Brad Schleicher

EdTech through the eyes of a product marketer

Brad Schleicher is a Baltimore native who, as he puts it “stumbled into Ed Tech” coming from journalism and PR, and now leads a global product marketing team at Salesforce. Join us as we delve into how he carved a unique path in the world of EdTech and gain valuable insights into the evolution of his role, the challenges he faced along the way, and the lessons he learned.

After seven years, after countless projects and achievements, and even a pandemic, we’ve finally had the pleasure of sitting down with Brad for a brief but fruitful and warm conversation about EdTech; about how it has changed, how the industry operates today, and where it seems to be going in the future.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and about how you got into EdTech.

Brad Schleicher:

I was born and raised in Maryland, and have spent most of my life in Baltimore. I’m a huge sports fan. I now live between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and have been living here for the past few years since the pandemic. I live with my wife and my daughter, who’s almost two years old now.

Professionally, I like to joke about how I stumbled into Ed Tech. I originally started my career in journalism. Upon graduation from UMBC, a university in the Baltimore region, I went into journalism for the Baltimore Sun, the local metro paper. Over the course of a few years, I transitioned into PR, which was my root into the tech world through a Moodle service agency based in Baltimore.

My PR role grew and shifted, being in a startup environment, into broader marketing and then product marketing. Then, Moodlerooms was acquired by Blackboard and, over the course of a decade, I made my way into Salesforce, which was a bit of a departure from the Moodle and LMS world. While LMS is focused on teaching and learning, Salesforce is really focused on the experience that happens outside of the classroom at a higher education institution. And that’s led me to where I am today: product marketing. I lead a global product marketing team.

What's different today in EdTech since you started? What's changed? Do you see this is an industry that maybe is in a plateau or maybe has reached some sort of maturity?

Brad Schleicher:

I guess earlier in my career, EdTech was really, really focused on the classroom. It continues to be; It's a very important part of education, but I think what’s changed my focus in a lot of ways is looking more at the administrative level. What I've come to see and learn is there's a lot more focus on data and operations, especially in higher education.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThere's a lot more focus on how data—and how interactions, in particular—can help to inform and drive a remarkably different higher education experience depending on how that data is used and applied to what is collectively known as the ‘student experience’.

Student experiences are really a collection of touch points that could be in person or digital. And when we think about a general experience or the brand that an institution delivers, it really is a collection of experiences and different touch points. Those could happen in the classroom, absolutely, but it's really about student information; about who they are, what they prefer, what drives them, and for an institution to better understand that and be able to inform what a personalized experience should look like in the future. It's just a huge step forward, I think, for most institutions, and a lot of them just weren't looking at things the same way 15-20 years ago as they are now.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThere's been a collective shift from just having systems of record to having systems of engagement. The EdTech space is much more involved, much more connected, and much more deliberate than it has been in the past.

Laureano Díaz:

Right, institutions are definitely much more aware of those touch points and experiences and of everything that needs to be in place to have positive outcomes from those experiences. One of the things that has definitely changed since those days is just the plethora of offerings that you have now in technology and services in order to accomplish all of those outcomes. It's become an industry that's much more specialized as well.

Brad Schleicher:

Totally, yeah. And outcomes are still the most important thing. I think the general consideration of what goes into creating better outcomes has expanded in a bigger way, for sure.

What's product marketing and why is it important?

Brad Schleicher:

You'll probably get a different answer depending on who you talk to. I think it's having the best possible understanding of how a product can fit a need or address a challenge for a customer, a buyer, or for whoever your constituents are. Very simply, it’s understanding that product and customer fit and the best way to message that value to the potential customer. It’s not just about matching a product but basically to inform the build of that product and take it to market in such a way that those things are completely aligned.

Laureano Díaz:

Yeah, absolutely. often we see special startup companies that might have a very good product in terms of engineering, or from a technical perspective, but they completely forget about the real problems of customers; if those problems are relevant.

What's your biggest challenge today in your current role? What do you have in your mind everyday?

I think the current challenge—but also the best, I think—is people. It's how do you create great opportunities for really talented people and how do you build the best opportunities for them to do their best work. The education space has its set of challenges from the vendor side and from the marketing side. It is so much more nuanced because you're not only selling to higher education in general, but to different institutions that operate and are organized so remarkably different from each other. So there's no 100% consistent way to approach each institution.

But because product marketing can mean so many different things, caring about your team and making sure your team has what they need to be successful is important. Also, to create the right lanes where they can focus their talents in the best way possible.

