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Frans Van Eck

Marketing EdTech to the world Frans Van Eck

✨ Pearl of wisdomIn EdTech you get to see a lot of super-engaged people who really value their work in education. That is inspiring. My parents have a background in education and my grandparents do, too, so I kept it in the family in a way. Of course, they were in front of the class and I was trying to promote e-learning.

With more than 25 years of experience in marketing—the last 15 of which have been dedicated to EdTech—Frans Van Eck has seen most of what can be seen in this industry.

His passion for tech—and education—has led him to be Director of Global Marketing at Forrester Research and later at Blackboard, before starting his own marketing consultancy agency, Restless Marketing.

Recently, as a member of 27zero’s Board of Advisors, Frans has provided invaluable input that has aided and guided us in our mission to help EdTech organizations of all shapes and sizes stand out, scale, and transcend.

Now, we want to share some of that knowledge and experience with you, as we all traverse this road through the fascinating world of EdTech.

Background

Can you please start by sharing who you are, where you are from, a bit about yourself, your family…

I was born and raised in the south of the Netherlands and then moved to Amsterdam. My parents have a background in education as do my grandparents, so in a way I kept it in the family. Of course, they were in front of the class and I was just trying to promote e-learning, but education has always been a big aspect of my life.

I live together with my beloved wife, Catherine. We’ve been married seven years and have two dogs and two cats. She is English and refuses to speak Dutch because, as she says: "I did an analysis about how many people speak Dutch in this world. It's better if you learn to speak English than me trying to speak Dutch." So here we are. I speak English most of the time during the day, and in my business, too. This morning I had a doctor's appointment and the doctor said, “Hey, I never noticed it, but you actually have an English accent now.”

How did your journey lead you to work in EdTech marketing?

I've worked in all kinds of companies, from startups to multinationals. I’ve always focused on the customer and on international markets. Also, on the new interactive aspects of marketing, which I find very interesting. I started looking into the whole subject of customer experience and user experience, and that led me to work for agencies.

This eventually helped me get a job at Forrester Research, my first true international role, where I started focusing on the North American and European markets. I did all marketing there and redesigned the strategy from a purely industry-focused one to a more customer profile-focused one.

Forrester Research is a knowledge sharing organization. You can compare it with Gartner. But it's an organization that focuses on IT and basically on business and marketing. It shares the latest research on industry trends and best practices.

My team and I switched the organization from a vertical to a horizontal version of the persona and turned the customer into the marketing and strategy client group. After that, I started working with Blackboard, starting from Europe, then EMEA, then Australasia, and then worldwide as Senior Director of Marketing.

And Blackboard, of course, was the largest e-learning provider at the time. I was working in Europe trying to build out their small marketing team, and I built it out to focus mostly on international demand generation and client engagement. They were, at that point, the absolute market leader in Europe. So that was very interesting because you got to see a lot of super engaged people who really valued their work in education. That’s always inspiring.

What’s the difference between working in tech vs. EdTech?

There's a massive difference. In EdTech there’s the passion that people have on the client’s side but also on the vendor’s side. Most of the people that you find working in this sector really value education. It's not a financial services organization, it's not a provider for whatever IT solution you can think of.

✨ Pearl of wisdomBy and large, the people that work for this kind of organization in EdTech really value education and really want to help move it forward. I think that's what makes this industry and sector so interesting.

Of course, the clients that you work with are also very much engaged in that. They don't just want to have a solution; they really think about how it impacts their students, their professors, their teachers, all of them. And it's interesting because you see how that impacts how you actually talk with your customers. If you go to any other B2B organization there are top leaders who make decisions without involving other people, but in EdTech, most leaders genuinely worry about what others think and ask them before making a decision.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThis is a sector where everyone gets involved and you’ll find out very quickly when that hasn't happened, because most of the time those implementations will fail. If people are not bought into it, it will hardly succeed.

And that’s something that, from a marketing point of view, you really need to take into account because you're not just trying to reach out to the top layer, but you actually have to bring everyone else on board, too.

