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Interview with Adam Cunningham, Sales and Marketing Optimisation Specialist

March 8, 2017

It was our great pleasure to sit down with Adam Cunningham this month to gain an insight into the online landscape of the VET industry in 2017. Adam possesses years of experience in marketing within the education and training sectors, having founded doMore in 2007, a pioneering online education marketplace that connects prospective students with suitable trainers and training organisations. Adam further utilised his marketing, technology and sales expertise to found enrolmentLAB, which supported by their proprietary technology ALKHEMY, offer expert marketing, student concierge, sales and growth management services to RTOs, TAFE and Higher Ed, as well as businesses outside of the education sector.

Q. This month we’re focusing on all things Internet and technology-related. You started one of the first companies recognising the difficulty in connecting students and trainers. How would you describe your early interactions with the RTO-industry and the Internet? What does it take to be competitive in that marketplace?

Adam: “We’re about ten years old now, and we were passionate about helping people learn fun things. It was never about RTOs. Our whole goal was to find something more rewarding to spend our own time on. For me, that was learning to surf. For my wife, it was cooking and reiki. And at that time, Google wasn’t Google. It wasn’t as easy to find great local education providers at any level back then. That was where the ‘two-sided marketplace’ idea came from.”

Q. The two-sided marketplace?

Adam: “Yes. The doMore idea was to build an ‘eBay-style’ environment for education, so on one side education providers could upload just like you can on eBay, and on the other side, people looking for those things could easily find them. While you could find some results on Google, it was generally the best marketers you found, not the best teachers or course providers. We thought “let’s find a way to aggregate them, and showcase the best teachers as opposed to the best marketers.” In hindsight, it was a great concept, just a bit early. People weren’t ready for that model. However, now when you look at what is happening, there are other players moving into the market to create similar types of environments, like SeekLearning. While it hasn’t been a core focus for the last four years, we’re currently considering revisiting that particular opportunity.”

Q. Is that the big difference? That you now have bigger players doing what the smaller guys were doing ten years ago? With search engines like Google listing businesses with expert search engine optimisation, is there still room for the smaller players?

Adam: “It really comes down to how good people are at executing their vision. Google has covered a lot of ground since we started many years ago. Looking at our early business models, all the problems we thought we were solving, a lot of them have now been solved. “Big data” wasn’t even a phrase back then. If you look at what the present day is about, it’s more about understanding your customers. It’s not about just throwing money at marketing. The focus needs to be understanding who your market is, getting meaningful insight into what your marketing and sales investments are doing, getting control of the key levers in your business and following that all the way through.”

Q. More broadly, we’ve seen massive disruption of traditional business models — and periodic tech innovations that disrupt where businesses thought they were going. For modern companies and RTOs, is there ever a period where they can relax? Or do businesses need to be ever prescient to the fact that things are always going to change every couple of years?

Adam: “The latter — and change faster and faster. Going back to our original days, we had a business partner in the States that we were working with, and our collective strategy was an organic strategy — because that was before there were any Penguin and other algorithmic updates. Everybody thought you could grow a company off the back of an SEO strategy. And then, as soon as the first Penguin Updates came through, these ‘world-beaters’ were getting hit and closing — because they were so reliant on one stream of traffic. All these changes mean that you can’t just have one strategy, you have to have many. There’s certainly no resting. And remember, it doesn’t take long for the market to swamp that channel either. That can make it difficult to invest as the costs become prohibitive over time.”

Q. Regarding strategy, what’s the low-hanging fruit for RTOs? It can feel difficult for RTOs to optimise their strategy without engaging a marketing expert like yourself. What are the things they should be taking care of as a baseline for their marketing strategy?

Adam: “Three things. First, if you can’t measure it, find a way to. Measure all components. Measure how much you’re spending and what you’re getting back — from your marketing investment both online and offline. Second, never assume that your customer service and sales team can’t be improved. The old sales strategies just don’t apply. We actually did a ‘White Paper’ with 120 different education providers. Tertiary institutions, RTOs, TAFEs. Most are still not getting back to the prospective student on the same day! Most were not acquiring good information to input for customer relationship management. Most were not trying to build confidence about how the course could potentially enrich the students’ careers and lives. So RTOs need to understand how to actually have engaging conversations of quality. The thirdthing is bringing measurement and customer service together. Broadly, sales and marketing alignment.”