✨ Pearl of wisdomIt's not a job that's ever done, it's something that's always moving and changing as the needs of the education space change. We, as product marketers, are always reassessing, reconsidering and trying new things.

What’s fundamentally different when you're trying to sell or market a product specifically to higher education? What's different from the typical B2B process?

Brad Schleicher:

I would say It's just the complexity of an institution. You will have multiple buyers within the same institution and, when you really break it down, they could all be trying to do very similar things, but you have to think and go about them in very different ways. In the CRM world, for example, we have a platform which can speak to constituent data, engagement data and analytics. All of these things can be configured and applied across the institution in a specific way, but it's not always consistent.

✨ Pearl of wisdomYou could walk on a campus, have three meetings with three different department heads, and have three very, very different conversations. So it's almost like treating them like they're separate customers but you’re still selling the same product.

That’s why I say it’s so nuanced. Very rarely do you go-to-market targeting an entire institution all at once.

Laureano Díaz:

Absolutely. From a marketer’s perspective, the requirement is to have a deep knowledge of each function and department because there's different goals and constituents and stakeholders. That's something that's fundamentally different for higher education.

When talking about people and talent, what do you consider to be basic skills or fundamental skills?

Brad Schleicher:

There's so many marketing disciplines, but I think, at least from where I’m seated.

✨ Pearl of wisdomAside from being a great writer and storyteller, you have to have a firm understanding of how modern marketing works; of the full picture. That's not just thinking about channels, but about how those things have to come together and work for the bigger whole.

And, at the end of the day, we're a for-profit company, where what we do is meant to impact our sales team, to help them do their jobs better.

We want to help make our sales team as successful as possible and make that process as seamless as possible. So a firm understanding is needed of how not just marketing but all teams across the board should operate, especially those that are B2B in nature. Across an organization, the impact can be, not just on sales, but also on the product and on the industry management side. Having a firm understanding of the space you're working in and all those elements coming together is really beneficial.

Let's change gears a little bit. I want to ask you about what you consider to be your greatest achievement in your career.

Brad Schleicher:

I think, overall, I'm really fortunate to feel like each thing has topped the previous one. Since I've come to Salesforce, my career has gone a way that I never thought possible. So I'm still experiencing that next phase. And when you take a step back after a certain period of time, especially at Salesforce, and you realize how many people you've made a connection with, especially in the economic climate we're in right now where some folks have found themselves in need of guidance or references or things like that, just being able to help folks out with that probably has been the biggest thing.

I also look back at the day I was married, I met many of my groomsmen and good friends through the company I used to work for, Moodlerooms. So it all comes back to people for me.

What are the most important things you’ve learned?

Brad Schleicher:

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe biggest lesson I’ve taken is that nothing, no matter what happens, is ever as good or as bad as it seems. That's something that I just try to keep as top of mind as possible.

I mean, you're going to have good days and you're gonna have really bad days, so I just try to keep my reactions as even as possible. That's how I try to approach everything.

One of the biggest learning experiences was a time where I left a company and I had very high expectations about the new company. It just was not what I expected and I learned the hard lesson of just taking opportunities with an open mind. But that open mind has to come with the fact that it could be very different from what you expected it to be. It was a lot more short-lived than I wanted but sometimes it's just how it happens.

I also would’ve told my younger self to ask a lot more questions and to take more time to make big decisions. I think at that point in my career I was anxious to go to something new. And I'm sure you've heard the expression before: “make sure you're going towards something, not away from something.” Unfortunately, in that instance, I was going away from something.

What are the most interesting or valuable EdTech events in North America?

Brad Schleicher:

It's really going to depend on the technology and what's valuable but I think, in terms of the bigger shows.

✨ Pearl of wisdomEDUCAUSE is still the preeminent higher education show. It's the presentations, the speakers. It's always highly regarded, it's always very relevant.

Though it's changed a lot, I would also say SXSW EDU. In terms of fresh thinking and engaging speakers, I think they take a different approach. I haven't been there every single year but it comes to mind.

And I'm biased, but I think the Education Summit that Salesforce puts on is super valuable if you're in that realm. There's no shortage of events. I feel like, if you really want to get perspectives from the education space and folks that are in education, you don't have to look far to find a gathering because this is one of those verticals where people love being in person.

The Salesforce Education Summit is a really big one, that's my understanding. I think there's a lot of partners participating in that, right?

Brad Schleicher:

That's right, there’s a lot of partners in the space. Again, I'm very biased, but the team that puts it together works incredibly hard and one of the best things about Salesforce is its community. It's not just folks that work at Salesforce but also folks that use the products and make Salesforce what it is. Whether that's at institutions, or across all sorts of industries and businesses that use Salesforce, it's the community that makes that happen. That's probably the coolest thing about those events for sure.

