Education isn’t changing, it has changed. After centuries of staying more or less the same, education in the U.S. has evolved, finding ways to be more efficient, effective, and innovative through technology. It may have taken longer than some areas of life, but education is finally having its digital moment.
One of the primary reasons why I left an edtech startup in the summer of 2012 to join McGraw-Hill Education was the transformational opportunity. It wasn’t so much a personal one (though it was that, too) but a bigger, organizational one. Here was a company that, despite its iconic brand reputation as a stodgy “textbook publisher,” actually did have a portfolio of digital products capable of delivering more engaging, personalized learning experiences. What it didn’t have was a marketing organization fully equipped to tell that digital story.
Below is a look at three of the biggest changes we’ve faced as a company—and as an industry—over the past few years, and how we remade the marketing organization at McGraw-Hill School Education to adapt to not only these trends, but the next ones on the horizon.
Education’s shift to digital
Digital is everywhere in education. I’m sure you’ve read a story or two about a school district near you replacing their textbooks with iPads. The truth is, just about everything in K-12 education—from distribution channels to business models to the very way teaching and learning is happening—is changing, and changing fast, as a result of the shift to digital.
McGraw-Hill School Education has a history of selling books: reading books, math books, science books. But something I realized early on is that at McGraw-Hill School Education I didn’t have to sell books. Thanks to our brand, our customers know how great our content is. It’s an incredible luxury to have. What I did have to sell, though, was the digital experience that surrounds that content—and how it can drive results for our customers.
We decided to align our marketing efforts behind our digital capabilities, not our products. Instead of focusing on the individual benefits of our reading program or our math program, we’ve put our shoulders behind the technology that powers those programs and delivers the overall experience, and the overall results, that today’s educators want. It was a shift that was subtle and seismic at the same time, but one year in, I think that it’s unquestionably changed the way customers think of us.
Rebranding McGraw-Hill Education as a 125-year-old startup
In March of this year, McGraw-Hill Education was sold from its former parent company, which owned it for more than a century, to the private equity firm Apollo Global Management. In the midst of all of this change was the perfect time to rebrand McGraw-Hill School Education from a textbook publisher to what I really think we are: a $2+ billion, 125-year-old startup. It’s not something you see too often—or an opportunity you get to be a part of often in life.
Creating this new brand has required a lot of effort. Not only have we revamped our messaging, we’ve become biased toward finding ways to communicate those messages that we haven’t used before.
We also needed to create a marketing organization that was capable of building this brand by listening more intently to the voice of the customer and, beyond that, thriving in a digital-first market. When I arrived in July 2012, our focus was tilted heavily toward product marketing or reactive sales support. Now, we’re equally focused on product marketing, integrated marketing, strategy and analytics, and creative and brand strategy. Roles are differentiated. We have a creative department responsible for both product and marketing design—with the foundation of service design. Not only did we bring in a number of talented people, we brought in people from smaller edtech companies and larger consumer brands with an entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to think beyond the standard product support vision, characteristic of most publishers, that we’d engaged in for so many years.
The end result of all of this change? We are thought leaders in our larger company. We’re spending more time engaging with our customers in new and inventive ways, listening to their needs, and tracking the success they’ve had with our products. And we’re making that time count.
The consumerization of education
Historically, McGraw-Hill Education has been a B2B company, selling to instructors and administrators. But now that we have technology with the power to engage students and improve their performance, we’ve decided to make it available directly to students—and their parents who want to help them succeed.
The consumerization of education is not something that we always held in our minds as a way of growing the revenue pie; rather, it was a byproduct of creating technology that really works. People want educational resources to be available in the same manner other digital products work in their life: where they want it, when they want it, and made easy and engaging. When enough students come to you and say, “LearnSmart saved my life. Can I buy it for another class, even if my teacher hasn’t told us we need to use it?”, you find ways to make it possible.
Now, in addition to schools and instructors, we have two entirely new audiences to market to: students and parents. While this is every marketer’s dream, it also presents some big challenges. Not only do we have to effectively communicate our digital story to our more traditional customers, some of whom we’ve worked with for decades, but we have to find a way to reach students and parents who haven’t purchased from us directly before and who might be more inclined to download the new version of Angry Birds over our latest adaptive learning product.
When I think about my time at McGraw-Hill Education, I keep coming back to the idea of opportunity: Not only to help bring a marketing organization into the 21st century, but to connect schools, parents and students with technology that can lead to better grades, test scores, jobs and lives. In a sense, it’s also a tremendous responsibility, but one I look forward to taking on every day.
Victoria Burwell is SVP of marketing at McGraw-Hill School Education.