How ed tech marketers are bad for higher education

A lot of ed tech marketers are really bad. They are probably not bad at their ‘jobs’ — they may or may not be bad at generating leads, creating well-designed sales material, creating brand visibility. But they are bad for higher education and student success.

Bad ed tech marketers are noisy. They use the same message as the ‘competition.’ They hollow out language through the use and abuse of buzz words. They praise product features as if they were innovative when everyone else is selling products that are basically the same. They take credit for the success of ‘mutant’ customers who — because they have the right people and processes in place — would have been successful regardless of their technology investments. Bad marketers make purchasing decisions complex, and they obscure the fact that no product is a magic bullet. They pretend that their tool will catalyze and align the people and processes necessary to make an impact. Bad marketers encourage institutions to think about product first, and to defer important conversations about institutional goals, priorities, values, governance, and process. Bad marketers are bad for institutions of higher education. Bad marketers are bad for students.

Good marketing in educational technology is about telling stories worth spreading. A familiar mantra. But what is a story worth spreading? It is a story that is honest, and told with the desire to make higher education better. It is NOT about selling product. I strongly ascribe to the stoic view that if you do the right thing, rewards will naturally follow. If you focus on short-term rewards, you will not be successful, especially not in the long run.

Here are three characteristics of educational technology stories worth telling:

  1. Giving credit where credit is due – it is wrong for an educational technology company (or funder, or association, or government) to take credit for the success of an institution. Case studies should always be created with a view to accurately documenting the steps taken by an institution to see results. This story might feature a particular product as a necessary condition of success, but it should also highlight those high impact practices that could be replicated, adapted, and scaled in other contexts regardless of the technology used. It is the task of the marketer to make higher education better by acting as a servant in promoting the people and institutions that are making a real impact.
  2. Refusing to lie with numbers – there was a time in the not-so-distant past when educational technology companies suffered from the irony of selling analytics products without any evidence of their impact. Today, those same companies suffer from another terrible irony: using bad data science to sell data products. Good data science doesn’t always result in the sexiest stories, even it it’s results are significant. It is a lazy marketer who twists the numbers to make headlines. It is the task of a good marketer to understand and communicate the significance of small victories, to popularize the insights that make data scientists excited, but that might sound trivial and obscure to the general public without the right perspective..
  3. Expressing the possible – A good marketer should know their products, and they should know their users. They should be empathetic in appreciating the challenges facing students, instructors, and administrators and work tirelessly as a partner in change. A good marketer does not stand at the periphery.  They get involved because they ARE involved.  A good marketer moves beyond product features and competitive positioning, and toward the articulation of concrete and specific ways of using a technology to meet the needs of students, teachers, and administrators a constantly changing world.

Suffice it to say, good marketing is hard to do. It requires domain expertise and empathy. It is not formulaic. Good educational technology marketing involves telling authentic stories that make education better. It is about telling stories that NEED to be told.

If a marketer can’t say something IMPORTANT, they shouldn’t say anything at all.

Is it ethical for marketers to ‘nudge’?

They almost got me.

As I reached for the gasoline nozzle, I realized at the very last minute that what I thought was regular gasoline was actually ‘plus,’ a grade that I did not want and that I would have paid a premium for. The reason for my near mistake? The way my options were ordered. I expected the grades to be ordered by octane as they almost always are. But in this case, regular 87 was sandwiched between two more premium grades.

The strategy that was employed at the pump at this Shell station in Virginia is an example of ‘nudging.’ It is an example of leveraging preexisting expectations and habits to increase the chances of a particular behavior. There is nothing dishonest about the practice. Information is complete and transparent, and personal freedom to choose is not affected. It is simply that the environment is structured in such a way as to promote one decision instead of others. 

Ethically, I like the position of Thaler and Sunstein when they talk about ‘libertarian paternalism.’ In their view, nudging can be a way to reconcile a strong belief in personal freedom with an equally strong belief that certain decisions are better than others. But not all nudges are created equal. Just as it is possible to promote decisions that are better for individuals, so too is it possible to increase the likelihood of choices that serve other interests, and that even serve to subvert the fullest expression of personal liberty, as in the gasoline example above.

