t always about generating awareness with their users, we do get companies, big and small, that come to us for very specific reasons. It isn’t always a question of getting in front of customers. In any case, I think it’s just important not to lose sight of that.

Elana:

Yes. Super-loaded question, I just dropped a bomb of what are the signs? We could talk about this forever, but I really think the themes were, it’s your outward communication. You talked about your website, your conversion-rate optimization, really thinking with audience personas in mind. It’s your internal culture. We talked about community, investing in social. We talked about website copy, all of these things. If you are thinking about this, do a quick gut check. Does your copy really speak to the audiences? Maybe bring in some stakeholders. Have them think about, "Hey, should you use that keyword? Should you not? What is your bounce rate that Jacob was talking about, too?" All of these things, I know they are nebulous, but just start one thing at a time. It all will catch fire, and you’ll start to create a culture around being audience obsessed. That’s what I like. We talk, at LCG, about being community obsessed, really building a sense of community. It’s very different than audience. Right now we’re surface-level audience and whatnot, but really creating a sense of belonging with your users or target users is where we take that evolution into community.

We’ve been talking a ton to EdTech folk. Educators, thank you for sticking around. I hope you find this really interesting, because every single EdTech organization we both work with has this goal to truly serve your needs. Just sometimes they get lost along the way, which makes sense. From the educator perspective, Jacob, how would you recommend they tell EdTechs what they really need support on? There isn’t a doubt in my mind that EdTech organizations want to support educators. I think sometimes that lack of common dialog stops them, or they just don’t know. Maybe the pandemic, there’s no room for anything. There’s no time. How do we create a dialog that EdTechs know they’re truly supporting what educators really need?

Jacob:

You’ve asked me some tough ones, but this one, I got to stay Switzerland here. I got to figure out how to answer this. One thing I would say, you mentioned time and that kind of thing. For those of you that are still in the classroom, that are in administration, whatever level that might be, I think you’ve got to make a decision on which companies are worth it. If it’s a solution that your district has invested in, that you guys are stuck with, for good or bad, for the next three years, it’s hard for me to say this, but you may want to think about, no matter how much it sucks, invest in that relationship and see what you can do.

I do believe that, for the most part, companies are out there trying to do good. There are some that do that much better than others, of course, and I do want to acknowledge, educators, that I know there are companies that do this extremely poorly. I also say, education providers, make this easy for educators. Ask for their feedback all the time, and don’t be afraid of what they have to say. It’s all just data. It’s all just information, good or bad. Use it, whether it’s to validate or whatever, but make it easy for them to provide feedback.

Educators, I would say the first thing is to learn the channels that you can advocate on. I don’t know how everything works in each one of your schools, or how you adopted a solution, or how you interact with a company, but figure out those communication channels so that you can communicate the best possible way. Oftentimes a help ticket will get you your password, or get you logged in, but it won’t get you that long-term, "Hey, could you do this?" or, "Sure would be cool if these kids looked a little bit more like the kids in my classroom." That’s not always going to get seen or, maybe, dealt with in the same way if you just go through the regular customer-service channels.

I’d also encourage you to avoid the shock-and-awe approach and immediately taking it public. I’m not saying to hide things, I’m not saying anything like that, but I’m saying, if you notice an issue or something that is missing, go to that company and give them the benefit of the doubt, and see if they’ll do it. That just may earn you a seat at the table, or at least change the product for the better. If you’re, one, identifying something that’s worth it; two, figuring out the best way for you to reach them; and you truly believe it’s going to move the needles for your teacher, your students, whoever you’re serving in your building or your district, be relentless. Don’t stop. Make sure that they hear you. If they don’t hear you privately, that’s when you do pull the Twitter, "Hey, contacted you five times. Can you give me a buzz?" Don’t be afraid to do that, either. It takes a company that is – I don’t want to go there. For them to not treat you with respect, knowing you’re a user in a public setting, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I wouldn’t have fear for bringing this up, but you don’t need it in an inflammatory way. You can still do it in a productive way. Maybe I’m going to two different paths here, Elana. I hit on some equity and some representation issues, which I think are very different than the functionality of a product.

