Building an Online Community to Increase Revenue

By Liz Acton-Trimaloff March 03, 2016

As educational requirements change, concerns about workplace readiness and global competitiveness have led to a greater focus on student success through personalized learning. Increasingly, teachers are held responsible for learning outcomes and curriculum decisions. They must ensure every student makes adequate yearly progress and tailor learning paths for individual students based on interests and abilities. In a classroom of 25 students, there could be 25 different curriculums; this is personalized learning.

The school environment is heavily regulated and the workday is structured, making it difficult to build loyalty and effectively communicate with teachers. During formal research and customer conversations, the idea of a community bubbled up and the notion began to take shape of using knowledge and information as rewards. We knew we wanted this community to position us as the vanguard of this shift to personalized learning.

We created a three-part framework to guide our effort, comprised of people, learning and results:

For us, the online community was a way to connect with teachers, the most influential and actionable piece of the education market. For these educators, this virtual gathering place created opportunities to broaden their networks, share firsthand learning with peers and experts, and engage in professional development.

As this notion of community evolved, an equally powerful notion took shape about all the things we could say online.
A group of people from across the company, representing key functional disciplines, came together to manage resources, expectations and the roadmap. This was important not only to complete our work, but also to ensure that every arm of the business had a stake in the successful launch and life of the community.

The community requires not only two-way communication channels, but also ownership of the connection. Partnering with a seasoned platform provider enabled the development of a straightforward, collaborative environment that fit the larger business technical requirements and allowed for maximum utilization.

Red tape was reduced by repurposing a platform used internally, allowing for bridge skills. The entire staff already knew how to use the platform because our intranet had recently migrated to it. With a lean team, this has been a force multiplier, allowing for integration across the business.

With the technology established, the first question was: What do we talk about? Teachers were engaging online, but about what? Market research revealed that student engagement was their primary concern. Demands on their time was another prominent concern. This gave us a place to start. Further, there was a blank space for practical, student-focused discussion and ideas, which made it easy to establish a unique voice.

Chat groups were established on a variety of topics including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), first-year teaching and personalized learning. As communities become viable marketing channels, the community adapted by expanding to market-specific communities like Canada Connect, designed for Canadian teachers, and actual content campaigns like The Seven Minute Challenge, which encourages teachers to find seven additional minutes during each day for students to actually read.

Knowing that the community would only be effective if people joined and participated, the obvious approach was to build acquisition campaigns through direct-marketing channels. This revealed effective tactics and offered straightforward results tracking. We now have a streamlined monthly email campaign that invites people to become members, and we are included in many of the company’s outgoing marketing programs and web environments.

We have just begun integration into marketing activities, and already the community site is a leader in website traffic generation and registrations for live and online events as well as a key contributor of timely market intelligence. Engagement and participation have grown from less than half a percent of membership into the 3 to 5 percent range. We are now recognized and respected at the many live education conferences we attend around the country.

Today, member-created content accounts for 15 percent of the total content and has led to discussions that span years. For example, the topic “Do you wish you had a computer for each student in your classroom?” originated in 2011, yet the conversation actively continues. These discussions also offer insight into what is on teachers’ minds. To assist with developing a web series on Common Core, members were asked about their biggest concerns with Common Core. Not only did it change the topic direction of the series, but so far 18,000 people have viewed the discussion.

Our online community now serves more than 100,000 educators annually and our content brings in 30 percent of the visitors. An estimated 30,000 member-educators around the world rely on the community to find great ideas and connect with other passionate educators. Market-focused and topic communities have even paved the way for product-user communities that allow for a direct link to ecommerce and sales pipelines. By focusing on who is important to our business and what is valued, we have created a dynamic marketing channel that will continue to serve our business well into the future.

Teaching is an isolated profession with rigid scheduling and little time for peer-to-peer interaction. Initially, the question was,”Is there room for another social network in teachers’ lives?” After a little digging, it was found that only half of teachers had personal or professional social profiles. This presented a huge opportunity to get the business behind true marketing efforts to build our member base. We found the asynchronous nature of our online life to be a perfect fit for bringing teachers together. By providing an ongoing, reliable communication channel to our most influential market segment—teachers—we have earned not only their trust, but their loyalty as customers.

Liz Acton-Trimaloff

Liz Acton-Trimaloff

Liz Acton-Trimaloff is head of communities for strategic marketing at Pearson North America. An avid marketer, Liz started out in telecom matching people with communication solutions. She became obsessed with getting the right message to the right person to maximize profit and resources. In 2008, she began running Lifecycle Marketing for Pearson, exploring how to build loyalty in a regulated, enterprise business. This led to a six-year journey to build an online community for connecting with educators, keeping up with changes, and becoming part of the conversation. Contact Liz at elizabethacton@yahoo.com.

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