So in your marketing messaging, the way you go-to-market, the information you collect, has to speak to all of those different groups so that you can actually be successful in promoting the solution. And that works both ways, because the moment that people start talking negatively about you, you have to address that openly.

Reputation is important there, too, and as a business, as a market leader, Blackboard had to address certain aspects where we didn't get the best press, and then you actually have to be open and honest and bring people in to talk and engage. You can't just ignore it; you can't just close the gates and not talk. You must be open, and that’s what makes the EdTech market so different from the FinTech market, for example.

How you engage with your different audiences in the education community has an impact on the sales cycles. It's not as immediate and you have to work hard to get to a good position with customers.

✨ Pearl of wisdomIn my experience, a lot of people in education feel that they are not always being heard, especially by external companies. And they often feel there are all these "slick" companies trying to sell them stuff.

On one hand, of course, companies do try to sell something, but it's not that they're trying to be too aggressive about it; they do want to connect. And I think that building a connection in education is so important and it's best to look at how you can reach your audience better. I think that's the way to do it.

If you're not careful, companies start comparing themselves with other corporations outside of EdTech. They start looking at going to the same venues and doing similar things. But in EdTech, you are in a completely separate environment. Your clients, your prospects, are looking at your solutions differently than any other B2B environments. You have to take that into account to discuss venues and events because that may completely backfire from an EdTech point of view if you want to reach a wide audience.

What do you like the most about this industry?

I find it important to connect with people in my marketing, in my work, in my life. That's the whole thing: connecting with people. And that's why I chose marketing. That's why I chose the different roles that I have, and this focus has helped me achieve success at every company I’ve worked with.

After some time, I started working for myself and built a consulting company, because I noticed that I was working more on internal things rather than connecting with people. So that's what I've been doing in the last couple of years—returning to what I’ve always loved about my job.

Which would you say have been your greatest achievements?

It's hard to say what my greatest achievement is because everything that I do is part of teamwork. A couple of things which worked out very well, though, on the Forrester side, were being able to work with the team to make the customer experience and the personas take a more central role in the go-to business rather than the more industry-focused approach that was common at the time.

We started looking at the people that were buying and using the solutions, making that more of a key part of the company strategy. That was very interesting because it helped shape the company, and three years after that they basically restructured the organization based on that work.

Then at Blackboard what was very interesting was the ability to look at different ways of bringing our clients together, because up to that point the organization used their Bb World event as their main strategy to do that. These events were held in huge conference centers but we wanted to bring the clients together in an environment where they felt comfortable.

So we started to shape bigger events at universities and, at the same time, we organized different ways of bringing the leaders of universities together, too. And that worked really nicely because the leaders felt comfortable sharing their experience with other leaders in a small setting. And all of the other practitioners felt that they were in a more natural environment.

That allowed us also to invest money back into the sector because you can rent space at a university campus and actually get some of the money back. We started that just as I came in and that only kept growing, growing, and growing.

And lastly, what we started doing with the go-to-market was to be much more personalized in our approach. We started with our personas and with communicating based on the individual customers and prospect needs rather than just using a vanilla outreach. Nowadays, you would say that’s normal. But when we started that about ten years ago, it was quite new to have content centered on personas, and that also worked very nicely.

Please tell us about your current role

I try to help make connections on the strategic side. Trying to help organizations position themselves, to get their message right, to identify what their strong points are, and how they want to be seen in the market to then try to roll it out. One of the things that I often found was that you can have a very strong strategy and good focus, but it needs to be pragmatic and clear. It doesn't need to be too fluffy.

I'm more of a down-to-earth person, so all this fluff is great but if it's not pragmatic, if you can't realize it, then you have a problem. And I think that's sometimes what I see with strategy, that it stays up there; but if you can't connect it down to the lowest level, you have a problem. So what I focus on as well is how you implement all those items from your positioning, your content, your messaging, into your campaigns, your day-to-day actions.

