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How Showing that you Care Can Start Sales Conversations with Adriel Sanchez, #289

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The year 2020 has brought a lot of pain and confusion due to the pandemic, but also many opportunities for companies to show compassion and generosity. And that willingness to help others can sometimes reap rewards in the marketplace.

That’s exactly the story my guest in this episode of the Modern Marketing Engine, Adriel Sanchez, CMO at Newsela shares.

Newsela provides instructional content to K-12 schools in the United States, serving 35 million children.

What do they do exactly? They take content from reliable sources around the web and incorporate changes to make it ready for the classroom.

First, they rewrite every piece of content at 5 different reading levels, so in a single class, every student can access the content at their own reading level. Then, they surround content with instructional support for teachers, so it would be easy for them to embed the content into their lessons. And finally, Newsela attaches the content to individual grade standards by state (over 130K in the US), through machine learning, algorithms, and human intervention.

Newsela is both business-driven (they are a for-profit company) and mission-driven (making education better for as many teachers and students as possible).

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Doing What is Right for Your Customer

Newsela went from one to four products in January, 2020, with great plans of expansion. Then the pandemic hit in mid-March and education was one of the hardest-hit sectors. Most schools around the US closed.

Many teachers and students were unprepared for the shift to remote learning, with some school districts panicking over what to do, as they lacked the resources to implement remote education.

Although Newsela has four stakeholders (Education Administrators, Students and Teachers, Investors, and Newsela employees), they could not serve the immediate interests of all four at the same time during the COVID lockdowns.

Adriel says they decided to do the right thing for the schools above the business needs. So they provided their entire product portfolio for free to students and teachers. No conditions, no questions asked. All schools had to do was ask for it.

How did they implement the plan? They came up with three phases to their response to the crisis.

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1. Provide the product for free and get the word out.

This phase included a message from the CEO and social media outreach. Word got out quickly and in the first 7 days 15,000 schools signed up. At the end of the program, two-thirds of US schools (about 90,000) had signed up for some component of Newsela.

2. Make sure the product was adopted.

Adriel says that it wasn’t enough to give away the product. They needed to make sure people were using the platform and getting value.

During March and April of 2020, virtual classes were new to teachers. So Newsela deployed training 7 days a week and had 1 to 1 coaching for teachers and administrators. A lot of people were exposed to Newsela’s team and they really appreciated the support that was provided.

If Newsela provided that kind of support for non paying customers, how would it be if they became a customer? This focus on customer service paved the way for future sales conversations.

3. Start sales conversations.

By June 2020, Newsela was preparing to turn some of those free users into paid subscribers.

The fact that Newsela had given schools their product for free, no matter if the schools were open or closed, gave them trust and credibility with their customer base. People really felt supported.

“Timing was very important,” Adriel says. “Start too early and you could be perceived as exploitive. Start too late and you could miss out on budget allocations elsewhere, competitors and other priorities.”

Sellers had to be situationally aware when they started those sales conversations. So the marketing team at Newsela identified 10 criteria to start sales conversations, analyzing macro and micro leading indicators, state by state. Here are some examples of the indicators they used.

Macro leading indicators

  • Had states released a budget?
  • Were schools closed or still open for in-person sessions?
  • How much did states receive from the Federal education budget?

Micro leading indicators

  • Had school administrators asked about pricing after June 30th when the free period was over?
  • Was there a renewal scenario?

All the information was tracked in the system for sales. Sellers were able to track it state by state and account by account, looking for patterns on a weekly basis.

Adriel says the effort was a collaboration between marketing, sales, and product. “It was a Marketing-led initiative, who owned market intelligence (stimulus funding, budgets, etc.). But sales ops helped to rollout, track, and adjust as they learned things in the field.”

The CRM tracked two basic metrics:

  • Rate of account contact (were schools taking the calls from the sellers?)
  • All Systems Go metric (was the account ready for a sales conversation based on the macro and micro criteria?)

Sellers would look for patterns by state in the CRM to see if they were open and ready, so they could be more upfront with their sales conversations.

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Reaping the Rewards

Although 70% of education companies offered something free during the first few months of the pandemic, only 25% saw an increase in paid subscribers. Newsela was part of that 25% and growth surpassed their expectations, reaching their 2020 revenue goal in August 2020.

They started with the idea of what is the right thing to do for their customers and the hypothesis that the marketplace would reward them for that, was validated. They now have sales conversations with entire states and school districts that they never had in the past.

Listen to this episode to hear more about Newsela’s story and how showing that you care can result in increased sales conversations.

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