One way to think of marketing is as the use of the principles of behavioral economics to change consumer behavior. Marketers are in the business of nudging. Because nudging has a direct impact in human behavior, it is also a fundamentally ethical enterprise. Marketing carries with it a huge burden of responsibility.

What ethical positions do you take in your marketing efforts? What would marketing look like if we were all libertarian paternalists?

Why You Should NOT Vlog like Casey Neistat

I discovered Casey Neistat in November 2015, following an interview with Tim Ferris, and immediately suggested to Elisa Wallace that she start a vlog.

Elisa Wallace is an elite equestrian athlete, competing internationally at the 4 star level (there is no 5 star level). She is an American mustang trainer, and vocal advocate of mustang adoption through the Heritage Mustang Foundation. She is also my wife.

For years, Elisa and I have worked to create high quality video for YouTube. We have produced a large amount of competition footage, but have also worked to document the journey of each of her mustangs. Our first series was a little rough, but it captured the imagination of a lot of people (for us, anyway), who followed Elisa’s story with ‘Fledge’ through to an incredible freestyle performance what won them first place in the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the distinction of fan favorite.

We were no strangers to story-telling when Tim Ferris ‘introduced me’ to Casey Neistat (neither Tim nor Casey know me from a hole in the ground). Casey’s vlog was instantly inspiring. I showed some videos to my wife, and she was inspired as well. On November 8, we uploaded our first vlog, which was viewed 3,000 times in a single day. Not bad. There was absolutely no way for us to commit to daily film making like Casey, but we figured that a weekly schedule was doable, and so committed ourselves to uploading every Monday. We were very inspired by Casey’s approach to film making, and incorporated many similar elements in our episodes. But there was no way for us to vlog like Casey.

First, we simply don’t have the equipment. Equipment is expensive, and so my philosophy has always been to use the least expensive solution, and only to upgrade when my skill and/or need made upgrading necessary. I used iMovie for years before switching to Final Cut. The bulk of our footage is still shot using the front-facing camera on Elisa’s scratched-up iPhone 5. Second, Elisa would rather not talk about herself. She is becoming more comfortable in front of the camera, but she would far rather tell the stories of her horses than dwell on her personal life. As she has earned more fans and followers, she has let them more and more into what happens ‘behind the scenes,’ but the focus of her screen time is still predominantly oriented toward education and the lives of her horses. Third, we don’t live in New York. A boosted board would be impractical at the barn, and the urban scenery and people-rich tapestry that provide the backdrop for Casey’s videos are at least 70 miles away in Atlanta. We have animals, bugs, lakes, and trees.

It’s okay to vlog like Casey Neistat, as long as you don’t vlog LIKE Casey Neistat.

One shouldn’t imitate an other’s aesthetic as if it was a formula for success. Success is earned, not copied. What our differences from Casey forced us to do is to be inspired by, and emulate, the spirit of his film-making instead of his style. What Casey emphasizes over and over again is that it’s not about the technology. It’s all about story. Through our inability to imitate Casey Neistat, we have imitated him indeed.

Since starting Elisa’s vlog, we have learned a lot about her voice and her audience. We have experimented a lot. What began with imitation, has morphed into something very special. What initially took many hours to produce each week now takes far less time and results in something of much higher quality. Knowing who you are and why you do what you do makes the creative process far easier. A mixture of stories, training techniques, and personal vignettes, Elisa’s vlogs are very much her own, and in a way that also provides significant value to her fans. It has been wonderful to see her audience grow as a result of the regularity of our uploads, because it means bringing that much more attention to the potential of American mustangs, and generating support for Elisa and her dream of representing the USA in international competition.


If you are interested in our vlog series, and in following Elisa’s journey, you can watch every episode, beginning with the most recent one, here: