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April 23, 2020  |  Larry Buchweitz

Education Marketing in a Pandemic: Looking Back and Ahead

If you are anything like me, you are losing track of time. I'm used to working from home, but not being home all the time. Outside of listening to my favorite jam bands and watching the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series on YouTube, like others, I spend a lot of time thinking about those suffering from COVID-19 and the brave professionals working to protect us.

I'm also reading a lot about our industry and the impact of this crisis on educators and students. It's clear that despite some movement forward, there is still a lot unknown, especially in terms of who's buying education products, how are they responding, and when they will make decisions.

A nice part of this weird time is that a lot of people are calling to talk. Industry friends and customers are calling to discuss our current situation and we often look back at what we know from the past. COVID-19 is unprecedented, but the current concerns about spending and budgets have happened before. So yeah, I'm going to talk about the last recession.

A Look Back

When the housing bubble popped in 2008 and local and state revenues took a nosedive, spending at the local level was severely cut, with reductions by more than $400 per child between 2008-2010. The federal government kicked in billions, expanding funding to nearly pre-recession levels and with a particular focus on Title I and special education. Although those funds eventually ran out, the economy was recovering, and state and local budgets began to pick up the slack.

Back then, LOTS of clients were calling about what to do to market their products and services…that is what is most similar to the situation today.

What's Different?

Aside from the differences in physical danger and tragedy of our present state, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) committed more than $100 billion dollars to education at the time and commitment of those funds could be built on a multi-year strategy. In 2009, education businesses did not have a clearly defined digital strategy; that has changed dramatically for most businesses in 2020. And schools weren't physically closed, most likely for the rest of the year, at the peak buying time for fall 2020.

New UnKnowns

So here we are with a new set of unknowns:

  • Schools will be teaching, but will K12 buildings be able to open in August/September?
  • Will more than the current $13.5 billion in federal funds be released to support education? (My guess is yes.)
  • Will your product solutions be eligible for purchase with those allocated funds?

No one can definitively answer these questions yet, but my colleague Lynn Schear is monitoring funding changes closely, and our research team constantly updates our School Status Map to help you stay on top of how students are being instructed, when buildings are planning to reopen, and where federal dollars are being allocated. We'll continue to add to the insight we can provide as new information emerges.

Here's What I Do Know

Executing existing plans and making new ones is a challenge with so many questions yet to be answered. What I do know is that standing still won't work and presents even bigger challenges down the road.

  • In the last recession, companies who did not invest in outbound communications with their existing clients, demonstrating their value whether those schools were able to buy new things or not, resulted in lost customers.
  • Companies who only marketed to their “house list” lost growth because they didn't account for natural attrition of the core base of buyers. But companies who invested in their businesses and grew their customer base have continued to grow into this current environment.
  • Education businesses who provided extra value through special pricing, free trials, online solutions and downloads, and other valuable offers to keep schools in business with limited resources, built relationships that lasted long after budgets recovered.

What Others are Doing

I'm hearing great stories from clients and industry leaders about what they are doing to support schools. Many of you heard how businesses like DreamBox Learning came out of the gate early with making their products free and more associations and providers are sharing what they are hearing from educators. Here are a few tidbits, with thanks to the organizations who created these learning opportunities:

The Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) put together a discussion for members with Chief Technology Officers from North Carolina and Indiana this week. Here are a couple of soundbites from those educators:

  • In the 20 years I've been doing this, for the first time I felt that there is a paradigm shift happening.  There is going to be a new normal, but I don't know what that new normal is going to be.
  • We have spending freezes implemented.  Most likely we will return to recession level funding.
  • We are concerned about a new wave (pandemic)coming.
  • One of the CTOs has put together a Do Not Call list comprised of companies that are selling hard to her.   Now is not the time for us to implement something new.  We don't have time to consider solutions we don't have.
  • Bandwidth and computers are still an issue.
  • Best thing for a vendor to do is listen and provide data.

The DOLS – one of our industry's most effective networking group – has held regular meet ups to share experiences across the vendor community. My colleague Tracey Cochran participated in a recent call and heard these themes from the group:

  • Superintendents are telling me these are their priorities: 1) clean the schools; 2) feed the kids; 3) provide internet and devices; 4) provide online content and then, 5) train the teachers.
  • Some of the highest poverty schools have given up on remote learning. What is the alternative?
  • What will happen to start-ups? Districts will work with who they already know.
    • Professional Development – attendance has been very high; having luck with "off time" and recorded versions as well. Free PD has been a huge hit.

Despite the challenges shared above, our friends at EdWeek Market Brief surveyed district leaders recently to hear how they are getting product information. Almost half of respondents said they are getting information via email…which leads me to think now may be a great time to build relationships, share your value and build brand and a pipeline for when buying kicks into gear.

What I Would Do


  • Understand your customers. Make sure you know why they buy from you and when. Reach out to those you know in person or by email, but be aware of their current priorities and the challenges they are currently facing. For the users you don't know well but want to know better, use social platforms to share your support and concern by following them, commenting on their content, and sharing messages of support.
  • Think about where you will grow when we're back in business. What do you and your business need to do to ready for something like this again? Where do you have the best success as a business, and how can you find more customers like the ones who value you most? Are you typically using that strategy to identify new prospects? (I can help you use your own data to do that.)
  • Think globally, act locally. Knowing your current growth plans and those that may be adjusted due to the current situation, what can you do to better target specific states, counties or districts? Are you customizing your messaging and strategies to address local needs and priorities? Now is a good time to do that.
  • Be sensitive and smart. It has been 40ish days since we went into isolation and schools have been operating in this environment for several weeks. Educators may want to hear from you if you can help them, but probably don't want a generic email blast. Think through messaging and segmentation for prospect and customer communication. The right message to the right audience is always a best practice, and now more than ever.

November Elections

In addition to anticipating the opening of school this fall, we have a presidential election right around the corner. That is additional change we need to anticipate, regardless of who wins. We're in for a year of uncertainty, but there is one thing I know for sure, as a people we have a way of persevering, and out of challenge we've seen amazing innovation and growth. Now that schools are functioning for the next month or so on these interim plans, decision makers are also thinking to next year and the future. They have students to educate and spending plans to put in place.

Let's all strive to be part of the solution by looking at how we can adapt and evolve to meet the needs of our greatest asset – our kids.

I'm here if you want to chat about your business, music recommendations, and always, the Cubs.

Be well,




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