When popular BETT Show veterans start pulling out it's worth asking them why
"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" sang Bob Dylan on his album Subterranean Homesick Blues. And you don't need to be a market analyst to take serious note of the withdrawal of longtime educational technology companies like Crick Software, Kudlian Software and Wordshark from the annual BETT Show behemoth in Docklands.
While it hardly constitutes a stampede from BETT 2018, the reasons behind it — massive costs and the increasing scarcity of their ideal potential customers, classroom teachers — are worrying indicators for a huge trade show that depends on a healthy education sector rather than one facing rounds of severe cuts.
BETT exhibitors are generally reluctant to pull out of their show, despite their consistent concerns about costs, which increased substantially when the show moved from Olympia in west London to ExCeL in Docklands. That’s usually because they worry that the move will be interpreted as a symptom of economic woes.
There are more effective ways to communicate with schools
With these three successful companies however, the reasons boil down to one over-arching compulsion: they can communicate with their school customers more effectively by other means. And social media and the internet have also played their part, But these decisions are not taken lightly, particularly as these exhibitors have been BETT regulars. (There are also others missing from the show — these include 3P Learning, publisher of Mathletics, eSchools, Busy Things, IR Primary Games and BrainPOP, whose 'Moby' character had become a regular figure. UPDATE: Discovery Education, publisher of award-winning Espresso, not at BETT 2018 but was at BETT 2017.)
Lina Howarth, managing director at Crick Software, explained: “We have been exhibiting at the Bett Show for more than 20 years, and during that time have met thousands of teachers who are now using our products to support literacy in their schools. Over time, the show has become more focused on the hardware, administration and infrastructure aspects of school life, and we don’t think that there is the same opportunity to talk to teachers about curriculum-focused products as there once was, so have therefore decided not to exhibit at Bett in 2018.
“Instead, we will be exploring different ways to engage with teachers, such as regional seminars and in-school demonstrations; settings where we can spend more time understanding the individual needs of the school and identifying the most effective software solution for them.
It has to be said that BETT has been a positive experience for Crick over the years, and the company is still talking to the organisers, Ascential, about other ways they might work together.
The expense – for stand space, services and hotels – is generally regarded as horrendous by most exhibitors but there are other reasons for not attending. In the case of Wordshark, a company well known for its popular literacy and numeracy software, the ultimate reason for pulling out of BETT was the effort and resources being put into creating new products. Wordshark director Helen Savery added, “There is also a question about the future of exhibitions in general. Teachers are finding it harder and harder to get away from school and have limited budgets anyhow – at least certainly at the moment.
“Equally, customers can find almost everything they want to know from searching online. Marketing doesn’t rely on trade shows any more as it’s very easy to buy school information and launch social media campaigns etc, so the main benefit of something like BETT is probably when launching a new product or for start-up companies perhaps."
Kudlian – BETT exhibitor for 27 years
Roger Young, managing director of Kudlian Software which produces award winning and popular animation programs, has been exhibiting at BETT for 27 years – “since the first Acorn computers, even before the BBCs”. "So it was not a decision taken lightly for us to finally close the doors on exhibiting at BETT in 2018," he said. "We decided that BETT was no longer a viable means for us to engage with our customer base and that there were more cost-effective and focused ways for us to do this.
"We have seen the education software industry change immensely during those 27 years with both highs and lows, but over the past few years, probably since the move from Olympia, there has been even more change. And, even for BETT 2015, we seriously considered pulling out, although we did attend in 2016-17 more out of worry that if we weren’t there what message would it give?"
Why was it no longer cost-effective? "The reasons were fairly clear; To begin with the make-up of attendees noticeably changed, with fewer authority advisers (an endangered species), advisory teachers and other support staff as well as teachers... This meant more independent advisers with very little, if any, purchasing power, and a push by the organisers to get overseas delegates to attend. Attendee figures looked good but quality from our purchase perspective was poor."
Pressure built on schools to sort out their own ICT, and financial straits made them more reluctant to pay for cover for teachers to go to shows like BETT. "Because of this we saw an increase in school governors, bursars and financial advisers in attendance and again it became clear that these were not the people that a software company publishing curriculum-focused classroom software found worthwhile speaking to. And even after the exhibition it proved almost impossible to get in contact with those that left their details."
Exhibitors are always reviewing their options
Of course there is always 'churn' at a trade show like BETT. Even big companies like US software giant Adobe have dropped out in the past, only to return a few years later. Cardiff-based Birchfield Interactive left the show after years of imposing BETT stands and invested its budget in direct marketing. It re-emerged a few years later as an online entity SSS Learning.
