The ways that high-tech vendors market their products just ain’t helping teachers.
Companies selling new hardware and software to K-12 schools—over $18 billion was spent in 2013– have three serious problems:
1. Determining who is the customer.
2. Ignoring how teachers and students use devices and software in real time.
3. Marketers hype claims for achieving student outcomes that few teachers believe.
Who is the customer?
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 representatives ever talk or listen to teachers. Instead, most companies market their products to school district IT professionals, district office administrators, and superintendents. Why?
That is where the money is. 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, high-tech representatives rarely involve teachers or students in their pitches to district officers or school boards. So the paradox is that the end-users (teachers and students) have little to do with purchasing decisions.
There are two exceptions, however. First, most parents want their infants and toddlers to read early even before they 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. And, second, marketers have targeted 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.”
Ignoring how teachers and students use devices and software in real time.
Market researchers in high-tech companies selling to schools seldom, if at all, look into actual classrooms to determine use. Instead, they depend upon the usual array of soft, quick, and dirty findings reaped from focus groups and teacher, student, and administrator surveys. These surveys are cheap, easy, and fast to do. But no direct observation of students working with tablets and software.
Without knowing how students actually use the equipment, it is all guesswork piled atop those unreliable results from surveys and focus groups. Of course, to do so is quite expensive and intensive labor on the part of marketers. There are academic researchers, however, who do such investigations, (see here) and even ones that work for for-profit firms who ask the right questions (see here). Seldom are their studies used.
Marketers hype claims for achieving student outcomes that few teachers believe.
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 getting together, over-promising that software and new mobile devices will engage students, raise test scores of minority students and close the achievement gap are joined like Siamese twins. “Schools powered by (put in your favorite software company) 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 gloriously praise how iPads or Chromebooks have riveted students’ attention. But the “novelty effect” wears off and the hard work of teaching lessons every day, with and without new software or gizmos, kick in. The evidence of software and devices lifting academic achievement is, in two words, not there.
These three issues that marketers face in promoting software and hardware to public schools get at the heart of selling high-tech innovations to public schools.
What can be done?
In deciding who is the customer, the truth of the matter is that district officials, not teachers, parents, or students, are targeted customers. Admit the truth.
As for market research, please, no more Internet surveys and carefully selected focus groups. The reliability and validity of such instruments is incredibly low and untrustworthy. Randomly selected students, parents, and teachers (and paying them) make far more sense in using focus groups. Also, it is far more sensible to harvest well-done 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. So few people believe Hollywood PR blurbs about blockbusters coming to the local cinemas. Ditto for claims about new classroom technologies. Dialing back those over-the-top claims, reducing the hype, and even injecting a small dose of humility would be unusual. In my judgment, neither of these suggestions has much probability of materializing but it is worth saying, nonetheless.
A version of this post appeared February 23, 2014 on Janice Cuban’s marketing blog.