Q. What are some of the other big mistakes in the education market that RTOs and other providers are making with their online profiles currently?

Adam: “We’ve found over the last nine years, that because it’s such a compliance driven industry, that — regardless of whether RTOs are reliant on funding from outside sources or not — we’re not seeing the same level of focus on marketing and sales execution that we are on compliance. Sure, they don’t have a business if they’re not compliant. But equally, they can’t grow the business if they’re not focusing on investing in growth and getting the most out of marketing and sales-related business strategies and technology. More broadly, too many passionate educators are ignoring the opportunity to upskill themselves about growth and business development strategies when developing their RTO.”

Q. …as in, RTOs would be better off frontloading their marketing expenditure?

Adam: “RTOs would ideally find better balance between their core product, their compliance, and their delivery of that product. That involves investing in their growth in a confident way. And I guess people find confidence when they’re in control of something. Unfortunately, so much of marketing is perceived as something historically that you cannot control. “It’s money that’s been thrown at a problem with no way of measuring the outcome.” What we’re providing the market with is a way to measure all their investments all the way through, so they can start being confident and in control of their marketing and sales strategy. But these fundamentals are being missed by many that could make big gains quickly, and so many agencies and internal marketing staff aren’t measuring investments all the way through.“

enrolmentLAB’s online profile is second to none.

Q. What should they be measuring?

Adam: “Enrolments! It’s common to be looking at leading indicators — so online, primarily traffic, conversion rates, click-through rates, those sorts of things. What we focus on is more precise: where you’re spending money, how many leads, the quality of that lead, the conversion of that lead into an enrolment, the conversion of that enrolment, and completion. The advantage of this is it’s transparent. RTOs can see what they’re investing in on a monthly or weekly or daily basis. They can actually see what comes back both in lead volume, enrolment and revenues, regardless of whether it’s online or offline.”

Q. When you’re talking to a new client, is it difficult to articulate the difference between precise metrics such as ‘marketing attributed sales’, and broad metrics like ‘general traffic’, and why these metrics may be different in value?

Adam: “Yes, for two reasons. First, there are many new players to the game. But second, there’s a lot of ‘dirty information’ out there in the market. Sadly, marketers historically have had a bad name — particularly in the education space. It’s hard to know who to trust. So you’re jumping a few hurdles; knowledge and experience is one, trust and reputation is another. Often, what we’re doing, is educating our clients about marketing and edu sales best practice, and doing it in a really transparent fashion that links all of the metrics together, so they can stop worrying about where the leads are coming from, and instead focus on how to engage with students.”

Q. Regarding lead generation, the new auditing model says that RTOs are expected to advertise responsibly. Is the new ASQA compliance framework going to exacerbate the tension between RTOs that are focusing on compliance at the expense of their general marketing strategy?

Adam: “I think it always will. Every time an RTO gets audited, the business can hardly have another conversation. It just loses any focus it had on marketing efforts. It’s suddenly all hands on deck. As long as there’s compliance and audits and that sort of thing, which obviously will be forever more, it will be a challenge for them. But if they’re capable of it, they need to keep their focus on business growth as well.”

Q. What’s on the horizon? What technological innovations are waiting for RTOs in the marketing context?

Adam: “The direction we’re heading towards is about ‘machine learning’ around data — quickly and immediately identifying a path towards the best investment and best outcomes for marketing and student acquisition. I think what’s next — from a technological marketing point of view — is getting better insights, minimising wastage out of marketing through better data and optimising sales output. For those concerned about their growth or arc, look at how you can engage in new marketing and ethical student acquisition strategies that build the internal capabilities of your business, rather than just standing and watching and waiting for things to go bad. We’re noticing a whole number of clients are starting to get going now that don’t want to be left on the bench, because so many groups are getting their skates on. We’re seeing investors come into the market. There’s fresh optimism starting to enter, which is always good!”

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