By Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing
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This week’s show is called “Selling into the Public Sector: Strategies & Tactics that Work“. My guest is Adriel Sanchez, CMO at Newsela.
Join us as we discuss what Newsela does as a company, the difference and similarities between commercial and private-sector marketing, the difference between selling into K-12 and other parts of government sales, and how marketing and sales pivoted during COVID.
Listen in now, read the transcript below, and/or watch the video here.
Matt: Welcome everyone to another episode of Sales Pipeline Radio. My name is Matt Heinz. Very excited to have you here today joining us. If you are watching live on LinkedIn, Facebook, or YouTube, thank you very much for joining us today in the middle of your workday. If you’re checking us out on-demand, thanks very much for doing so. If you’re listening to the podcast, thanks so much for joining us. This is episode something right around 300 or so. And if you like what you see here, you can check out past episodes, either on LinkedIn or all of our past episodes, back to the very beginning, up on salespipelineradio.com. We’re featuring some of the best and brightest minds in B2B Sales and Marketing. Learn what they’re doing, where they’re pivoting, and what’s coming up next. Before we get to our guest today, I want to thank our sponsor, Vidyard. Really excited to have Vidyard on board to help support the program. Many of you probably know Vidyard already. An easy-to-use video solution, making it simple to create videos, host them ad-free, share them with others, and track performance. We use Vidyard on a regular basis. My assistant is a Vidyard addict. She stopped sending written emails. She basically just sends Vidyard’s videos around now, and it’s very effective. It helps communicate complex things in an easy format. I definitely encourage you to check them out, go to vidyard.com/pipeline, and you can get a free high-conversion virtual sales playbook. Thank you to Tyler and all of our friends over at Vidyard for helping support the show. So, very excited to have with us today, the Chief Marketing Officer of Newsela, Adriel Sanchez. Adriel, thank you so much for joining us.
Adriel: Thanks for having me, Matt. We’re a Vidyard customer too, unscripted, and we’re very happy with them as well.
Matt: Unscripted, double endorsement. Thank you for that. We love the team. It’s different for us to have sponsors. It’s this weird, you start a podcast and you start speaking into a microphone and all of a sudden you have people that want to be part of that. We’re pretty picky about who we want to associate with our brand. Good company, good product, and people doing it the right way, as well. That wasn’t in the script, but I’ll give another extra endorsement there. Lots of ground we could cover today, but I’m super interested in going into the public sector of sales and marketing. So before we do that, for those that don’t know Newsela, if you can, do a quick overview of what the company is and what it provides.
Adriel: Yeah, for sure. So Newsela, we describe ourselves as an instructional content platform for K-12 schools. And what that means, in plain English, is we basically take content from around the web, from over 180 different vetted sources, and it includes news content, but also has evergreen content like historical speeches, and fiction, and poetry, and biographies and things like that, and we carefully curate it to pick the things that are most appropriate for K-12 students. And then, we instructionalize it for use in K-12 classrooms. One of the things that we do, for instance, is rewrite every single piece of text at five different reading levels so that all kids in a class, for instance, who are always at different reading levels, can access the same piece of content at whatever level is right for them.
We also surround all the content with quizzes and instructional supports, and attach it to all of the different learning standards. One piece of knowledge that you may not know if you’re not in K-12, I didn’t know, but there are over 130,000 individual learning standards in the United States alone. If you take the number of states, and then you take the number of subjects and the number of grades, it’s a massive amount of standards that teachers are expected to teach. So what we do is reverse engineer all of this authentic content against those standards, so it makes it really easy for the teachers to find the content that can help them teach whatever they are trying to teach that day.
Matt: Yeah, it’s incredible. The work that the teachers do, whether you’re private school, public school, they’re superheroes. My wife is an elementary school teacher. She’s a reading specialist and just within reading; the standards, and different theories, and different approaches, and in some cases, you bringing all of those in depending on the nature of the kid you’re working with and the strategy that’s going to help them. It’s incredibly complex to work through that, so thank you for that explanation. I want to get into what you’ve done in Newsela, but I mean, let’s talk about public versus private sector marketing and go-to-market in general. You’ve worked in a lot of different industries. You were at SAP. You were at Commvault. You’ve been in Newsela for almost three years now. How big of a shift was it to go from commercial to public sector? What were some of the biggest pivots you saw in differences in your go-to-market strategy?
Adriel: It’s remarkable how much of it applies and is transferrable. So all the things about putting buyer needs first, and really understanding the personas that you’re marketing to, and making sure that you are starting with value and benefit oriented messaging, and all of the tactics that have been used in the public sector, a lot of them transfer over. I think, there’s a couple of things that surprised me about, specifically, K-12 marketing. The first thing is that the United States is not one market. I learned very, very quickly that selling in Texas is very different from selling in Florida, from selling in California, from selling in New York, so you have a bunch of mini-markets going on in the United States, that’s one thing. So sub-vertical segmentation is very, very important. Another thing that I learned is that it’s really hard to find buyers for K-12 out there in the market. What’s interesting is that every teacher, and every school, and district administrator in the country, it’s all public information, Matt.
