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Companies Marketing Technologies to Public Schools: But Who is the Real Customer?

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

This week I’ve turned the writing reins over to my father, Larry Cuban. He and I sometimes banter about the similarities in marketing to companies/consumers and schools. This week he offers his opinions about B2S—Business to Schools (yes I made up that acronym, let’s see if it sticks).

The way companies are marketing new technologies to schools just ain’t working. There are three problems companies have in promoting and selling new devices and software to K-12 schools (over $18 billion spent in 2013 alone):

1. They are marketing to the wrong people (know your target audience)

2. Lack of knowledge on how teachers and students actually use the “product”

3. Overhyping what new devices and software can do with students

New approaches are needed, but we’ll get to that later.

Marketing to the wrong people

Apple, Dell, and software firms have a hard time figuring out who their customers are: They want to have students and teachers use their products, but few sales reps ever talk or listen to teachers. Instead, most companies market their products to school district IT professionals, district office administrators, and superintendents. Why? Because school officers are the ones who recommend to boards of education what to buy and how to deploy devices and software. From start-ups to established companies, sales reps rarely involve teachers or students in their pitches to district officers or school boards. So the paradox is that the real customers (teachers and students) have little to do with purchasing decisions. Reason? Money decisions rest with district officials.

But what about parents? They “buy” products also. They are customers too in every sense of the word. Most parents are concerned that their infants and toddlers will learn to read early before they even set foot into kindergarten, much less first grade, the traditional gateway to reading for nearly a century. Ads claim that their software will give their children an “edge” in learning over other kids. So marketers have to also target children because, as one advertising exec said: “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product rather than going straight to the mom.”

How do teachers and students actually use the “product”?

Surprisingly, this question is seldom asked by market researchers in high-tech companies selling to schools. Instead, they depend upon the usual array of soft, quick, and dirty findings reaped from focus groups and teacher, student, and administrator surveys. Cheap, easy, and fast, yes, but provide any real meaningful data? Not so much. The real customers are not seen nor heard: no direct observation of students working with tablets and software.

Without knowing how students actually use the equipment, it is all guesswork piled atop the unreliable results from surveys and focus groups. Of course, to pursue better answers, it is quite expensive and intensive labor for marketers. Academic researchers, however, do such investigations, (see here), even ones that work for for-profit firms who ask the right questions (see here). Seldom do market researchers dip into academic studies.

Why do marketers hype what new devices and software can do with students?

Look at ads for software for schools and you will see words that promise student engagement and improved academic achievement (see, for example: Dell Computers: 2011-western-heights high school). Like hot dogs and mustard, or Harry and Sally, hype and over-promising about technology and new mobile devices engaging students, raising test scores of minority students, and closing the achievement gap are joined like Siamese twins. “Schools powered by (insert your favorite software company name here) report impressive gains in first year.” Yet most of the evidence supporting such claims is missing in action.

Sure, there is the “novelty effect” where teachers and students in the first six months praise galore how iPads or Chromebooks have riveted students’ attention. But the shine wears off and the hard work of teaching lessons every day, with and without new gadgets, kick in. The evidence of software and devices lifting academic achievement is simply not there.

New ways of marketing?

These three problems marketers face in promoting technology to public schools get at the heart of selling high-tech innovations to public schools.

In deciding who is the real customer, the truth of the matter is that district officials—not the true consumers of teachers, parents, or students—are targeted customers—and this is a fundamental problem.

As for market research, please, no more Internet surveys and “carefully selected” and “hand picked” focus groups. The reliability and validity of such instruments is incredibly low and not to be trusted. Paying randomly-selected students, parents, and teachers make far more sense in using focus groups. Also, it is more sensible to harvest academic studies done by teachers and researchers about what actually occurs in classrooms.

Finally, no more over-the-top claims for products that promise outcomes for teachers and students that do not have a prayer of ever happening. Like youth creams marketed to middle-aged women, it’s the same story for claims about new technologies in classrooms. Dialing back bloated promotion, reducing the hype, and injecting a small dose of humility would be unusual and, in my judgment, of low probability of ever happening but it worth hoping for, nonetheless.


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