Getting started with marketing to K-12 teachers and administrators

You just clicked deploy on the NextBigThingInEdu™️ and are ready to take the education world by storm. Except you have one problem: you did all of this without really figuring out how you’re going to get your product in front of teachers. 🦗

Not great, but not uncommon. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly the position I found myself in when we launched Coding Rooms. None of us really knew any teachers except for the ones that we had in school!

If this sounds like you right now, you should read this article. Feel free to email me if you have any questions–I’m more than happy to help fellow edtech founders.

Prerequisite: get your first (minimum) 10 teacher users

Before you start thinking about scaling your marketing efforts, you need to make sure that you have a product that teachers actually want to use (ideally feel like they can’t live without). This is a lot harder than it sounds, because teachers are extremely busy, are bombarded by endless distractions, are extremely price-sensitive, are allergic to sales people, and have very little time to try out new products. You need to make sure that your product is so good that teachers will be willing to spend their own time to try it out. If you can’t get 10 teachers to actively use your product, ideally on a paid subscription, you’re not ready to scale your marketing efforts. Period.

This post isn’t really about how to meet those first 10 users, but here are some tips:

Ask your friends. If you’re a recent college grad, chances are that you know a few teachers. Ask them to try out your product and give you feedback. If they like it, ask them to share it with their colleagues.

Cold outreach. This is the most effective way to get your first users. Find teachers on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else you can find them and send them a message. Make sure to personalize it and explain why you think they would be a good fit for your product.

Meet teachers in person. Go to a local teacher meetup. You can find them on Eventbrite, Meetup, or Facebook. If you’re in a big city, you can probably find a few every month. If you’re in a small town, you might have to drive a bit. This is a great way to get feedback on your product and get your first users.

Keep in mind that you’re not trying to sell your product to teachers at this point. You’re trying to get feedback and find your first users. It’s important to be upfront about the fact that your product is in its infancy, that you have a small team, and that it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to address all of their needs right away. If you’re candid, the right teachers will be more than happy to help you out. Some teachers may shy away from this, and that’s good–they are NOT early adopters. Early adopters are a special breed of teachers that are willing to take a risk on a new product and are willing to put in the time to help you make it better. They want to help you and will lend you lots of time in return for shaping the product to their needs and the feeling of being a part of something important to the world!

Another reason why it’s crucial to get your first 10 users is that they will be your first marketing team. If you treat them like early adopter royalty, they will be your biggest advocates and will help you get your next 100 users. At Coding Rooms, not only did our early users catapult our marketing efforts, but we literally had them on due diligence calls with our potential venture investors to share why they love our product. Once you have this level of customer love, you’re probably ready to start scaling up your marketing efforts.

Top channels for marketing to teachers and K-12 administrators

Once you have your first 10 early adopters, you should start thinking about how you’re going to start reaching more educators. There are lots of channels for marketing to teachers, but here are the ones that I’ve found to be the best, in order of effectiveness for early stage edtech startups:

1. Facebook groups

Facebook groups are probably the single most effective and efficient channel for marketing to teachers. There are dozens (likely hundreds) of Facebook groups for teachers and administrators, and many of them are very active (at least a few posts/day).

The groups are typically closed, so you’ll have to request to join. First things first, read the group rules.

If they seem relatively permissive, just click “request to join.” Fill out their form honestly and agree to all the terms about not posting self-promotional content, etc.

If they seem very strict, you’ll need to get ‘invited’ by an admin or a member. To get an invitation, it’s best to ask your initial users, build a relationship with the admins directly, or just ask your users to post about your product in the group instead (and then if there’s an active discussion–about how good your product is–the admins will likely invite you to join the group to answer questions, etc.)

When it comes to using these groups for promotion, you kinda have to go guerrilla mode. You can’t just post about your product, because you will get instapermaforeva-banned. You have to be creative and find ways to get your product in front of teachers without being too self-promotional. Here are some ideas that may work better at the different stages of your product:

Ask your users to post about your product. If you have a few teachers that love your product, ask them to post about it in the groups that they are in. This is a great way to get your product in front of hundreds of teachers in a matter of days.

Ask your users to post about your FREE webinar, professional development, resource, article, or other ‘freebie’. If you have thing of value that you can give away for free, ask your users to post about it in the groups that they are in. This is a great way to get hundreds of teachers to click a link to get into a lead funnel, and they will be more than happy to do it in order to get your freebie. Don’t give away garbage though–only do this if you have something genuinely useful to give away.

Ask your users to post a question about your product/use case. If you have a few teachers that love your product, ask them to post a question about it or the problem that it solves in the groups that they are in. This should help to start an active conversation, and you can jump in to answer questions and get your product in front of hundreds of teachers. Getting teachers talking, researching, and thinking about your product is a great way to get them to try it out.