I also help companies with setting everything up, but also reviewing it and adapting it, even to the individual program and campaign level. I call this “pragmatic connection.”

Do you see any difference between the current practices and those of 20 or 25 years ago?

I see different things, certainly. In the past, I saw a lot of marketers that were very focused on doing trade shows, on marketing with a lot of focus on events. Then, there was some content and there was some outreach. Later, we started to see a trend where a lot of marketers just focused on digital advertising, so the connection between the customer and their business became more stretched. Folks had been making most of the work digitally and through social media for a while, but we're actually connecting better again with customers, getting more into relevant content, personalization, building bridges between the customer and the internal sales teams, for example.

The sector is also trying to become a more holistic service to get that message out, but also to drive the message back in. The folks in charge of events have been leveraging online and live events again to build those connections because, especially in EdTech, the connections that work are the connections between users—practitioners—who are the decision-makers.

So, we saw a shift from a heavy emphasis on trade shows to creating more distance with the client with digital advertising. And now, I've seen it go back to a good mix between actual physical events, bringing people together and sending the right message, the right content, that connects with these different personas or audience groups.

✨ Pearl of wisdomI think in EdTech you need to be clear about who your audience is, who your personas are, and what makes them tick. And you don't need to have a very long and heavy research project. What I've found is that, if you don't talk with your customers, you can't understand the differences between the audience groups and how they use your solution so you can't make a difference.

How do you make your content resonate or stand out?

Well, first of all, I think with EdTech you need to be clear about who your audience is, who your personas are and what makes them tick. It's not that you need to have a very long and detailed research project. What I find is, if you don't talk with your customers, you don't understand the differences between the audience groups and how they use your solution or how you could make a difference.

And then you need to develop your content based on that. First, you need to think about the different stages that people will go through. If they don't know you, they may get to know you and then you start building that relationship up. Based on that, you build your programs and your campaigns.

What I see often is the need to do campaigns because they have an end goal in mind, right? So, for example, “we need to grow by 50% next year and then build a campaign around that.” But then sometimes folks forget to make sure they have the right messaging and the right content, or even the right audience to execute the program. They build the campaign first and then start thinking about content and the audience.

You have to do these things first because, otherwise, it's very hard to build a campaign and be critical about whether it’s going to work or not. Once the campaign is launched, it starts living its own life, and I've seen plenty of campaigns fail because of that.

I’ve seen companies scouring through their website to see if they had some messaging that they could use for badly planned campaigns. And so they have a case study, but it's not the right case study. They have a message for a particular audience, but it's not the right message. So you have to follow the steps. The shortcuts are not really going to help you there.

The other thing is to really start thinking around the whole process of driving interest through the sales cycle. So if you start driving attention for any solution or service, how are you going to follow through on it? Do you have the campaign ready? Is the follow up ready? Are you going to have people calling or emailing prospects back if they are interested?

I've just had a talk with another client who is trying to build a campaign, but they haven't really thought of what they're going to do with all those people that are going to raise their hands.

Those two things are paramount. You have to get your messaging and your personas right and then your campaign will follow. Then comes the time to start thinking about how to drive interest for the people that don’t know about you, and then you build your content for the people that are further down the line.

You can almost make continuous automatic campaigns. And those are important because, in EdTech, you're not just focusing on a handful of top leaders but you have a much broader base of people that you need to influence. So the number of people that you interact with will be larger and you need to think about that volume.

So you need to think about your messaging and your content first, and then build your funnel around that. But once you do, you also need to think about your internal processes to make sure that you follow up on that. It doesn't have to be that you call all of them, but when someone reacts to your program and is interested, you have to do something. Even if it's just a thank you mail. So those two things are key for any organization, particularly in EdTech, as building that engagement is important.

And the last thing I would say is that organizing good events with a personal touch is vital. The more you engage with people and the more you step away from the screens and just have these interactions with people, the better. I’ve found that this works more in EdTech than in any other sector because people love to talk about education. I think workshops and best practice-sharing activities work well, especially if you can do them in person. Otherwise, do them online and try to build some live interaction.