You can buy all of this information from someone. But when you’re looking at technologies like account-based marketing technologies and intent data providers, it becomes very, very difficult for those companies to find K-12 district and school buyers. They have a little bit of the higher Ed side, but it’s been very, very hard for me to use those tactics to try to find people out there on the web. So you’ve got to build your own ways to gather signals, and we continue to figure out. LinkedIn’s been working pretty well for us, but that’s relatively new. They started to beef up their capabilities there.
And the last thing is, this is just something that I didn’t have to deal with as much in the private sector, but buying cycles are really compact. Every school district in the country is buying in Q2 and Q3, right? That’s 80% of your business, so if you miss that window, you’re not going to make it up in Q4 and Q1 because the budgets are spent. It makes you be really, really thoughtful about timing your activities throughout the course of the year.
Matt: Talking today on Sales Pipeline Radio with Adriel Sanchez. He’s the chief marketing officer at Newsela. And just talking about some of the differences and quite frankly, similarities selling commercial versus into the private sector. You mentioned K-12 being very different than other public sector, right? I’ve seen, we’ve got clients selling into state and local. If you’re selling into federal, we’re not talking month and quarter sales cycles, we’re talking Olympics, like, “Maybe I’ll close that by Tokyo. I don’t know.” So talk a little bit about those differences that are different when you’re selling into K-12 versus other parts of government sales.
Adriel: Yeah, I think one of the things that is a norm in our space, and I think you have similarities, you talked about similarities. The larger school districts, if they’re going to buy for a much bigger set of students, obviously those sales cycles are going to be longer, and some of the smaller school districts in the country, they’re going to be very quick. But I think what is commonplace, and you’ve got to work into your marketing and go-to-market approach, is pilots. So it’s very, very uncommon for a school district, for example, to just buy a product and then just roll it out to teachers, especially in any meaningful scale. They will typically buy a product. They will basically give it to a small portion of teachers for three to six months, and then they will decide whether they want to roll it out to the rest of the organization.
So during that period, it becomes very, very important to keep a focused effort on making sure that the champions in your organization, making sure that the teachers are using it, making sure they’re getting value, and making sure your champions are still your champions so that when that decision comes to roll it out, that you’re front and center and you get the green light.
Matt: One of the things that I thought was similar with K-12 is we had a… I can’t name the company we work with. It’s a large software company in Redmond. I can’t talk about who they are, but selling software and devices into school districts, and when we were thinking about sort of buying committee, in thinking about influencers in that there were curriculum technologists that sit at the district level, it was interesting to me, some school districts that make technology decisions at the district level versus the school level. That was fascinating. But then also to think about influencers within the lunch room, right? Teachers that just happened to be tech-savvy that had influence over people with purchase authority that might not be as tech-savvy, but then also parents and PTA and a parent on the PTA who is tech-savvy, who can help influence that. So, I mean, just like in a commercial endeavor, you’ve got the decision-maker, but then you’ve got all these other people that play different roles. Have you seen that complex matrix in your sales and marketing process as well?
Adriel: Yeah, for sure. And universally, when you asked district leaders, “Where do they go to for advice when they’re thinking about considering a purchase?” Right? The very first thing they do is they ask other district leaders in their specific district. The next place they go is the district next door. And what’s interesting about our industry is that our customers are not competitors, right?
You’re not selling to oil and gas where you have two competing companies that don’t really want to share information. District leaders are very, very open and schools and teachers are very open and share information with one another because they want to see everybody succeed, right? So they look to neighboring districts and then the third-place they go is they look to teachers and teachers are an interesting influencer group because it is very rare for a district buyer to make a decision without teacher buy-in because the difference between buying a software for teachers to use and buying Salesforce for your sales and marketing teams to use is that you can tell your sales and marketing teams to use something. You can’t really force teachers to use something. If they don’t want to use it and they don’t see value in it, they’re not going to use it. And so, you’ve got to win the hearts and minds. So you got to have them on your side, not just in the purchase process, but also to make sure that you’ve got ongoing adoption and you keep those renewal rates up.
Matt: Well, you could buy something, but if your users don’t use it, it’s not going to be very sticky and it’s probably not going to get renewed. And we’ve seen, you got to really be careful about those levels of influence, even in the commercial space. We’ve seen that in financial services, in real estate, in franchise, where sometimes the umbrella organization only has influence and can suggest, right? And those franchisees do or don’t do it. But even if they buy it, if people don’t want to use it, there’s not an ROI case there. So yeah, those similarities I think, are there.
