The (big) business of ed tech

The (big) business of ed tech

Summary: Trade shows in ed tech are no different than trade shows the rest of the technology sector. They're big, expensive, and utterly necessary.


I got my first taste of ISTE last night as I set up my company's booth, getting ready for the opening of the formal tradeshow portion of one of education's biggest technology conferences. After all these years thinking about educational technology, it's kind of ironic that my first opportunity to participate in this conference finally came when I left public education. However, it has given me a unique perspective on the truly big business of selling technology to schools and educators.

I won't share exact numbers with you, but what I will say is that my company has spent a good chunk of change on ISTE. Enough for a come-to-Jesus talk with the boss about how I'm burning through my marketing budget. And yet, as I wandered through the sprawling exhibit hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center last night where the likes of Dell, Intel, Follett, and HP were making last-minute preparations to their areas and realized that I could probably find most of my ISTE budget in the couch cushions in their lounges.

What's crazy is thinking about what I spent for a small presence at ISTE and then multiplying that by a couple thousand vendors, and then realizing that my spending was near the bottom of the heap. I wasn't flying out anywhere from 2 to 15 staff (I drove and came by myself, which, by the way, was not smart, since manning the booth left little time for any of the important networking and business development opportunities that are more abundant than free tote bags at these conferences; it also left no time for bathroom breaks), I didn't have hot air balloons or signs hanging from the ceiling, and I don't have shipping crates filled with equipment. Just me and a demo setup and some tchotchkes. And some M&Ms with the company colors and our website on them.

This all boils down to a couple of facts:

  • A lot of money has been spent on ISTE.
  • A fair portion of that money may not be recovered in any sort of near-term revenue. This is all about building brand and creating a presence that absolutely must be maintained, regardless of the cost.
  • Unless they're Apple, most companies chuckle at the idea of not being present at ISTE. And even Apple is a corporate sponsor. Really, what are we going to do? Not be at ISTE?
  • A lot of money has been spent on ISTE (and yes, I meant to repeat that).

This isn't all bad. The fact that tech companies big and small (both inside and outside of the education vertical) are willing to invest so much on becoming important educational brands means that there is a lot of room for growth in educational technology and an incredible level of innovation centered around learning. That's never a bad thing.

On the other hand, for the small companies doing some of the most innovative thinking in education, the barriers to entry are extremely high. It's extremely difficult to compete with the deep pockets of our more established counterparts. As I walk through the exhibit halls, I can't help but feel that there is something of an ed tech arms race going on. Who can be the biggest? The flashiest? The most awesome? And I know that I'm going to be the first one upping the ante at the upcoming conferences. I've already signed publicity deals for FETC, TCEA, and EDUCAUSE. My custom backboards are on order. My shipping crates are, too, so that bigger and better displays and more interactive hardware can make its way to various conferences.

I won't be a Dell or an Adobe. But I need to be more than the little booth in the corner because my competitors certainly are.

Any way it goes, the competition is fierce for the eyes and ears of the tech press and educational decision makers. Plenty of that competition is focused on creating great new products. Plenty more, though, is focused on the art of the trade show.

Topics: Dell, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intel

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: The (big) business of ed tech

    Ed tech is big business. Unfortunately that's money that could be spent on better things, but there's no way around it. I wanted to get to ISTE but alas no budget for it. The biggest obstacle I have found in marketing my company ( is that people just don't want to listen about anything new (even if it's free).
    Good luck!
  • RE: The (big) business of ed tech

    Hi Chris,
    I too am surprised by the money spent at ISTE. Bigger is not always better. Good luck on building your brand, and if you need a restroom break send me a note @ergofun. I will be at the Ergotron Booth #2849.

    Good luck at the show!
  • RE: The (big) business of ed tech

    I was a teacher for 15 years and an eLearning developer for 30 years, so I've seen both sides of the big shows, both in Australia, the USA and even Bulgaria.

    I'm still not convinced they work. I can trace no real projects or income to any of the enthused enquirers and I certainly bought nothing as an IT teacher attending these shows.

    As a vendor I found the real problem with education is a lack of budget and bodies to do the work. I'd be comfortably well off if I had $10 from each person who tried to convince me to help them with a tender or am educational grant. It's also not helped by the occasional Linux fanboi who seem to breed within academic IT.

    Needless to say, I no longer market to education. Business users appreciate the effort we put into training and can also pay for it.
    • Well Said

      @tonymcs@... Until educators realize that academic IT is not the same as thier home computers and that to be done successfully, it should be done right, their projects will continue to flounder with no real long-term gains or benefits realized.
  • RE: The (big) business of ed tech

    Dear Chris,
    As a tradeshow consultant I would suggest that you look at the quality of your exhibiting program and the expectations you set for implementing a professional program. I have seen many, many, many successful small booth programs create enormous results because the owners of those booths thought out their program and implemented it with rigor.

    Exhibiting is a professional marketing discipline not unlike shooting and airing a TV commercial. You need an idea, a script, professional talent, rehearsal, a great set, shoting talent, an editor and the post-shoot media implementation schedule. Each step has a professional discipline and appropriate talent requirements.

    The same type of professional discipline holds true for each step in a professionally executed exhibiting program...even for one booth in one show per year.

    For instance: were you the right booth talent; at your personality-best during all show hours; did a great job of pre-show appointment setting; had a variety of introductory remarks to engage floor traffic passing your booth; had literature packs ready for post-show mail out and e-mail follow-up?

    As a "program" would your company have achieved a better outcome with two staffers at the show meeting and greting potential customers and doing a smash-up job of post-show contact follow-up?

    The days of wheeling your 10X10 pop-up into an exhibition hall with no well thought out plan and rirorous execution are over. Tradeshow exhibitng is very cost effective and moves the sales funnel forward more quickly than any other media.
    Successful exhibitng today is a professional discipline with everything that goes with it.
  • RE: The (big) business of ed tech

    I agree Ed Tech is a big industry and I think it should be given focus because it is in the Technology business where money has been coming in. We are in the IT age and with all the gadget and IT companies competing for market dominance, we need new minds, new innovators, new Steve Jobs.Any way, we are already reaping the benefits of Technology like having those <a href="">spy camera video</a> in our homes and businesses. We are also making use E mails and E-cards like <a href="">birthday cards free</a> which made communicating faster and easier. Aside from that we are now doing a lot of our businesses online. If a person is looking for <a href="">Mount Pearl homes for sale</a>, he can do it in the comfort of his house or office instead of actually going to the place.It saves time and energy. Technology has made our lives a lot better and much more comfortable, so Ed Tech must not be ignored.