Elana:

Yes. I love that you talked about how they can advocate for themselves, and those various ways that they can do it. It’ll vary by EdTech organization to EdTech organization, but sometimes I look at organizations, and I say, “Gosh, they’re really active on Twitter. Maybe I should tweet them or DM them first.” I can tell you, from somebody who runs social for lots of EdTech brands, we take product feedback really seriously. We send it. We tag it. We do reports and trends analysis on it. We get their entire product teams involved, too. Please don’t think that people don’t listen. There might be some brands not active on social. If you do tweet them, they might not see it, but just look and see how active they are. I want you to know that, if they are active on social, they do take it seriously. To take advantage of that is really cool.

The last thing I would say is that, sometimes when you ask educators – and this is for both of you, educators and EdTech – if you ask educators for some feedback, educators inherently will be nice, because it’s better than what they had. What they had might have been broken. Oh, that’s really nice that they’re – stop. Just give them real feedback and say, “Here’s exactly how it would fit my need.” Because if they don’t hear that, they’re going to create something with this affirmation from you that it works. It didn’t quite work, but maybe you were used to it not working, so it was better than good enough, or you’re just too nice. Please, open, dialog, honestly. Do you see that too, Jacob?

Jacob:

Yes, 100 percent. Oftentimes, I don’t think people understand just how serious it is. I’m not as involved behind the scenes. I don’t read DMs on my clients’ social, that kind of stuff, but I hear about it. The role that I’m in is in case something is inflammatory and public, that I help make sure that my client, number one, does the right thing; and number two, that we can share what we’re doing to correct it. I agree with you completely. I think that’s what I was going for earlier. This can and should be a meaningful dialog. Also, educators, assume that they want to help. Also assume that, if you don’t ask for it, they’re not going to do it. You may be surprised by just how much they will do for you if you ask, or what they’ll do for you if you ask.

Then one more thing for companies out there. You may do all of this really well and solicit feedback, but if you don’t go back and confirm with people that you’ve heard them, that you’ve done something, maybe they don’t always see it, but you’ve got to communicate that "We heard you, and we did this because we heard you." You don’t do this to pound your chest. You do this to validate the people that are giving you that feedback, so they’ll do it again, so that they actually know that they were listened to and that they were heard. I think closing that loop is monumental to keeping the people who are giving you that feedback coming back to the well.

Elana:

Yes, that is so important. For those of you just getting into the industry of EdTech, you might have known this, but it surprised me when I first got into it, how little educators are seen or heard, or their opinions validated or affirmed. What Jacob’s talking about is, yes, we want to be a brand that’s responsive and listened to. We see you, and we appreciate you. That’s so important, so thank you for bringing that up.

Jacob:

Absolutely.

Elana:

I know that we could talk about this for days and days and days, but I hope all of you that have been talking to us and listening to us about audience, and making that the foundation of everything, have walked away with a couple of tips; whether you’re in EdTech, and it feels a little bit daunting about how to really shift your focus in a way that can be somewhat reactive, but also puts you in the driver’s seat to be proactive, to really understand your audience needs; but also on the educators’ side, too: "How can I work with EdTech organizations to help them along the way to meet my needs?" It’s a double-edged – not sword, but because that’s a bad, violent thing; doubled-edged something. I don’t know. [Laughs]

Jacob, thank you so much for your time. I think the one thing we always ask everybody at the end of the show is, in this world of isolation, exhaustion, blurring work-life balance, you also are in education and feel the compassion of educators. It brings me down when I think about what educators are going through every day. How do you personally refuel, regenerate? What inspires you in those days, where you’re like, "Oh, gosh, I’m running this agency-ship; I am dying; this is hard?" How do you regenerate and refuel?