Many exhibitors also trim their BETT presence to suit marketing needs — for example, 2Simple's BETT presence in 2018 will be smaller than in previous years.
One who pulled out two years ago, and preferred not to be named, said his investment for stand, staff and hotel accommodation had risen to at least £60,000 (another said his stand cost more than his first house!). While this had generated around £40,000 of business, he did not feel that this justified the money and the sheer effort involved.
Education suppliers facing tough times
Many education companies are having a challenging time. At a recent BESA (British Educational Suppliers Association) event its chair Chris Ratcliffe commented: "The state of the market is tough: The BESA Barometer report for Q2 suggests a decline in sales of nearly 8 per cent. The Resources in English Maintained Schools 2017 – Mid-Year Update report is stark, with a reduction in spending of nearly £130 million over two years.
"On the face of it, the ICT in UK State Schools Research 2017 report is positive, with an increase in computers, laptops and tablets into both primary and secondary schools, but when you scrape the surface, the number of old and ineffective computers is at record levels. There are more than 315,000 computers over five years old in UK schools, and 30 per cent of all school computers are ineffective." (Chris Ratcliffe works for the publisher Scholastic UK which pulled out of BETT a number of years ago.)
'Many clients turning away from traditional methods of marketing'
At the recent launch of a new, collaborative education marketing service, EdAcademy (see “Best routes to Schools?”), its managing director Bryan Plumb gave a fascinating presentation on the daunting costs facing companies wanting to communicate with schools about their products. His breakdown of the costs of traditional routes to market – public relations, advertising, marketing, exhibitions and trade shows – revealed what worries potential customers the most. The sheer uncertainty about results.
This is a real worry when the starting cost for even a small stand at Bett is between £5,000 and £7,000 (the price of a full-page advertisement in The TES). These are, of course, the minimum costs and there is no guarantee of success.
The demands on schools from government are ever increasing. Couple this with the decline in the role of local authorities in England and it’s clear that firms are having to address a highly fragmented market.
"We have found that many of our clients are turning away from traditional methods of marketing," explains Bryan Plumb, "owing to a need to show a positive return on investment in ways traditional methods are not always able to evidence. With protracted sales cycles in the education sector, compounded by very complex methodologies to track success from events, PR and magazine advertising, this is something that can be very difficult to measure.
"The rising costs of advertising means companies are almost forced to make big bold 'look at our great product, don't you want to buy it'-style adverts which bypass multiple crucial stages of the human buying cycle, and inevitably yield poor results. Perhaps understandably, a company struggles to see the value of a softer, more psychologically driven approach to marketing as they can't justify paying thousands of pounds for something that isn't bold and obvious.
"To combat this, we devised an eight-step roadmap crafted around the way humans build relationships and buy products, that turns school strangers into customers, and customers into brand advocates. A lot of the work we do is digital and reaches out to teachers through paid and organic means, 'automagically' handholding prospects through a guided user journey. This means the cost per lead and ultimate cost per acquisition is far lower as many aspects of the sale is automated, and by using digital avenues, we can very easily understand what is working, what isn't, and crucially report a positive ROI for activities."
Has money taken over the BETT show?
It's not surprising that many people in the 'technology for learning' community feel that money has taken over BETT and that it has become overly corporate, with the focus more on procurement than learning and teaching. The days of the 'contra', whereby organisations could get stands because the value of their expertise and presence were recognised, are now over. And this has resulted in the departure of all the subject associations — so helpful for classroom teachers — and professional organisations like Naace.
Also gone forever, it seems, are the voluntary seminar sessions provided free of charge by expert educators, motivated purely by their enthusiasm. Teachers volunteering their services are now asked for money — their services have to be sponsored/paid for one way or another. This has led to concern that nearly every message being received by BETT visitors has been paid for. And this can undermine the value of those contributions.
It all adds to the impression of organisers viewing the event purely through a spreadsheet, without an understanding of how to creatively apply value to allow the presence of people and organisations highly appreciated by visitors. The organisers, Ascential (Ascential Holdlings is registered in the Cayman Islands), must surely be getting concerned about the future, particularly as they witness the decline of the Education Show in Birmingham and the failure of the BETT Academies Show.
The test for them is whether they have the creativity and sensitivity to balance their pursuit of financial yield with the need to cultivate the BETT 'community' to ensure longterm success and sustainability. Failure to do so may see BETT taking on some of the negative attributes of the Education Show by 2019. Ultimately it's all about people and relationships, and not just money.