How do you balance all of the planning necessary to roll out campaigns globally with a small team?

First of all, I think you need to have a good team where everyone can contribute. I'm a strong believer in leveraging each other's talents. I don't know everything, far from it—and my wife can confirm this—but I'm a strong believer in leveraging the talent that each person has and trying to make the environment right so that they can contribute as much as possible.

You do need to organize and make sure you can handle all of the requests that will be coming in, so you need to think about how to streamline the process. The details you need to consider are what kinds of requests will be coming in? How can I leverage technology and project management to facilitate that? I'm also a strong believer in enablement, so I want to make sure that we have the templates and the structure so that people can do a lot themselves.

I don't help the organization by owning everything, I help the organization by making sure that the marketing contributes to the business. That means I need to be able to do things quickly; I need to make sure that things are clear for the whole team. If you have that process set up, then you can scale and decide if you should hire more people.

If you have a lot of campaigns structured in a way that you can quickly adapt them and say, “okay, so if I do a lot of webinars, I can build a structure around making sure that I can roll out webinars really quickly, so I can leverage technology around that.” So, every webinar is different but the structure around it is the same, and that can be applied to other campaigns and programs.

It's all about making sure that you have a team that has the freedom to leverage their talent and enabling others to take some of what you've developed and take it further in their own programs. To scale quickly you can't just do without technology. And that's the thing about scalability; you can't treat everything as a one-off, right?

✨ Pearl of wisdomFrom a marketing point of view, if you have to reinvent the wheel every single time someone comes with a request, then it's going to be very difficult to keep growing. That’s why scalability is so important.

I also find that you always need to be open for input and change. Things change, markets change. So you need to come up with programs or campaigns that you can leverage in one part of the world and also in another. You have to then look at localization and transcreation, right?

And it was great when you and your team at e-Learn Magazine approached me while at Blackboard, Laureano. It was such a breath of fresh air from the perspective of content, messaging, and approaching thought leaders. We were trying to do thought leadership internationally and, in our North American market, they were very busy with just the regular campaigns, webinars, and events. So we said, “No, you actually have to talk with people. The voice of the audience is so important.”

Most of the time, all that you see is the head of the university that gets all the news. Sometimes that's fine, and you need to have that, too; you need that PR spokesperson. However, if you look at the practice level, I think giving those people a voice, especially in the EdTech market, is incredibly valuable.

What are the major skills that an aspiring leader in marketing—or EdTech marketing—should have nowadays?

One of the key parts is to have a strong marketing operations role. Marketing operations nowadays are key because you've got so many technologies; all these to be integrated, and marketing operations professionals know how to connect the dots in the market.

In content marketing, you need to have someone that can bring those audiences together. Someone that can think about your personas and about the messaging. Make it happen so that content and product marketing are key, but the product marketer needs to be engaged with the customer, too.

Then you need to think around how you're going to generate demand and drive onboarding and sustain a continued engagement with your customers. You call them demand managers or field marketers, but you need to have someone that can think about those aspects, about the right funnels to make those programs work across the customer lifecycle or buying cycles.

I could say you need to have a strong events person as well but that's kind of a connection. There are very good professionals out there that can help you if you don't have the resources. You can have a good agency—like 27zero—to help with that.

It's good to have someone that can rethink and innovate around your marketing. Think about campaign development. We call this role the campaign coordinator. If you have a larger organization and you need to work with different departments, they can be kind of the project manager to talk with the individual groups, talk with the content creators and also get the right development going for your campaigns. I think that's key.

You might also think, “Hey, I need to have someone that does the whole digital advertising thing.” I would suggest you find someone out there that can do that for you because that market changes so much. You almost need to have a dedicated agency to do that at the level that is required because, if you are an aspiring EdTech company, you would have to spend a lot of money just to get those skills up and going. And it's better to outsource that than to insource it.