2. Email groups/lists

Email groups (think Google Groups, etc.) are basically old-school Facebook groups. They are typically harder to find, and I’m not sure how many of them exist, but they are still a great way to get your product in front of teachers. The best way to get into these groups is to ask your users to invite you or by contacting the admins/owners directly.

Basically all the same rules apply as with Facebook groups, but you should probably exercise even more caution with self-promotion. Teachers are very sensitive to spam, and the ones that gather in email groups are often the ones who find the Facebook groups too noisy or low-quality.

3. Professional development (“PD”) programs

Teachers love learning. Especially when said learning costs $0.00.

If you already have some customers, you should include them in the process of developing the PD program. Ask them what they would like to learn about, what their colleagues are interested in, what problems your product solves for them, and what challenges they experienced with your product. You’ll then be able to craft a short (~60mins) targeted program around your target customer. You’ll likely deliver it, along with some of your existing users, virtually, although if you have a strong local community, you should try running it in person too!

You should then have your users post about the PD program in their communities (Facebook, Google Groups, etc.), mentioning that they helped to build/teach the program. Supplement that by sharing with your entire user base (newsletter, etc.) and whatever other free channels you are in–spraying these ads is fine. This is a great way to get teachers to make a “micro-commitment” to sign up for your PD program, where you will ultimately prove the value of your product in minutes. Be ready to start cashing checks immediately after the PD program is over–if you have a great product, you’ll have teachers begging for a subscription by the end of the program. If you don’t, you’ll have a great opportunity to learn why they don’t really care that much about your product.

If you don’t have enough of a customer network built up yet, you can still do this, but you might need to ‘hack’ getting an audience. Offer to present on a topic at a meetup, conference, or other informal get together. I wouldn’t ever pay, especially in the early stages, to get an audience for a PD (whether through ads, sponsorships, or paid speaking slots). The reality is that if you have something valuable to offer, people will want to learn from you. If you pay people for the slot, you didn’t really ’earn’ it and that makes it less likely that you have also figured out a really strong value prop for your PD.

I’m also not a huge fan of doing giveaways or free lunches, again, especially in the early stages. It’s an easy way to turn a great free marketing channel into a paid one, and you really only want to speak to people are early-ish adopters.

4. Conferences

Conferences are a great way to meet teachers and administrators, but they are also a great way to waste a lot of time and money. I would only recommend going to a conference if you know that your ideal customers are attending in meaningful numbers. Ideally, you can also get a booth for free or very cheap, but don’t skip a conference, especially a not low-cost or local one, just because you can’t get a booth.

As a general rule, I’ve found smaller, more niche/focused, and local conferences/meetings to be more effective than the big national ones, especially the fewer people you have using your product. There are some exceptions to the rule, but often the big conferences are just too noisy and expensive. The big ones also typically a very broad range of attendees, so you’ll end up talking to a lot of people who are not your ideal customer. Best case, you waste time and money. Worst case, you get the wrong impression about your product and market.

Here are some tips to make your conference worthwhile:

  1. Reach out to your customers in advance. How many of them are attending? Can you find time to meet with them in person? If you can, schedule 1:1s and try to plan a happy hour event. If you can swing it, encourage them to bring the teacher friends to your happy hour to learn more about your product. Shower your early customers in love. I’d rather spend $100 taking my early adopters out for a beer than $100 on a paid ad.

  2. If you have passionate customer(s) attending, why not ask them to become your ‘ambassadors’ at the conference. You can experiment with this, but we’ve given our early customers t-shirts to wear at conferences, asked them include our product in their PD/presentations, and had them hang around our booth to help speak to prospects and share their stories. I say it often, but if your early adopters love you, they will be more effective than any sales person!

  3. Especially if you’re in the earlier stages, and you really just need to talk to teachers, conduct hallway demos/pitches. Put on your company t-shirt and strike up conversations with any and everyone! If you picked the right conference, you should have no trouble getting tons of high-quality feedback and leads from this guerrilla marketing strategy. It’s important to be in founder mode here, not car salesman mode. You want to be courteous, ask questions, and don’t just blindly pitch people to death. Keep quality notes so that you can reach out to everyone personally immediately after the conference.

  4. If you managed to get a booth, keep it lean, but don’t forget to bring a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, a laptop+charger, and a monitor. Once you secure a booth, a table and power socket is usually included, but always double check. Make sure to have a concise pitch, a good demo, and a good way to capture leads. You should also have a good way to follow up with leads after the conference. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to have a good way to capture leads (email, phone number, etc.) and then follow up with a personalized email after the conference. Make sure to take notes on each lead contemporaneously so that you nail the follow-up email.

Reddit is weird, but it could be a great place to reach passionate teachers en masse, especially those very early adopters. In my personal experience, you really need to deal with each subreddit on a case-by-case basis. Some are basically open to self-promotion, others are really not. Some are very active, others are not. Some are very niche, others are not. You get the idea.

