‘Listening Precedes Telling’; Education Week’s Empathy, Outreach Offer Revenue Lessons

Facing the heavy loss of advertising dollars, Education Week used the surveys they had launched early in the pandemic to pivot their products and also show their advertisers where customer needs had shifted. “You really want to ask your customers what they need, how best you can support them… and how [you] can be a partner to them,” Jeson Jackson (pictured), marketing and customer experience manager for Education Week, told us.

“The biggest hit that we took that [looked] to be long lasting was from our advertisers,” Jackson said during our BIMS event in December. There was just so much uncertainty about what schools were going to do, what they would need.”

Advertisers worried about their print visibility, and everyone worried about the impact on revenue. “As a partner to our advertisers, we wanted to help support them in the same way that we supported ourselves, and that was by listening to our customers to find out what they needed,” Jackson said. “Much of the survey data that we collected”—early on in the pandemic Education Week launched twice-monthly surveys to all areas of their audience—“we made available to our survey partners. We created sponsored survey products and had advertisers add questions.”

For Education Week, the goal was to take away some of that uncertainty. “That not only helped us generate good will with our advertisers but helped them see that schools were going to be more reliant on product and service providers than ever. That helped us with our advertisers in the tech space but also with those that provide social and emotional learning, and emotional support for teachers. It opened up budget lines that allowed them to continue advertising with us and help us retain revenue moving forward.”

Many of the solutions I hear from publishers result from asking customers questions and focusing intently on the answers. Education Week calls it “listening precedes telling.” It’s one of their four marketing principles, along with leading with your mission, attracting—not driving—customers and focusing on credibility and clarity.

Jackson started his talk by saying that their biggest goal during the pandemic has been to be both “relevant in content and empathetic in tone.” I heard that again this morning from Lev Kaye, founder and CEO of CredSpark. He even got a bit fired up when that subject came up in our conversation.

“The number one piece of advice we give our clients is to find ways to be relevant to individuals,” he told me. “That’s what everyone craves. They’re not starved for content, they’re starved for relevant content. Ask questions, learn about your audience. Then you can decide, does this person get a phone call because there’s a [specially suited] package or should this person be targeted in another way?

“You’re asking questions to be able to get towards relevance with an individual. That’s the basis of the relationship [you want to build]. That way you know you’re going to provide value for them. And the reason to do this is because Google and Facebook are not going to do this. That’s the beauty. That’s what B2B media can do. You have more meaning to your audience.”

Of course, this is not new, but it certainly has become even more valuable during the last year—when we’re not getting any in-person feedback, and people are pretty open to be communicated with in a substantive way.

“For us, customer intelligence became the new currency internally,” Robin Crumby, co-founder and managing director, Kademy—and formerly the head of Melcrum—told us at a session in 2019. “So every team meeting would start with an insight from a customer conversation, and people learned very quickly that if they really weren’t having regular contact with customers, they really weren’t having say in those meetings.

“What we found was the higher the price point, the deeper the level of engagement that is required. [For a] $30,000 product, sometime the customer can’t articulate the need or what a product should look like. So we try to understand some of the challenges that they’re facing, trying to understand their individual pain points and how can we pinpoint our individual products and services to address those. It went beyond listening to co-creating the solutions.”

The difference now is the need for the empathetic tone. “We’ve been framing the conversation that we’re not necessarily here in this moment to make a sale, or to convert to some sort of product but to support you,” Jackson said. “And to do that we had to listen to their needs… because we really didn’t know what our readers needed most. We had some assumptions, but you really want to ask your customers what they need, how best you can support them… and how we can be a partner to them and supply what they needed. So some of that led to us reframing some existing products and getting that out to them, and some led to new products.”

Brittany Carter, president of Columbia Books & Information Services, once told me about a small company they acquired and with it an HR Guide that they published every year. “Does this even apply anymore,” she asked? The author assured her yes, and they published it.

“We didn’t sell a single copy,” Carter said, and she soon found out that the last one didn’t either. But because of the lack of transparency—and customer outreach—nobody knew, not even the author. “I said right there, ‘We will rearrange this.’ You don’t think any of this can happen, but if no one is thinking about the end user and what the customer is telling you, then it can happen.”

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