Thursday, February 18, 2016

Six Simple Marketing Lessons that Education Reformers Continue to Ignore

If the true motivation behind the education reform movement has been to implement solutions that are “what’s best for kids”, then why have ed reform results in traditional public schools in Newark, Nashville, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York state, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere been so tumultuous, ineffective, and harmful?

The answer lies in the fact that the marketing of the ed reformers’ ideas, the implementation of these ideas, and the ideas themselves have been deeply flawed.  If, as the reformers claim, they’ve sought to bring a disciplined business model to public education, they should have borrowed time tested wisdom from successful organizations as a guide to vet their experimental theories.  Instead, and unfortunately for the kids in the school districts where their destructively disruptive edicts have been implemented, the reformers’ corporate approach has the hallmarks of a hand-scrawled, Red Bull-stained business plan from a flailing Web 1.0 startup, rather than a coherent and sensible strategy from a profitable, top tier company.

Here are six Marketing 101 lessons that ed reformers should have followed when envisioning their policies and putting them into practice:

1. Update and improve what you’re selling.

Imagine if Apple’s iPhone 6s offered the exact same features and functionality as the original iPhone from 2007.  Going even further, imagine if all variations of the iPhone were replicas of first iPhone, and only their model numbers were changed.  Consumers would see through the ruse, and they’d take their business elsewhere.

Education reformers have been selling the exact same “model” since they introduced their offerings over 15 years ago.  Increasing high stakes standardized testing, demanding higher levels of teacher “accountability”, measuring the “effectiveness” of teachers and schools based on students’ test scores (and then firing teachers and closing schools based on those scores), extolling/exaggerating the “benefits” of no excuses charter schools while refusing to address their downsides, pushing digital learning (as a way of pushing out actual teaching), bashing teachers and their unions, seeking to remove teachers’ tenure protections, claiming that their “solutions” will close the achievement gap - it’s been the same rehashed stuff with no upgrades, revisions, or modifications of their tool kit (which, based on its inability to generate anything remotely close to iPhone-like enthusiasm, seems to be in perpetual beta mode).

If the ed reformers expect to achieve positive connections with their customers - which would be students, parents, and yes, teachers, since they’d be the ones who would be implementing the reforms - they need to head back to the lab, devise something new, test it, refine it, focus group it with their target customers, roll it out, and be willing to modify it based on feedback from the market.

2. Create market-specific versions of what you’re selling.

Starbucks recognizes that their customers’ tastes for coffee drinks vary tremendously in different regions of the world.  In their stores of Asia Pacific and Japan, customers can order a coffee jelly frappuccino, filled with boba-like jelly cubes made from brewed coffee.  In Peru, Starbucks sells a sweet frappe made from lĂșcuma, which is a sweet mango-like fruit that’s native to the country.  In India, Starbucks customers can enjoy an exclusive delicacy called Lemon Jazz Cheesecake.

Savvy companies with regional franchises or stores understand that the preferences, needs, and goals of consumers in every market are different, but this reality is lost on ed reformers.  From state to state and city to city, the reformers see all public school “problems” as being exactly the same.  To fix things, the ed reform toolkit is presented as a one-size-fits-all panacea for the complex challenges that the reformers say are irreparable by a “status quo” approach to public education.

In the view of American ed reformers, students, districts, schools, and teachers are identical from coast to coast - and therefore their turnkey “solutions” can work everywhere.  If the chief marketing officer for a national restaurant chain or retailer presented a rollout plan that refused to account for regional distinctions, the plan would collapse, and he/she would be fired.  Given the ed reformers’ long string of fails, a similar shake-up in their hierarchy - and modification of their methodology - is in order.

3. Don’t give your customers what you think they want, or what you want them to want.

Restaurant consultant Brandon O’Dell has found that one of the biggest mistakes that owners make is “offering customers what [they] think is good, instead of what the customer thinks is good”, which “is a surefire way to lose money in the restaurant business.”