We’ve got just a few more minutes here with our guest, Adriel Sanchez, the CMO at Newsela. And Adriel, you joined Newsela in February 2019, which means you got about a year of normal marketing before COVID hit. And, schools were highly impacted. I mean, my kids are on day two of going back to school and it’s been a year and a half and it’s still weird. There’s still masks and distancing and everything. So talk about the first year and then talk, if you wouldn’t mind, just what were some of the key things you had to pivot towards, into your second and third year?
Adriel: Yeah, and the first year was not smooth sailing either. I came in and there wasn’t, there hadn’t been a chief marketer. I was the first chief marketing officer. There had been a head of marketing, but really the idea was to really scale up the organization. So even in that first year, we implemented the company’s first payroll. We created new corporate stories. There was a lot of work that had to be done. In fact, at the tail end of that first year, we had decided to re-architect our product portfolio. We had one product and then we decided to split it up into four products, just to handle more specific use cases. We launched that product portfolio in January of 2020 after working on it for about six months and six weeks later, the world got turned upside down.
So we actually, we wound up giving away all of the new products we had just worked on for free to the entire… anybody who wanted it, right? Until the end of the 2019/2020 school year. And then we had to quickly transition into sales. So we actually managed through that effectively. We convinced a lot of districts through schools and teachers of the value of the product, and they wanted to keep it heading into the school year that we’re in now. And we’re continuing to see that momentum through here, but I can tell you that. I mean, you’re absolutely right. The K-12, I mean, education in general, including higher Ed, you would say healthcare, like there’s the airlines. There’s a number of, I mean, every industry was really impacted by the pandemic, but this one I feel, and as unbiased as I can say it, it’s real students being impacted and it’s real teachers being impacted and that tugs on a very special place in your heart.
Matt: Yeah. No, absolutely. And I think, having had three kids go through that and go from being in the classroom to being entirely home. And even though, as I mentioned, my wife’s a teacher, it didn’t make it any easier to sort of help our kids go through that. Did the people that you were targeting shift during the pandemic and has it sustained that way? Meaning like, you’re obviously have been selling into school districts in the K-12, but all of a sudden, the last year and a half, parents are more actively involved in education. They’re more interested in Dream Box learning, based out here in Seattle. They started sort of giving it away and giving it to teaching parents, even though it was built for teachers. And so all of a sudden they’ve got this more complex go-to-market strategy. Have you thought differently about, even if you’re not selling, like who your audience is beyond just the school?
Adriel: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. So two things I would say is one thing that I’ve learned is when, you have different buying committees inside of school district, especially the larger ones, they have one group of people who buy social studies instructional materials, and another group of people who consider science instructional, and other ones for English and language arts. When something like the pandemic happens, those walls come down and there’s a national conversation that takes over. And really, the national conversation was around distance learning and around how to get kids laptops. It’s like the hierarchy of needs gets completely reshuffled. So you need to be able to quickly pivot your messaging to meet that moment. And that’s something that I think we did very effectively. So then that’s one learning, right? And now we’re slowly returning back to more normal buying committees and more normal like, that more targeting by role within an organization.
And then, the other thing I learned to your point about parents is that a lot of kids went home and were learning from home and what happens. You had a lot of parents looking over their shoulders, right? And they’re watching what their kids are learning on. Some of them are really excited about it. Some of them are disappointed about it. Some of them want to… There was just a lot more exposure to, for instance, in our business, the materials that kids were using. So, a lot more feedback from the parents coming into school districts, and you’ve got to manage through that. We don’t have any, we don’t sell directly to parents. We don’t even sell directly to teachers. We only sell to school principals and district leaders. We haven’t changed that go-to-market motion, but we are certainly more cognizant about the broader community of stakeholders that district leaders are trying to manage.
Matt: All right. Well, we are out of time for today but want to thank our guest, Adriel Sanchez, CMO at Newsela. Thanks for taking the time today. Super interesting. I mean, I think, every company is different. Every industry is different, but understanding the nuances of what makes your industry-unique, but also what best practices and foundations you can bring from just good sales and marketing, obviously, super interesting. So thanks so much for being here,
Adriel: Appreciate it, Matt. Thanks so much.
Matt: Thanks, everyone for watching. Appreciate you all being here, listening or watching live or on-demand. Again, if you like this episode, if you know someone’s selling into K-12, want to share some of these insights with them, you can get this on-demand as soon as we click stop here on LinkedIn. We’ll also have this in a couple of days up in the feed on salespipelineradio.com. Until then, thanks so much for joining. My name is Matt, and we’ll see you next week on Sales Pipeline Radio.
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