Why Selling to Higher Ed Is So Difficult

In the debut of Joshua Kim's "Technology and Learning" blog at Inside Digital Learning, he outlines three challenges.

January 23, 2017
 

Let’s say you work for a technology company that does business in higher ed.

If  your job is to make someone in higher ed write your company a check -- well -- good luck with that.  

I have a theory about why selling into the postsecondary market is so difficult -- and has become more difficult over the past few years.

My theory is that the problem is not you, it is us. Higher education has got to be the world’s worst set of customers. 

Why are we so difficult? 

Challenge #1 - The Erosion of the Identified Decision Maker:

At one point, if your company wanted to sell a  product or service  to a college, you really needed to persuade one person. That person was the CIO. 

Yes, this is an exaggeration. Enterprise technology sales have always been more complex than convincing a single person to buy (or stay with) your platform, product or service. Higher ed, even higher ed technology, tends to run on consensus. But you knew that having the CIO’s buy-in was a necessity. That she was the one person who mattered most, and if you lost her confidence (or if your company was not on her radar), that your chance of making a sale were basically zilch.

Today, the CIO remains a powerful campus decision maker. She has been joined, however, by a new set of characters that also need to buy in to any big campus technology partnership. The professionals who run the academic computing side of the house have become increasingly prominent and important. There are big shifts toward the development of new online and low-residency programs, and therefore a new set of leaders at the technology decision making table. And as pressures on enrollment, attrition, and institutional costs increase -- the need to bring in leadership from across the institution (admissions, registrar, student life, alumni affairs, development, etc. etc.) for any technology decision is only increasing.

The result is that sales cycles have become longer, and competition to retain existing customers has become more difficult. There is strong pressure on campus for service consolidation and demonstrated ROI. As technology has become fundamental for the running of every college and university (and system), the stakeholders claiming a seat at the technology buying decision making table have multiplied. 

Challenge #2- The Fragmenting of EdTech:

A second, and related, challenge to the erosion of the single decision maker is the increasing fragmentation of edtech community. There is no longer any single meeting or professional organization that covers all the groups that need to be reached to drive awareness of your company’s products and services. There is no one place  to advertise, no single conference to attend where you can meet your existing and potential customers.

What we have now in higher education technology are many  different tribes. These tribes have their own culture, their own customs, and increasingly their own language. Higher ed technology tribe members may interact with colleagues from other tribes, but we are influenced mostly by people from within our own groups. 

The tribe that I belong to is the learning tribe. My work is all about learning innovation -- including improving residential learning and growing new online learning programs. I read about the work being done by my peers at the intersection of learning and technology.  I attend lots of (increasingly smaller and more focused) gatherings with peers from other schools who are working on similar challenges as my own.  The world’s of administrative computing and campus enrollment / financial management -- not to mention all the other elements of a university that depend on technology to run -- seem more and more remote.

Since campus technology buying (include vendor switching or staying) decisions are made with input from more stakeholders, it is now up to the successful edtech company to reach each of these increasingly distinct tribes. 

Challenge #3 - The Increasingly Crowded and Noisy Market for Attention:

The final element that I’d like to call out as making selling into the higher ed technology market more difficult is the increasingly crowded and noises market for attention. It has become much more difficult to get the attention of campus decision makers, as the supply of available information has grown much faster than the ability of decision makers to process information has increased.

In the past, higher ed technology buyers had only a few ways of learning about new products or services. We could go to conferences and walk around the vendor floor. We could have conversations with sales reps on our campuses.  We could read about the new product in one of our professional magazines, through editorial or marketing content. And we could hear about what our peers were using from our colleagues.  All of these information flows were episodic. They were often concentrated, occurring at a time when we are actively looking to learn about company products and services -- and to make a decision about staying with our existing vendor  or going another direction.

Nowadays, we manage a constant flow of market intelligence. We have to sift through a deluge of peer and company information through the online communications channels and peer networks in which we belong. The density of information flow across campuses has increased dramatically with the evolution of various social media platforms. We read and write tweets and blogs -- and check online edtech news on a daily basis.

How does a technology company wishing to drive awareness for their production or service break through the noise? 

How can an edtech company increase higher ed mindshare in the face of exponentially increasing competition for scarce head space?

I’m not sure I have the answer to solving any of these challenges. This is really hard. There are no shortcuts or silver bullets for any tech company in the higher ed space.

The old way of driving awareness and brand in the higher ed technology space is no longer working. 

A different path must be found.

Bio

Joshua Kim is director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth College Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL). He is also author of the Technology and Learning blog at Inside Higher Ed.

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