We are delighted to share this inspiring interview with Natasha Davidson, a highly accomplished EdTech marketer with a wealth of experience. Having worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Blackboard and Coursera, Natasha brings a unique perspective to the current state of the EdTech market.
Pearls of Wisdom
It's important to fully understand the motivations of the ultimate buyer, how your solution can help them, and who can influence the decision to buy.
It's essential to show up locally in marketing, messaging, and engagement with target buyers. For instance, cultural context and norms influence the decision-making process in different parts of the world.
It's crucial to consider the company's goals and decide whether to over-index on localization or stick with English content. Tensions like these can lead to more creativity and a better go-to-market strategy, as long as compromises can be made.
Create an ‘international checklist’ to go to market on a global scale. Thinking about if the product is ready comes before defining messaging. Then comes product marketing, all the way down to field messaging.
Everything becomes easier when you have created a product for global usage and when you've thought about what the messaging needs to be.
I think there are two challenges that came up in both my recent roles. The first was increasing market awareness. Even if we weren't necessarily outspent by the competition, it was more that the target audience only understood one dimension of the company. The second challenge is finding high quality, high impact marketing activities in the current environment where budgets are continually squeezed and constrained.
It's essential to find ways to promote company and market awareness during lead generation. For example, at conferences, we can describe the breadth and depth of the company and portfolio at the booth or when speaking.
Technical marketing skills are important, especially digital marketing, social media marketing, and multichannel marketing. However, grounding in data and analytics is equally important. As a marketer, it is necessary to explain the reasoning behind the marketing plan, activation, and go-to-market strategy, which requires comfort with data and analytics.
Throughout the execution process, it's crucial to ensure that you are on the right track by double-checking your work. Before launching a product or anything into the market, make sure to review it thoroughly and ensure that it represents the best version of your company, team, and product.
Her passion for education and personal development, instilled in her by her family, has been at the core of her professional development and has played a key role in her career. In this interview, Natasha reflects on her most valuable lessons and insights on marketing in the EdTech industry and how her holistic view of marketing has helped her succeed.
How do you connect your background with your first role in EdTech marketing?
I'm originally from London, and lived there until I was almost eight years old. My family then moved to the US. Although my accent may suggest otherwise, my parents are from the UK, and my grandparents are from Jamaica and St. Lucia. They met in London and raised their family there before my family moved to the US.
Education has always been a significant value in my family, especially since my grandparents did not have a formal education beyond the equivalent of 7th or 8th grade in the US. My parents didn't attend university either, making me the first in my immediate and extended family to earn a university degree. My goal was always to obtain an education to transform my life and circumstances.
While working at Philips, I learned about Blackboard through colleagues who had transitioned there. My curiosity led me to research the company, and I eventually landed a role in international marketing and product marketing, which marked my entry into the ed tech industry. However, my interest in education stems from my family history and upbringing.
What was your role at Philips and how was your transition to Blackboard?
At Philips, in Amsterdam, I had various roles in the global marketing and communications team, starting in marketing effectiveness. I moved around different global marketing roles and ended up in a regional marketing role for a business line, but none were related to education or EdTech. However, my experiences at Philips working across regions and on projects leading brand and new product launches prepared me well for my role at Blackboard, where I started in product marketing despite lacking extensive experience in that area. I was attracted to the opportunity to develop my skills in product marketing, which made the Blackboard role more appealing.
Was there anything about your buyer personas —or about the institutions themselves— that you realized when you joined Blackboard?
Definitely, the last role I had at Philips was in the ultrasound unit business. This is all about marketing and helping the sales process for a medical device, there's lots that you cannot say when you're marketing health care equipment. But you learn about how to understand the buyer persona when you're marketing something as specific as healthcare equipment.
At Blackboard, I gained a better understanding of buyer personas and journeys in the education industry, which was different from my previous experience in healthcare. I discovered that decision-making in education can involve end users, such as academic staff, who can influence the ultimate buyer. I also learned that the buying process is not always linear and can have multiple points of influence. It's crucial to fully understand the motivations of the ultimate buyer, how your solution can help them, and who can influence the decision to buy. These insights were eye-opening for me at Blackboard.
Let's talk about those global teams and what's important when you're trying to market a product across the globe.
Before joining Blackboard, I had some exposure to global marketing from my early roles at Philips, but my scope was high-level. My later roles were mainly focused on single multi-country regions such as Africa and EMEA. . However, at Blackboard, I managed teams across all regions, including field marketing teams in each region. It's essential to show up locally in marketing, messaging, and engagement with target buyers. For instance, cultural context and norms influence the decision-making process in different parts of the world. It's crucial to have marketers on the ground who understand the local context and how students learn differently. Localization isn't only about translation but also about imagery, phrasing, terminology, and understanding how to incorporate them into marketing messaging. I learned a lot about global to local marketing and the art of balancing scale with customizing Blackboard's messaging for different regions.
We often see a natural tension between sales and marketing. But are there tensions between areas like field marketing, product and corporate?