Jacob:

You’ve been really good with some tough questions, because this one I don’t think is as simple to answer, maybe – for me at least – for others. I think one of my answers – as cliché as it is – is, it’s my kids. I’m a single dad. I have my kids 100 percent of the time. One of them, my oldest, was midway through his last year of preschool when the pandemic hit. My daughter missed out on preschool. I don’t directly sell anything to school, I don’t usually do anything directly with educators that truly has an impact in the classroom directly; but any article I pursue for a client, any advice that I’m giving, any of those tough days, I like to think that maybe that day I’m making a difference for somebody else’s kids.

That other kid could be a grownup. That could be a teacher in the classroom. I want the best for my kids, just like everybody else does. They’re just starting this journey. If I’m not doing what I need to do, and if educators aren’t, that kind of thing, my kids aren’t going to get the same opportunities that other kids did. That’s one thing, but just being able to see, it’s insane how positive they always are, the sense of wonderment that they have, even though the world is so small for them for these last few years. They’re a constant source of positive energy and influence and inspiration for me. I think that’s part of it. They’re my North Star, I’d say, too.

Through the whole pandemic, my father’s been very sick. He was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer and emphysema in December, and I watched this man who I’ve viewed as my hero my whole life – I still do battle through this. I never talked to him once without a smile on his face. All he asked was to see my kids, every day. We do a Zoom or a Meet or whatever. I look at it, too, like, if my dad can do this, and he can put on a happy face when he’s probably going through some really crappy stuff, I can do the same thing. Just like he has me and my kids and my family, I go to work every day, and I have wonderful people around me. If I’m having a crappy day, and today is not going to feel good, I can tell my team member that, and just say, “Look, I got the Mondays on a Thursday. Can you help me? I’m just not into this.” Maybe that day isn’t as fun, but they’re going to help try to lift me up. I’d say it’s those three; my kids, my dad, and my team.

Elana:

That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that. When people have this optimistic outlook, like your dad, it’s hard to ignore; and also other things you think are big become small suddenly, right?

Jacob:

Absolutely.

Elana:

OK. Well thank you so much, Jacob. Why don’t you tell the audience how they can get ahold of you and your team?

Jacob:

You can find me on LinkedIn, Jacob Hanson. Just type me in there, and you’ll find me. Otherwise, my website is prp.group; not prpgroup.com, prp.group. Otherwise, I am going to keep my old-school handle. You can find me on Twitter @prpanachejacob. In any case, however you want to find me, just reach out. If there’s anything I can do to help, or if you have questions on anything we shared, one of the best ways for me to stay current, aside from what I’ve shared, is to talk to people like you.

Elana:

Great. Any resources we mentioned, we will be sharing in the Show Notes as well. Our Show Notes will be at leoniconsultinggroup.com. That’s consulting group with two Gs –

Jacob:

It's on the web...

Elana:

– backslash 17 for detailed notes on everything we talked about.

Thank you again, Jacob. I thank you all for taking time out of your busy day to think about how we can all work together to improve education for everybody. We talked about equity a little bit here, but that’s truly why we’re all here, is equal access and opportunity for a quality education. Thank you all for listening. We will see you all on the next episode of All Things Marketing and Education

Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode. If you liked what you heard, and want to dive deeper, you can visit leoniconsultinggroup.com\podcast for all Show Notes, links, and freebies mentioned in each episode. We always love friends, so please connect with us on Twitter @leonigroup. If you enjoyed today’s show, go ahead and click the “subscribe” button to be the first one notified when our next episode is released. We’ll see you next week on All Things Marketing and Education.

[End of recorded material at:

Elana Leoni, Host

Elana Leoni has dedicated the majority of her career to improving K-12 education. Prior to founding LCG, she spent eight years leading the marketing and community strategy for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, where she grew Edutopia’s social media presence exponentially to reach over 20 million education change-makers every month.

Jacob Hanson, Guest

ce firm that he co-founded in:

About All Things Marketing and Education

What if marketing was judged solely by the level of value it brings to its audience? Welcome to All Things Marketing and Education, a podcast that lives at the intersection of marketing and, you guessed it, education. Each week, Elana Leoni, CEO of Leoni Consulting Group, highlights innovative social media marketing, community-building, and content marketing strategies that can significantly increase brand awareness, engagement, and revenue.

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