How should marketers leverage technology to do their work?

I think technology will always be there to help the marketer become better at their role of connecting the organization with the audiences. I always look at technology that way. You can make sure that you have the right technology and the right help to reach your audience so they get to see the messages that you want them to see. But it depends on the size of your organization. You need to have the technology to manage the communication, the outreach, the interactions. There are tools that make things a lot easier for you.

But you must understand how the technology works because some technology can be quite complex, and if you don't know how to use it, it may backfire on what you’re actually trying to achieve. So it shouldn't control you, you should be able to control the technology. There are great advances in technology, in artificial intelligence, that can help marketers in developing better content, better outreach, and to drive better interactions.

I've seen in the past that marketers were trying to drive campaigns and interactions with people and they were just spacing them out in a matter of weeks, for example. But one person may actually be interested in your solution today and wants to get more information now and follow up right away or in the next day and just keep going because they're on a mission or trying to find out more about your organization.

Now, technology can help differentiate between those people that are interested now versus those who can wait a bit longer. And that's how you should use technology in marketing. It can allow you to hone your message much more to the persona than it was possible in the past.

I see that the tools that are out there now are vastly improved compared to five or ten years ago. The marketing decision-making that the older tools could do a few years ago are now within reach of a lot of smaller organizations. And that's great because it allows these smaller organizations, as long as they have the marketing talent, to actually deploy campaigns and programs and not have to spend $20,000 a month on a very expensive solution. Now, they can actually do a lot with fewer resources. So when you grow, of course these tools become bigger and more expensive. But I think if you are just starting, you can do a lot more now.

Lessons

What important lessons have you learned from mistakes?

One of the biggest things is you need to make sure that your goals are aligned with those of others. I remember working on certain campaigns and programs that just didn't work. We were amazed. Why didn't it work? Why didn't it take off? And we found out that there was another team that actually had the opposite goals we had. Their conversation plan was different from the objectives of the campaign.

So we were trying to sell or promote one solution, but they were getting clients for another solution. We were trying to generate business for one thing, and they were saying, “Well, there's no interest.” So making sure that your goals are all aligned is important. And even getting to the details like comp plans, because their bonus plan gave them zero or very little for the one solution we were focusing on, and they were getting double for the other.

What would be your career advice to your 20-year-old self?

Go work for an agency. I've worked both in startups and as a consultant, and in an agency. The nice thing about working for an agency is you get a spread of interests and a spread of experiences that you don't necessarily get when you go work for an individual organization. Startups are interesting, too. If you can work in a startup in your career, do it—because it gives an interesting vibe that you don't get when you work for a super large organization where everything is mostly figured out. So try to work for a startup at least once. Work for an agency, and you can figure out what you actually like doing later on. Because one of the things that you find in an agency is, you're working on a project and you hand things over on a regular basis. You may want to be more involved in specific things you find interesting, and then later you can do that.

Another thing with startups is you can't say someone else needs to do this or that because you're responsible, you're doing the marketing. Whatever role you do, you have to do most tasks associated with it. And it doesn't matter if you need to plug in the keyboards and install whatever it is that you need to install—you are responsible. That's what I like about that: you need to just roll up your sleeves and get going.

With an agency you have to keep going, you have to get results. You have deadlines that you work towards. And it's also good because just finishing certain things gives you freedom to work on other things. That's what I like about agencies. You work on a project, you make sure you have built a great solution, achieved a great outcome, and work on a good customer experience. You can't do one without the other.

🔥 Rapid fire questions
Agency or internal?
Agency
Inbound or outbound?
Inbound
Marketing or sales?
Marketing
Hubspot, Pardot or Eloqua?
Eloqua
Webflow, Wordpress or others?
WordPress
Specialist or generalist?
Generalist
Creativity or technique?
Creativity. Technique helps but creativity makes connections happen.
In-person or remote?
In-person has stronger powers.
Strategy or opportunity?
Strategy
Thinking or doing?
Doing

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