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Taking the shortcut to marketing glory in ELT

Keynote: Here's a summary of what you may have missed when Richard Bradford spoke in the plenary session of the ELT Marketing Conference in London on 24th September 2021.

The shortest cut to marketing glory is, perhaps, a vainglorious headline that indicates there’s a quick and simple way to power and glory. Which may not be entirely true…

But that slight blurring aside, it’s important for the ELT industry to think about what, as the market returns post-pandemic, are the most effective actions that schools can take to rebuild their businesses, both the physical, experiential models and the online iterations. And what are the things which (in the light of tight budgets) can wait for another day. And how do you decide?

This is a take on the opening plenary I gave at the Annual Marketing Conference run by EnglishUK, where I covered seven aspects of the route to marketing success.

1. Are you confusing marketing with sales?

The two terms are so frequently used together that it’s easy to understand the confusion. Whilst the sales function bears all the pressures of getting the revenue confirmed into the business, marketing plays a distinct and different role, to identify and understand customers and their needs, generate awareness, information and ensure all parts of the customer experience (the product and service included) meet or exceed expectation.

Marketing therefore is rightly hungry for time, money and people, because the function is trying to create preference, affect entire markets, and lay down the foundations for future revenue streams.

In the plenary, I suggested that the language school sector is likely to go from two summers of stasis to a sudden influx in 2022. This could mean that the main challenge in the short term will be to assure the quality of provision, in what could be a time of logistical hardship. This could be due to having to bring new teams up to speed if you’ve lost employees, flight scarcity and lapsed allocations of everything from tickets to a local tourist attraction, to bedrooms in your favourite student residence.

This inundation of pent-up demand is likely to satisfy sales requirements up to a point. This should give the marketing function time to lay down strategies right now which will generate revenue in years 2 and 3 and beyond, and ideally, you’ll squirrel away some surplus to feed the marketing machine.

The shortcut: carve out some separation between the sales and marketing functions, and set clear objectives for each function, even if there is only one person doing it. That will ensure you keep responding to the need for sales today, whilst marking out time for deeper, more focussed marketing actions which will play out and provide a return over a longer timeframe.

2. Managing stakeholders

If we are to see marketing as something which needs its own space to do its own thing, with its own resources, it also follows that we need to let these campaigns run their course, from research and data gathering through to, well, feedback and data gathering. Therefore the absolute nemesis of a good marketing strategy is the last-minute request from on high, or the surprise new course you’ve been asked to promote, or anything in between.

Now we know there are always going to be last-minute requirements, like snapping a bunch of students and sticking a post on social media, but it’s vital that there is sufficient communication and collaboration within your organisation to ensure stakeholders are more invested in the main marketing plan, and therefore less likely to demand you jump on a new bandwagon or set up a whole new thing you’d not bargained (or budgeted) for.

The shortcut: Agree on marketing activity to avoid stop-start campaigns. Invest enough time and effort to build campaign momentum.

3. Where are we in the life cycle of the market?

Knowing where you are helps, if you’re wondering where to go, so let’s start with the basics: There are four stages to the lifecycle of a market:

  • Introduction where its the development and early marketing of a new product or service. All based around innovation, with relatively few participants both as producers and consumers.

  • Growth phase where consumers recognise the value of the offer and the market is divided between a smallish group of important providers.

  • Maturity where growth slows and the eventual size of the market becomes clear. The barrier to entry for new providers is high, margins get tighter and established brands think more of tightening costs than expansion.

  • Decline where obsolescence or simply product fatigue sets in. Demand declines and the established players begin to consolidate, or simply leave.

So where is the ELT industry in all this? Pre-pandemic, we were in the ‘maturity’ phase, so let’s remain optimistic and suppose we’ll be back to there again soon. Each phase necessitates a certain set of marketing actions.

Let’s take a look at what a mature market needs:

  • Conversion: Customers are more rare and more able to switch between apparently similar providers. So it’s all about ensuring those that do encounter your brand and find your website or social media, etc. go on to book. Software and various forms of marketing automation come into their own here to draw people across the finish line.
  • Customer service: For the same reason of conversion, focus in on the quality of the user journey so you don’t lose out on the potential of future clients. The risks to successfully delivering customer delight is high given the operational uncertainties you're facing.
  • Repeat bookers: In a mature market, you’ll always find it easier preaching to the converted. Whilst on an individual basis maybe only a small percentage of students rebook and return, at the wholesale, travel agency level, your best agents send time and time again. So it’s a great time to show them some love and attention, and reconnect as much as possible.

The shortcut: Spend your time engaging with pre-existing agents and repeat buyers rather than chasing the wider market. Understand where your simpler successes are and concentrate in that space. Double down on the quality of the total experience to build goodwill and recommendation.

4. Do you have a balanced portfolio?

This maturity in the market stuff isn’t uniform across everything you do. It gets a bit granular. The fancy folk in suits at the Boston Consulting Group talk of a balanced portfolio of products. And while the products and services you offer will be different from each other, it’s the differences in their maturity in the market that is of interest.

If every product you offer is similar (‘English for foreigners’) and at the same stage in the market cycle, that is ‘mature’, then things are going to dry up soon.