Do you have any advice on how to localize content for different regions?

Brad Schleicher:

Yeah, having done localizations for a couple of companies, including Salesforce, I would say working in different regions, you have to evaluate every piece of content through a very strict lens. Sometimes, it means approaching content, messaging, or go-to market strategy in an entirely different way. Supporting Moodle in North America and Europe, as well as South America, the buying processes were very different. I think I've seen that even more so since I moved into Salesforce. Different countries, education systems, and institutions are going to value things differently. A good example is how different countries across Europe have different education policies and do recruiting for higher education. They operate very, very differently; they market and communicate digitally very differently. It’s about asking what’s the most relevant buyer for that region, wherever you're going.

I can say we know business schools have adopted Salesforce in a much bigger way across Europe and, as a result, we go-to-market very differently in Europe than we do in the US.

Beyond interviews, is there a tool that you think is useful to get to know your market, your buyers, and their problems?

Brad Schleicher:

Interviews are the best way, I would say. But, beyond interviews and surveys, events are a great opportunity. I think, as much as we joke in the US that higher education loves to get in person, the sector also loves a party. And honest opinions are not tough to come by; if you want to get the direct opinion from somebody, regardless of what that is, that's some of the best ways of doing it from a product marketing side. Whether you have a booth or you're going into sessions and just striking up conversations, word of mouth is probably one of the best ways.

Do you have an ideal architecture for a product marketing team?

Brad Schleicher:

There's a couple of different ways you can organize that. We can organize around what we call solutions, functional areas, or departments. In an area like higher education we can talk about the student lifecycle, recruiting or student success areas and you own every element of content from the top to the bottom of the funnel. You own traditional product marketing as well as how to go-to-market.

You can rally around folks that represent those business lines. Do I want someone that's close to the product? Do I want someone to be closer to the sales team? And then there's a lot of other disciplines in between, but I would say focusing around your lines of business, your lines of revenue, or whether or not you want to be closer to product or sales is a good way of starting to understand how to organize a product marketing team.

✨ Pearl of wisdomFocusing around your lines of business, your lines of revenue, or whether or not you want to be closer to product or sales is a good way of starting to understand how to organize a product marketing team.

Do you have any reference materials, courses, books, etc., where you can learn some of the basics of product marketing?

Brad Schleicher:

Just in terms of understanding organizations, pragmatic marketing is always a good approach and it's a good way of rationalizing your focus within a given team. It also helps to focus within an organization by helping understand how product marketing compares to industry marketing, building solutions or to product management; where do those things overlap and where are they different.

There's also really great LinkedIn groups, such as the Product Marketing Alliance. I think a lot of product marketing groups have been really effective in introducing the nature of product marketing and of what goes into it. That's the best part about it: It could be a very different role depending on where you go. But there isn't one handbook that serves everything, it's just just not the case.

Laureano Díaz:

Right, and when, and when you first review any of the materials of the pragmatic marketing framework, it's kind of overwhelming to see how everything should fit together and try to simplify things in the case, for example, of a smaller company. But it gives you a very thorough perspective on things.

In your case, do you think studying journalism gave you some elements to work on marketing, such as being able to understand the communication elements of marketing, for instance?

Brad Schleicher:

I hope so because I'm doing it. So, I hope it's working. (Laughs). Absolutely, that's a really great call out. If there's one thing about journalists is that they're curious and they have to build good relationships. You have to be curious, not just about the person next to you, but about everything that goes into marketing. This is about learning and understanding, even trial and error to some degree, and constantly challenging the way of thinking about something.

Especially from the relationship angle, sometimes marketers can be very fickle in terms of what's interesting to them at any given moment, and about what they want their next project to be.

✨ Pearl of wisdomAsking the right questions matters, not just because of the market aspects, but because I think you're not an effective marketer if you can't have a good relationship with your sales team.

Now, that relationship can be really tough sometimes, but being able to ask them the right questions is especially important because you can very easily ask the wrong things or focus on the wrong things and that can impact your relationships with them.

🔥 Rapid fire questions
Agency or internal?
It depends, but I'll go with agency.
Inbound or outbound?
Inbound, always.
Marketing or sales?
Marketing, always.
Hubspot, Pardot or Eloqua?
Pardot is Salesforce, so you know my answer.
Webflow, Wordpress or others?
Specialist or generalist?
Ed or Tech?
Thinking or doing?
In-person or remote?
In-person, always.

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