To help business owners understand what their customers want, business consultant Evan Carmichael offers very specific advice:  “Have customers involved in your decision making process and have them help you guide your process.  Start talking to people.  Ask them about their problems and pain points.  You want people to give you feedback and tell you what’s helpful, what’s not, and what needs to be changed.”

To ed reformers, this fluid, customer-centric, bottom up system is anathema to their rigid, top down, universal recipe.

The reformers want us to be sold on the benefits that their trusty trick bag can bring, but by now, they should understand that it’s filled with stuff that they want us to want, and not what we truly want.  While they’d point to the innumerable astroturf groups that they fund as examples of grassroots approval of their agenda, they know, and we know, and they know that we know, that these endorsements aren’t legitimate and don’t represent the actual needs and goals of the majority of American parents, students, and teachers.

4. Don’t blame your customers if they're not buying what you’re selling. writer Ashtyn Douglas says that “blaming your customers is always a losing strategy.”  Marketing coach David Newman puts it even more bluntly in his Top 10 Nifty Excuses for Marketing Failure:

[If you’re not making sales and] you’re unwilling to make changes, get help, or innovate… then you suck at marketing… and ALL of these shortcomings are 100% your own damn fault.”

Ed reformers tend to blame everyone but themselves for the wide criticism and marketplace failures of their product line.  They scold teachers unions for misinforming parents, and they reprimand parents for listening to the unions and also for misunderstanding ed reform’s benefits.  Even former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got in on the customer bashing when he blamed white suburban moms for their criticisms of the Common Core - the centerpiece of his divisive ed reform philosophy - by saying that the moms were upset that their children weren’t as brilliant as they thought.

Ironically, some of the biggest supporters of ed reform (and blamers of ed reform’s customers) are America’s top CEOs and financiers, who wouldn’t dare implement such off-putting tactics in their own organizations’ interactions with clients and buyers.  If these business pros insisted that the same successful sales and marketing best practices that their firms follow were also used by the ed reformers, the movement might possibly have achieved greater traction, support, and buy-in.

5. Listen to Bill Gates.

The Microsoft co-founder has offered valuable advice for professionals in all industries, including such aphorisms as:

·                     “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

·                     “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

·                     “Be humble and mindful in [your] actions and words. Seek and heed the counsel of outside voices.”

It’s interesting to note that Gates is one of America’s most prominent financial supporters of charter schools and the Common Core - so, as with the CEOs and financiers discussed above, his marketplace acumen is obviously not guiding his ed reform pursuits.  If he had heeded his own business wisdom, he might have seen a better ROI on his billion dollar ed reform investments.

6. Make your customers fall in love with you.

The common sense tips of content marketing consultant Brian Honingman of Honingman Media are axiomatic, but his wise recommendations are just not the way the ed reformers prefer to roll:

·                     Treat your Customers Right

·                     Respect Your Customers

·                     Hear What Your Customers are Saying

·                     Treat a Customer Like a Valued Partner

·                     Build Trust

·                     Be Transparent

·                     Recognize Responsibility:  The Customer is Always Right

If ed reformers don’t understand why more of their target customers haven’t fallen in love with their strategy for school salvation, they shouldn’t be flummoxed:  the fact that they don’t integrate Honingman’s powerful maxims into their customer relationship management (CRM) is clear evidence that, as David Newman would say, they suck at marketing and their shortcomings are 100% their own damn faults.

The education reformers have billions at their disposal from interest groups, hedge funders, CEOs, and executives from Wall Street and Silicon Valley - all of whom passionately support the reformers’ positions.  This vast treasure is being used to buy influence with politicians, fund pro-ed reform astroturf groups, and (unsuccessfully) sway public opinion.  But unless the ed reformers implement the smart marketing and CRM guidance discussed above and adapt their agenda to the needs and goals of their target customers, they’ll continue to sell us aging, defective inventory that American parents, students, and teachers will continue to refuse to buy.