So you need to differentiate - find markets which are still in their growth period. And it’s fair to say that we will ‘come back different’, so there will be opportunities for different markets, or different routes of delivery.

If you find daunting the idea of coming up with new products or services and taking them to market, you’re not alone.

Don’t try and do it single-handedly, and remember that even incremental product and service enhancements will prolong the life of your product portfolio whilst that big break into something very new makes itself known.

According to research by Gallup, organisations which nurture a culture of intrapreneurship are 21% more profitable. But it’s important to lay down ground rules and a process before asking employees to help out. It’s also important that they don’t just offer the initial idea and look to you to take it through to success. Keep them on board, provide marketing training so all staff benefit from the same insights, and earmark a bit of R&D budget so they can work up to a pilot with your help. Agree on success and abandonment criteria, so the project doesn’t just stall and become forgotten.

Champion successes and celebrate valiant attempts equally. Learn fast from failures to embed a culture of innovation to keep the suggestions flowing.

When it comes to promoting new products, use the website and have your ideators create the content, which you can optimise to ensure the market finds what you’re selling. If not, your fledgling products could be failing for all the wrong reasons.

The shortcut: Create the conditions for new product pilots and use your website to test concepts cheaply. Engage and reward staff with time, training and variety. Test and learn fast with new products and delivery.

5. (Re)align to your authentic brand values

Let’s return to the thought that you’re largely operating in a mature market. Aside from looking at new, less mature, products and services and looking to diversify, how else do you distinguish yourself?

One significant part of that is brand values. Consumers want to like the organisations they spend their money with. The obvious example is whether you buy your coffee from tax-avoiding Starbucks or from the rooted-in-the-community independent shop.

Values can make any organisation stand out, and especially, be the difference for the smaller players looking to stand up to the bigger chains. Connecting your work to a higher set of values can make people choose your school over others, especially with young students driven by a number of social issues.

That’s not to say, of course, that you should cynically adopt causes in order to attract students, but consider how you tie what you do to what you believe. If you’re concerned about climate change, then online teaching may be a way to reduce students’ carbon footprint, or you might include a voluntary carbon offset option for some of your courses. There are some great organisations who can help, such as ELT Footprint UK and Green Standard Schools.

Or draw on your own or the founder’s initial principles and bring them to the fore. Language learning as a way of connecting people across the globe? Bringing people together to celebrate their diversity? How can you connect what you think and what you do?

The shortcut: Don’t just change the logo/colours. Consider your shared values carefully and identify how these values can change the way people experience your brand. Infuse your whole customer experience with your values, so that every step feels right. Then you’ll capitalise from having created enough differentiation to create preference.

6. Jump on the Google bandwagon

I’ve repeatedly reminded schools not to blindly copy the competition, but to forge your own route based on your own brand values and unique set up, skills and experiences as an organisation. That said, one bandwagon it is worth jumping on right now is Google’s.

The way Google works has never stopped changing, but its rate of development is going to take Google to a very different level, and one of the updates that is going to make this happen is MUM - multitask unified model.

This is all to do with search. Google estimates that on average we conduct 8 separate searches when we’re looking to undertake even the simplest of tasks. MUM not only understands language, but also generates it. It’s trained across 75 different languages and many different tasks at once, allowing it to develop a more comprehensive understanding of information and world knowledge than previous models.

This means that it matters less and less where in the world (on which Google servers, and in which language) the best information is to be found. That means if you happen to have the best possible information on a given topic, you’ll have the opportunity to start appearing on a worldwide scale, regardless of what language you created your content in.

It’s going to take a while for you to capitalise on this, especially if you’re new to the whole content marketing scene. As described above, now is a great time to lay down these proper bits of marketing work, and invest properly to generate a return down the line.

And there’s more. Since we know the agent distribution network is great at promoting your big-ticket, cash cow, mature products, like general language courses and junior summer camps, re-engage with agents and see that channel as your main marketing highway. Inversely, when it comes to your trial products, your niche courses and the ones that agents never seem to be able to retain long enough to sell, use Google, and pursue a direct route via SEO and the optimisation of your courses. After all, it’s where most people are looking.

The shortcut: For now, market your niche products via optimised content for Google. Soon, expand your online presence to plug the gaps in booking behaviour. Please MUM.

7. Save the planet

Last of all, try and do your bit to save the planet. At Disquiet Dog, we have a CSR scheme called Operation Bernard, where we help organisations for free who are doing good things for the planet. (So us including this point in our salvo is us doing that thing about sticking our values into all bits of the process).

For language schools there are some really good reasons to keep the planet in mind. Whether that is offering to offset CO2 emissions on flights*, or implementing measures around the school to minimise waste, you’re going to do your part towards being carbon neutral. If you do it with integrity and commitment, you’ll also bring GenZ on board and potentially save money whilst creating a positive brand legacy.

*We know flying into your country to learn a language generates CO2 emissions through air travel, but aviation is certainly not the biggest contributor, and next to saving the planet, learning to live peaceably with one another has to be up there with worthwhile things to accomplish.

These shortcuts are, of course, simply nudges to ways in which you can think differently about what you do to find different products, markets and strategies to make sure you not only survive the turbulence, but emerge stronger and more differentiated than before.

We’d be delighted to help you on that journey and help you hack your own way to glory. Get in touch. We really don’t bite.