Don't Ignore the Education Market

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America's children are starting a new school year. But many business-to-business marketers may miss a chance for increased response by not targeting schools prominently in their upcoming campaigns.

Schools and other educational institutions are a vital, recession-resistant sector of the economy. This market consists of large institutional buyers that receive millions of dollars from federally mandated money, grants awarded to individual educators and many other sources. Whatever kind of economic crisis our country may encounter, schools will continue to grow through the next decade because of rising enrollment.

Federal funding means big purchasing power. When the economy is suffering and the government is under pressure to improve the situation, the federal commitment to education is stronger than ever. With the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress and the Bush administration recently enacted the largest increase in federal school funding in history.

The purchasing power of schools and school districts isn't reflected accurately in a typical standard industry classification view of the BTB market. While more than 125,000 of them are crammed into one SIC code, they spend more than $350 billion annually. Each public school spends $3.5 million yearly on average. Schools employ more than 4 percent of the U.S. work force.

It's not just book publishers that sell to schools. Schools have cafeterias, libraries, gyms and administrative offices. They buy computers, office supplies, furniture, security systems, HVAC equipment, cleaning supplies, food and even long-distance service. Don't count your product out before you've tried.

How do you market to schools? Because the education market is in-creasingly diverse, you need to be as targeted as possible to gain the largest return on investment. Here are some tips:

o Target decision makers. Mailing to a school district used to be effective, but that's no longer the case, with decentralized decision making common today. You need to reach decision makers at the schools as well as the districts. Many school purchasing decisions are made because of influencers - teachers, administrators or other staff members - and your mailing may need to reach them, too.

o Understand how schools are segmented. You can't use the tried-and-true BTB list selection techniques. Purchasing power of schools can't be inferred from commonly used business factors like annual sales. You need selections such as enrollment, grade span, community wealth and funding sources.

o Don't limit yourself to traditional schools. Consider private and religious schools, child-care centers, pre-kindergartens, vocational schools and adult-education institutions. Meet with your sales team and look at the array of educational institutions you can target.

o Be aware of unique buying patterns. Most schools operate on an annual cycle with strong buying activity in the early part of the fall and spring semesters. Remember, however, that big-ticket items are likely to need budget approval, a process that occurs in the spring of the previous school year.

o Analyze your existing business. Many BTB direct marketers realize that the K-12 education SIC segment is a valuable part of their response, but they do not understand the specialized factors that can make prospecting in that segment more successful.

To maximize response, list selections should be based upon an analysis of previous buying behavior, factoring in the attributes most likely to influence school response. A profile of your customer database is one effective method to identify segments most suited to your offerings. These services are available from list compilers who specialize in the education market.

The profiling process matches the marketer's past buyers to the compiler's universe of educational institutions. The result is a series of tables and charts that compare the marketer's penetration into various slices of the overall market. Careful analysis of a profile typically reveals selections that can be used to cull more responsive schools.

o Explore the variety of list selections. Once you develop a profile of the educators you want to reach, review the many lists available and the extensive choice in selections.

For example: A sports equipment company may want to reach physical-education teachers (influencers) and principals (decision makers) in middle and junior high schools (there are 30,910). They could narrow that selection further to choose only schools in a high-wealth area.

The maker of an educational software game for young children may mail to computer lab supervisors (influencers) and principals (decision makers) at elementary schools in "tech-savvy" school districts (there are 26,621). It could increase response by narrowing the selection to schools that recently received Title 1 funding (there are 9,126).

By targeting the names and titles of those most likely to purchase from you, and by targeting schools in selected areas or those that recently received federal funding, you may be able to boost response rates.

Take educational institutions as seriously as you do businesses. If you've been marketing to schools, consider expanding your efforts. If you haven't marketed to schools, you've been missing a serious sales opportunity. Schools will continue to operate long after your other clients have closed shop.

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