Revisiting the Buying Cycle Basics

Quick review from Post 1 on Great Ideas: Resources for selling.  These are the five standard phases of the K-12 buying cycle from the administrators’ point of view:

(Source: District Administration via C. Blohm & Associates)

Arc's Kevin Custer provides an alternative representation from the point of view of a K-12 seller or marketer.

Read this. Learn it. Imprint it on your brain.  This is the school year. You want to know where you are with each category at all times.

The cycle’s peaks and valleys overlap, but your big sales push will likely occur in a window between January and May, when districts and schools make purchase decisions for the following school year (green line).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The work of your sales and marketing teams starts much earlier.

The following advice applies to most products or services sold to K-12 administrators. If you have a direct-to-teacher model, you won’t be as constrained. But it’s still useful to understand the phases. At the end of this post, I'll highlight the important times to reach out directly to teachers.

Aligning Your Efforts with the Five Phases

Phase 1: Introduce Your Product (May through October)

Each spring, K-12 administrators begin assessing their school or district needs. While they might eye small, supplemental materials for the upcoming academic year, the process to purchase more substantial products is long. During this Phase 1, decision makers are already thinking about the school year that will begin in the following calendar year (e.g., in spring 2014, many administrators began to think about the 2015-2016 school year).

By the time summer arrives, decision makers often know what is needed. They’ll be further influenced by end-of-year performance results, which will become available as school resumes in the fall. This is a "discovery period" — the time for you to introduce your product. (NOTE: you should begin to lay the groundwork for Phase 1 during Phase 4 of the previous cycle. See below for more on this).

Your marketing campaigns should focus on a wide audience of schools and districts that meet your team’s prospect criteria. Make the collateral accessible and introductory. Use tools such as online video testimonials from satisfied K-12 customers (an endorsement from a prospect’s peer is worth its weight in gold).

Monitor and refine your website’s SEO so administrators can quickly find your product demos. Use A/B tests to continuously improve your outbound email campaigns and site collateral. As they are discovering you, you are simultaneously discovering the messaging that best connects with them. This is the time to build introductory credibility.

Phase 2: Emphasize Your Value Proposition to High-Potential Prospects (September through December)

During the fall, K-12 administrators plan and build their budgets. By now they solidly understand their needs and likely have a general sense of possible solutions. They begin to focus on how they’ll fund those solutions.

With funding front and center on the decision makers’ minds, your team should find multiple ways to emphasize your product’s value proposition. Your messaging should become more specific and more personal. You can hold regular webinars, set up 1:1 meetings with leads, and seek out opportunities to build relationships with the decision makers.

During Phase 2, you should find that your broad outreach from Phase 1 has narrowed considerably to focus on high-potential prospects.

Phases 3 and 4: Nurture Relationships and Prepare for the Next Cycle (October through April)

The autumn months are extremely busy for K-12 decision makers. In addition to initiating the funding approval and bidding process (Phases 3 and 4 in the buying cycle), administrators are occupied with organizing schools and classrooms, first semester goals, and then the holidays.

By late autumn, you’re past the point of introducing your product. Some businesses slow down their marketing efforts until January. So it’s a great time to differentiate yourself through high-quality outreach efforts.

Thanks to your team’s efforts during Phase 2, you should have an established sales funnel filled with leads. Deliver hyper-targeted messaging to your leads based both on their respective probability of sales closure and specific needs.

During Phases 3 and 4, K-12 decision makers will be evaluating your product against your competitors while also assessing their limited remaining budget and picking their priorities. I recommend using two sales kits at this critical juncture: one for competitive discussions (with fleshed-out competitive matrices) and another to help emphasize the “big picture” value of your product.

Following the holidays, your sales and marketing teams need to focus on two sets of potential customers: While your sales team will be working on closing deals with existing leads, your marketing team should begin to launch early marketing efforts for attracting new audiences in the next buying cycle.

Use your historical sales data (updated with your current wins and losses) and any new product features to update your collateral. Refine your criteria for assessing prospects and leads. Build new prospect lists. Plan your next round of lead-generation campaigns.

The new year brings education conferences like FETC, TCEA, SXSWedu, and many others where you’ll be able to speak face-to-face with educators from around the country.

Additionally consider attending lower-cost regional conferences as a way to establish more personal relationships with the K-12 market and test your value propositions. The K-12 attendees will be engaged in their own cycle of discovery and more open to hearing about your offering.

Phase 5: Stay Flexible while Closing Deals (March through October)

Most districts end their fiscal years on June 30 to align with their respective states year-end. Use-or-lose state funds (the largest percentage of school-funding money) get forfeited if they are not spent by the end of the fiscal year so in most states June can be an intense month of closing deals!

Be prepared to offer great discounts as many districts are looking for ways to spend their remaining funds. Tools like EdLights by K-12 Data in San Diego can help you identify which districts still have money. When a deal falls through, learn from the process and move on because the administrators are already beginning to think about the following year. The cycle is beginning again.

Be a Partner, Not a Seller

The K-12 buying cycle is about building long-term relationships rather than making one-off sales. By committing to a consultative partnership approach, you’ll orient your activities toward achieving mutual success with K-12 decision makers. That win-win philosophy goes a long way.

Consider that the average tenure of principals and district superintendents is three to five years. The successful relationships you develop today can drive future sales as decision makers move on to new positions.

Optimize Your Teacher-Targeted Sales

Do you sell or go freemium directly to teachers? While the majority of sales still move through the buying cycle, smaller classroom products can circumvent the longer cycle.

When engaging teachers directly, orient your marketing efforts to peak in August and September as school starts. Build a second push to peak again in January for the second semester. These are the times when teachers most frequently introduce new products in their classrooms.

Peer recommendations are particularly important when selling to teachers. As you approach the peak buying periods, analyze which schools are successfully using your product already and recruit the most satisfied teachers to evangelize your product.