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Daily, my inbox is filled with messages from people working for companies who’d like to connect. I’m not alone. In an informal survey of my colleagues across higher education, they also report a flood of highly persistent email outreach efforts by educational technology company representatives.
What is most interesting about all these unsolicited emails from companies asking for meetings to discuss their products and services is that this company outreach effort is mostly counterproductive. The more persistent the requests for meetings, the more these email messages feel like intrusions. The greater the effort the company rep makes to generate a response, the less favorable we feel toward that company.
Cold email outreach from companies to schools metastasizes because it is so cheap. An email is free to send. Why not blast a list of potential higher ed decision-makers if the cost to do so is close to zero? The problem with this thinking is that the cost for a company’s reputation of engaging in cold email outreach is invisible but high. The professionals in charge of sales and a company might encourage the cold email (or worse, cold phone calling) practice because some tiny percent of all outbound messages generate a response. What is not visible or trackable is the long-term hit to goodwill and brand that this cold outreach practice engenders.
So what is a company to do? If cold email messaging is worse than ineffective and is, in fact, damaging, what are positive and effective ways to reach potential higher education customers?
1: Peer Recommendations Are Best
The companies, products and services I’m most interested in are ones I hear about from colleagues at peer institutions. If a friend from another school tells me about a great experience with a company, I will want to learn more about how that relationship works.
Higher education is weird in that colleges both compete and cooperate. We compete for students and faculty (and sometimes staff). We compete for rankings and prestige. Our sports teams compete with one another. But, mainly, we cooperate. Having a shared mission and values, we want each other to succeed. We share what we know about improving learning and better serving our students.
In all this sharing, we talk to each other. So we hear about which companies in the higher ed space are solving our problems and are good to work with. Companies should find ways to help their existing customers reach their colleagues at other schools.
2: Lead With Education
People who work in higher ed are hungry to learn. We want to learn about how to be better at our jobs. We want to learn about how our universities might evolve to better serve our students while also building institutional resilience. We are highly interested in the future of all things higher education.
Smart companies take advantage of this desire to learn by sponsoring, underwriting and producing educational opportunities. Our community highly values quality research and data-based webinars and white papers.
Any company working in the higher ed space that invests in the research necessary to provide meaningful learning experiences to our community will be thought of positively. Moreover, relationships between university and company people can be developed in the context of those educational opportunities. Often, the best way into a university is through the side door of education, research and professional development.
3: Hire People With University Experience
Finding ways to have company people talk to university people does no good unless there is some initial trust and goodwill. People who have experience working at universities understand the challenges of higher education. They have walked in our shoes and can talk about their company’s products and services in a way we can understand.
This does not mean that everyone in a company must be a former university employee. But at least some of the people should be. And often, that former-university person should lead the initial conversations.
4: Build Relationships Outside of the Company, Product and Service
The wrong time to introduce your company’s products or services is during the sales cycle. Higher education runs on relationships. Unless we reach out to your company specifically to get information, we are unlikely to want to hear a sales pitch for a product or service we are not seeking.
However, if we know the people who work at the company from another context, we are more likely to be open to hearing about what the company brings to the table. If we have connected over an educational, research or professional development opportunity, we are more willing to continue conversations about products and services.
The key to relationship building is that it can’t be transactional. The relationships are the goal. Any potential business only comes later. This is a long game to play. And most companies in the higher ed space are not great at playing the long game.
5: Hire Our Alums
While I will ignore almost every cold email or phone call, I will always take the time to speak with an alum.
The big caveat is that an alum should never lead with the product or service but more as a graduate of the institution. The connection is the school, not the company. We can talk about a potential commercial opportunity only once the connection is made and a more authentic relationship has begun.
6: Cultivate an Independent and Expert Voice in Higher Education Change
The companies that I most want to work with have people working at them who teach me something about the future of higher education. Companies that hire people with an independent and expert voice in national conversations about the future of higher education have an enormous advantage if the goal is to build relationships with people at universities.
Companies working in the higher ed space would do well to talk about themselves less and the challenges of higher education more. For the long-term success of any for-profit organization working in the postsecondary ecosystem, prioritization must be given to investing in the marketplace of ideas.
How would you advise companies in the higher ed space to occupy some of the head space of university people?
Do you work for a company that has moved away from traditional sales techniques and has foregone the cold email?