School districts have until September 2024 to obligate dollars from the third and final tranche of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) stimulus. They’re gearing up for a “fiscal cliff” that has sent many education companies into a cold sweat.
Previously, education leaders could spend more generously on edtech and other education services thanks to the unprecedented funding infusion. As the end of ESSER looms, education leaders are more discerning and looking for easy cuts in anticipation of budget constraints.
The most dire projections for next year go beyond ESSER, however. Many education companies fear that ESSER expiration, continued declines in public school enrollment, unchecked inflation, and a broader economic recession will create a perfect storm of lower tax revenue and state budget shortfalls. And they see it culminating in major slashes to school district budgets.
How can your edtech or education service stay off the chopping block?
First things first: instead of surrendering to the fear of worst-case scenarios, take heart. In reality, the economic outlook isn’t as dire as it’s been made out to be. Public school enrollment is stable, and a soft landing for the economy is looking more likely after years of high inflation rates.
As for ESSER, it was always intended as a temporary funding source. But even if you feel unprepared for its end, there are proactive steps you can take to position your products and services as essential to education leaders, particularly as renewals get underway.
Here are five tips to ensure your customers see you as indispensable.
1. Align your products and services with each customer’s strategic goals
In a recent survey from Education Week Market Brief, 68% of school district leaders said that in response to the cessation of ESSER funding, they will review all products and services purchased with stimulus dollars to judge their alignment with the district’s strategic goals.
Translation? Misaligned products and services and those lacking community visibility are at risk. And if you haven’t taken a look at your valued customers’ strategic plan, now is the time.
Your customer’s district or school needs to see your product or service as essential to achieving their objectives. Whatever the goal (e.g., attendance or graduation rate, standardized test scores, college readiness, teacher retention), strategic plans often boil down to securing better student outcomes. You can position your product as a tool that helps students reach their fullest potential.
Your positioning as an essential product relies on a strong content marketing strategy. Showing compelling evidence of usage, efficacy, and the ways your product aligns with strategic objectives can make all the difference in district budgeting. Your content strategy should include many — if not all — of the following assets:
- Case studies
- Media placements
- Awards or recognition
- Usage data
- Reports, including efficacy studies
Though all of these assets will help your customer make the case for renewal, efficacy studies are particularly valuable as cornerstone assets. You can break them up into smaller assets, which can then be used for promotional materials throughout your marketing mix.
2. Shout your customers’ successes
Community visibility can also have an impact on retention and renewal. Education companies need to champion the results their customers are achieving, ideally increasing reach through favorable media hits. Whether it’s a product that improved a district’s reading scores or a professional development program that increased teacher retention, it is essential to publicly celebrate these successes.
This will require media connections and relationships with education influencers. While these networks can take time to build, a veteran education marketing and PR firm with a sizable “Rolodex” can provide a shortcut to these critical contacts, and will provide the strategic angle to grab media attention.
3. Engage with stakeholders in your community
It’s hard to make cuts on products that parents and guardians hold in high regard. Conversely, if a product does not resonate well with parents, it’s easier to eliminate.
Thankfully, it’s an optimal time to connect with parents and caregivers. Especially since the days of remote learning, families have become more actively involved in the education products students use. Your education company can increase that engagement not just within the user experience, but with sponsored community nights and local media placements that promote your product. As you design your PR strategy, consider the specific channels parents and caregivers use, as they may be different than you’re utilizing for your marketing leads.
4. Renewals should be everyone’s business
One of the most critical ways to retain customers is to promote an “all hands on deck” attitude toward renewal revenue. Even if renewals aren’t a specific accountability point for certain departments in your company, it should nevertheless be a shared responsibility.
Teams should think about big and small ways they can support those sales, such as building marketing campaigns designed to specifically target current customers. Some good news is that involving your customers in marketing through case studies and positive media coverage can draw them closer to your brand — increasing their loyalty.
5. Offer your customers help finding alternative funding sources
The biggest risk to renewal is whether the district or educational institution purchased your product with ESSER funds. But even if they’re not paying for your service with ESSER funding, their budgets are still affected by its completion. Offering help to your customers as they prepare for a world without ESSER is a prime opportunity for sales enablement.
You can support your customers by reaching out and offering to help them talk through their funding options. In fact, you can probably draw examples of alternative funding from your work with other customers. Creating content that supports this particular sales opportunity (e.g., newsletters, case studies, one-pagers) can help you close the deal—again.
When it comes to loyalty and retention, we know what matters
Education companies like yours always need to focus on retention in addition to lead generation, but with the end of ESSER on the horizon, you’re probably feeling a particular urgency to double down on customer relationships. Your instincts are spot on.
With decades of experience in education marketing and PR, CB&A has helped our clients weather countless storms in the education industry. This period of funding flux is no different. Our team of experts can help you prepare with:
- Customer-focused content marketing campaigns
- Paid media campaigns
- National and local media relations
- Supporting your customer success team or sales team with renewals
With these elements in place, you can communicate directly and convincingly with customers about just how essential your product is to student success.
For more 2024 funding insights, view the recording of our recent CB&A Expert Series event, Will You Make the Post-ESSER Cut?—How to Prepare Now for Customer Renewal.
Curious how we can help you drive leads and secure renewals? Talk to us.