You mentioned two common tensions in marketing: between product and field marketing, and between corporate and field marketing, which I have also experienced in my more recent role. It's important to note that field marketing is not always the culprit. Field marketing is ‘the sharp end of the spear’, the part where the messaging must be targeted and pointed to attract leads and prospects. However, sometimes tensions arise because product marketing provides a specific product message that may not be localized or tailored enough for the target customer or prospect. This can cause issues when trying to convert material to different languages or cultures. Product marketing may argue that it’s not cost-efficient to localize every piece of material. It’s essential to consider the company’s goals and decide whether to over-index on localization or stick with English content. Tensions like these can lead to more creativity and a better go-to-market strategy, as long as compromises can be made.
I think that’s important for people to realice is that it is a journey to get to a point wher’ there's this notion of a truly coordinated and integrated approach in go to market that has the right amount of nuance for local context because it can be expensive to go to one end of the spectrum where everything is completely customized. It can appear as if the company does not have appreciation for differences in local business culture and local users, if the company just uses one image, one go-to-market approach, one language.
Finding what that balance is for the company can take some time. I think tha’ there's trial and error, but companies don’t like making public mistakes. As an example, many years ago, the product team launched a product, initially in the US. One of my responsibilities was to prepare for the international launch, but I didn’t realize that the product itself had not been truly configured for use in multiple languages and regions. Once we rolled it out, users were struggling with it, resulting in a growing number of complaints. So we had to pause the rolleout to make the product more user friendly for different countries.
That was a situation that actually helped us create a ‘international checklist’ to support our go to market efforts. I’d say that thinking about if the product is ready comes before finalising the messaging. Then comes product marketing, all the way down to field messaging. Everything becomes easier when you have created a product for global deployment and when you've thought about what the messaging needs to be.
What has been your biggest challenge in your recent roles?
I think there are two challenges that came up in both my recent roles. The first was increasing market awareness. Even if we weren't necessarily outspent by the competition, it was more that the target audience only understood one dimension of the company. For example, with Blackboard, in some parts of the world, there was a strong market awareness around Blackboard as an LMS company and less awareness about the breadth and depth of the entire portfolio. Similarly, with Coursera, creating broader awareness of the breadth and depth of the portfolio, beyond a consumer platform was an early challenge.
The second challenge is delivering high quality, high impact marketing activities in an environment where budgets are continually squeezed and constrained. There are frequent questions about what value is delivered for the level of marketing investment. Is there a way to be more efficient with our spend? Can we grow demand wth the same or less budget?
I think these are two persistent challenges that B2B marketers face regardless of the company.
What type of tactics have worked for you, trying to get that awareness of newer or different value propositions?
Sometimes it’s hard to reqeust a separate brand building budget to create awareness. So, piece of advice to teams is to create awareness while executing top-to-middle funnel activities. Field marketing, for instance, is often focused on in market lead generation, but sometimes generating leads can be a challenge when there's a lack of awareness. So, it's essential to find ways to promote the company and generate awareness during lead generation. For example, at conferences, we can describe the breadth and depth of the company and portfolio at the booth or in sessions, leveraging every touch point to describe the company and it’s brand. This strategy can spread the word about the company while still generating marketing contributions to sales. Developing creative and dynamic content pieces targeted to specific audience personas is another great way to raise awareness. Remeber This approach can alleviate tension between communications and marketing and achieve our goal.
What would be your career advice to your 20-year-old self?
Earlier, I mentioned being the first in my family to attend college and earn a degree. At 20 years old, I felt immense pressure to succeed by graduating and getting a good job. This made me very focused, but also rigid. Looking back, I would tell my younger self that it's okay be curious, to explore different career paths and question things. It's important to find what speaks to your heart and soul; cultivating a network and being curious can help you get there.
Is there a particular skill set that you feel is crucial today? And is there something that aspiring leaders should master?
Technical marketing skills are important, especially digital marketing, social media marketing, and multichannel marketing. However, grounding in data and analytics is equally important. As a marketer, it is necessary to explain the reasoning behind the marketing plan, activation, and go-to-market strategy, which requires comfort with data and analytics. Marketers need to showcase data literacy and storytelling skills through data to explain the impact of marketing on revenue growth and targets.
Moreover, communication skills are vital for marketers, both internal and external. The ability to explain the long-term return on investment for product marketing assets and educate internal stakeholders about marketing decisions is crucial. Marketers should be creative problem-solvers, but ultimately, they must be able to communicate the impact of marketing on business growth.
Rapid Fire Questions
What were the moments in your career when things didn't go as expected and what lessons did you learn from them?
I had to prepare a document for a customer, it was a report towards the end of a huge project. And these were the days when everything was super manual. You had to handwrite everything out. Yes, we had computers, but you had to send in the first draft, and then you would make handwritten feedback to the word processor. It was literally a person called "word processor", which gives you an indication of my age.
They used an expensive word processing software platform to create reports, which only the word processor had access to. They told me they made all the edits, and I didn't check before sending the document to the partner to be signed off. There were all sorts of mistakes in the document, even numerical mistakes. As you can imagine, the client was upset and this likely had reputational consequences for the company.
I owned up to it, but my takeaway from this experience, in addition to the importance of checking my own work, is the significance of having a solid plan and considering how it will be executed. Throughout the execution process, it's crucial to ensure that you are on the right track by double-checking your work. Before launching a product or anything into the market, make sure to review it thoroughly and ensure that it represents the best version of your company, team, and product.