You should take a look at their post history, what works, what doesn’t, etc., and then craft a strategy on a per subreddit basis. If you have a few users that are active on Reddit, you should ask them to post about your product in the subreddits that they are in. This is a great way to get your product in front of hundreds of teachers in a matter of days.

Basically a more complicated, nuanced, and early-adopter-focused version of the Facebook groups strategy.

6. LinkedIn outreach

LinkedIn is a great place to do some cold outreach. At Coding Rooms, we got some of our very first users through cold LinkedIn messaging. In general though, I’ve found that it’s not really the place to scale an educator-focused cold outreach strategy, nor is it where you’ll find lots of passionate and active teachers.

You should think of LinkedIn outreach as even-shorter-form, lower-volume email outreach. Make sure to write personalized messages, don’t sell–ask for feedback or help testing your platform instead.

7. Find staff through cold outreach using online staff directories

I put cold emailing towards the bottom, because, in my experience, it’s just not that effective at scale, especially once you starting having sales people write them… That said, you practically have to cold email teachers in the early days because you don’t know enough teachers yet! In the early days, you should spend time writing really good emails that are as personalized and concise as possible. You’re targeting people who are perfect early adopters, hyper-relevant, active in the community, etc., so you should have lots to offer and talk about. In the early days, I wouldn’t write it as a sales email – I’d ask for feedback or help evaluating your product.

I might be overly-biased against this strategy, but think about it – when is the last time you replied to a cold outreach email trying to sell you a product? If you’re like me, probably never-ish. That’s why, especially in the early days, I wouldn’t be writing ‘sales’ emails per se–you must be focused on using the email as a way of getting onto a Zoom call with the potential customer. I’m not saying to lie, but just use your position as CEO and co-founder of the startup-that-no-one-has-ever-heard-of as a superpower, instead of a disadvantage!

8. Educational app stores

There are a few educational app stores out there, but the only one that I’ve found to be worth the setup is the Clever Library.

If your product has a freemium experience or free trial flow, especially if you’re targeting K-8 classrooms, you should get setup in the Clever Library. It’s a great way to get your product in front of teachers, but don’t expect to go from 10 users to a million active monthly teachers overnight. You’re still going to have to do the legwork to get teachers into your product, however, many public school teachers will be able to get into your product with a single click through the Clever Library, which could be a huge advantage as you emerge from early adopter land.

Content marketing is a mindset

At this point you should be wondering, but what about content marketing? Great question, patient reader. Well, content marketing is basically just what all modern product marketing should be about. Every channel I listed above will require you to start building and sharing valuable content and resources, hand-in-hand with your customers. That’s content marketing! Put it on your website, and guess what? That’s SEO! Of course there’s way more to ranking on Google, but sharing value should be your north star.

It’ll take months to start getting value out of an SEO strategy, so you should start building content and your overall web presence early, but don’t expect it to help you truly discover PMF and bag those early customers for you. It will never replace the channels above in the early days. Once you start reaching more meaningful scale, search and other types of organic discovery will become more and more of a focus as you scale your marketing efforts.

Channels to avoid

I wouldn’t do these things:

1. Paid ads

Anyone who has ever talked to me about marketing knows what I think about paid ads. I need to write more about this, but as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t be spending time running paid ads for edtech software. There are some exceptions, but if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not one of them. I’d go as far as to say that if a marketing person or agency tells you that you need to run paid ads for ‘brand awareness’ you should find a way to end the call as soon as possible.

2. Cold calling

In general, I’d be wary of cold calling. It’s a very easy way to give the market a bad impression of you, your company, and your product. Early adopter types in particular tend to be the most put off by cold calls, so I would build relationships through other channels and then get on the phone/Zoom with them once you’ve built a relationship (and sent a calendar invite!).

I will say though that some sales people swear by cold calling–I’ve heard that it works for some companies. I’m not exactly sure what types of companies or products, but whatever it is, it probably isn’t the right choice for an early-stage edtech startup. There are also different types of cold calling, for example, calling someone who signed up and gave you their phone number is more likely to convert to a demo or sale than just trying to call numbers in a faculty directory.

Don’t give up!

Reaching teachers is hard, so the most important thing is to just be persistent with your efforts as you figure out your product-market-fit. You’ll feel that inflection point when you start getting inbound leads and your users start sharing your product with their colleagues. That’s when you’ll know that you’re on the right track.

I hope this article was helpful. Feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any questions–I’m more than happy to help fellow edtech founders!

Special thanks

  • Harris Salat: Former Head of Marketing at Coding Rooms, content marketing section, and proofreading
  • Dan Carroll: Contributions to making conferences work and how to leverage the Clever Library