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EdTech 101 (1)

Who Makes Purchasing Decisions for K-12 Schools?

The job titles and buyer personas choosing what a school or district buys.

Chris Mills
Apr 10, 2023 11:03:32 AM

One of my primary roles at PRP Group is to learn about our client family’s buyer personas. I lead education company sales and marketing executives through a series of workshops to identify and understand their primary personas. Together, we develop key messaging and user journeys that convert these personas into buyers.

Many companies start with one key question:

“Who should we be talking to?”

Even some of the biggest education brands aren’t always sure if they’re reaching out to the right titles. Schools and districts have to make many purchasing decisions. These decisions include curriculum, teacher professional development, education software and hardware, and more. But who influences these purchasing decisions, and who decides what gets purchased?

Who your buyer is NOT

Before we talk about who your buyer is, let’s talk about who they are not. Since there are so many people you can talk to, it’s important to know who has purchasing authority. From the outside, for example, it might seem that teachers have more of a primary role as buyers of education products. After all, they are the end-users of most education products. But teachers do not make big purchasing decisions for schools or school districts, and whether we like it or not often have limited influence.

Teachers can buy classroom supplies, lesson plans, and other small items. But, other decision-makers choose the curriculum, textbooks, software, and other products they use — and they sometimes make these decisions years in advance. If teachers are your end user, make them love you and your products to ease any future implementations

Lower-level administrators such as coordinators and specialists may also not be buyers. Don’t expect to sell directly to roles like technology coordinators, literacy specialists, speech-language pathologists, school psychologists, or guidance counselors. They may be your end users, but not your large-scale purchasing decision-makers. But, as you’ll see later on, they may still be relevant to your buyer personas.

Limited Purchasing Power

  • Coordinators
  • Specialists
  • Teachers
  • Assistants
  • Counselors

District-Level Buyers

Unless you sell classroom supplies, you won’t sell to individual teachers. But, most education companies are much more interested in district-wide adoption anyway. Many companies go further. They want to reach many districts so that they become the standard solution across entire states or regions.

Depending on the type of product you sell, your primary district-level buyer will be a superintendent or department head. While they have gatekeepers around them, they usually have the budget and purchasing power to buy your solutions. You will not achieve district-wide adoption without one or both of them.

  • Superintendents are your primary buyer persona if your product impacts many different departments.  They can also play an important role in small school districts.
  • Department heads are your primary buyers if your solution impacts a specific department. For example, if you sell a college readiness solution, your primary buyer might be a College Readiness Director. (Alternative tiles: Career, College, and Military Readiness or Career and Technology Director.) In this situation, you don’t want to focus your efforts on the superintendent, teachers, or coordinators.

Unfortunately, in K-12 sales, nothing is ever that simple. For example, I recently worked with a fantastic K-12 computer science company. Many districts don't have a dedicated computer science department, so this company sometimes had to sell to math department heads instead. 

If you’re in this situation, you’ll need to figure out what other departments might be interested in your solution.

Important Titles to Consider

  • Director or Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and/or Technology
  • Chief Academic Officer
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Chief Technology Officer

Identifying Department Heads

Not sure who your department head is? Check out this list on K12 Prospects. If you’re still stuck, follow these steps:

  1. Find your local school district’s website.
  2. Navigate to their staff directory.
  3. Search for relevant departments.
  4. Note who the head of the department is and what their title is. It will likely be “director” or sometimes “executive director.” In some cases, particularly in large districts, it might be “assistant superintendent.”
  5. Repeat for other districts. Try comparing large districts to small ones. You can also search Google for variations.

District Buyers

  • Superintendent
  • Assistant Superintendent
  • Director
  • Executive Director

School-Level Buyers

District-wide adoption may be the goal, but that doesn’t mean you should only focus on district-level buyers. Selling to districts takes time, and often involves many stakeholders. Individual schools can often make purchasing decisions more quickly and easily than districts. So you may want to focus some of your efforts on individual schools, rather than districts.

Selling to individual schools may trigger the tipping point effect: If you are able to sell to one school in a district, it will be easier to sell to another school in the same district. And, if several schools in the same district already love your product, it will be a lot easier to sell to the district. At that point, you’ll have jumped through hoops and become an approved vendor. You'll also have built valuable relationships with school-level influencers. They can get you in front of your decision-makers.

Your individual school-level buyer is almost always the school principal.

Other Buyers

Your primary buyers and main decision-makers will almost always be principals, superintendents, or department heads. But, there are other positions with the ability to make (or veto!) certain purchases. Be sure to consider the following roles:

  • Librarians usually (but not always) have a discretionary budget they can spend. But beware: they have to jump through hoops and there are restrictions about what they can buy.
  • Procurement departments, sales managers, and business managers may also throw a wrench in the works. Be aware of them so that you can follow the proper process to become an approved vendor.
  • IT departments used to be the gatekeepers for education technology. If you sell a product that you'll need IT to install, you may want to treat them as a buyer. But, as more education companies pursue a SaaS model, IT departments have become less central to purchasing.
  • Special education coordinators and special education teachers don’t have the ability to make purchases on their own, but they can be proactive in finding and advocating for solutions.
  • School boards set policies, approve budgets, and review major expenditures. They might create a committee or task force to examine certain big purchases.
  • Regional service centers such as a BOCES or Intermediate Unit provide services such as assessments and PD to a cohort of nearby school districts.
  • Wholesalers, bundlers, and other education companies can sometimes be better buyers than schools or districts. Partnering with the right vendor can sometimes be a more efficient option than directly selling to schools.
  • Education cooperatives and associations can set standards or band together to negotiate prices.

Who influences your buyer?

Selling education products and services to school districts is like selling to big companies. It can take a while, and there are many stakeholders, gatekeepers, and decision-makers you’ll have to go through. You can think of it a bit like a large enterprise sale.

While teachers, coordinators, and specialists do not have the ability to make purchasing decisions, they do make recommendations. In fact, your buyers may delegate them to “kick the tires” or advise on a purchase.

For example, a special education teacher might discover a solution she really likes during a free trial. She might advocate for it to the director of special education. In turn, the director might instruct a coordinator to request a demo or get a quote.

School Buyer Personas: How we put it all together

With so many different titles and buyers to choose from, you may be wondering what to do. Should you market your curriculum to principals? Assistant superintendents of curriculum? Curriculum directors? Curriculum specialists?

At PRP, one of the ways we solve this issue is by creating custom buyer personas with fun names like “Curriculum Carl.” After giving him a name, we’ll identify what motivates Carl. What are his goals? What challenges are getting in his way? What does he care about, and what keeps him up at night? Where does he get information about products, and what key messaging does he need to see on your website?

When we’re done, we’ll know all about Curriculum Carl. We'll know the different titles he might hold, and the buyer’s journey he’ll follow as he learns more about you. We can even help you set up your website so that Carl sees the information that is most relevant to him every step of the way. You can learn how many Carls come to your website, and what messaging works best for them. 

So, to answer our original question, who does make purchasing decisions for K-12 schools and districts? The honest answer is, “It depends,” so like a good student, the best way to prepare for selling in K-12 is to do your homework.

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