Unbundled Consumers in Education

Education is a tough market to crack. One of the big reasons that it is such a difficult market is the unbundled consumer.

Typically, a consumer does one of three things. They decide to buy something, they then buy that thing, and they then consume that thing. Many things go into each one of those steps, but they are pretty universal. A customer will take them, in whatever form, and the result will drive a business forward.

Not in education. The consumer is unbundled.

In the example of textbooks, in particular. The professor decides what is bought. Financial aid (i.e. the government) or parents then pay for the book. Finally, the student is the one who consumes the book.

This is one of the big reasons why trade books have reached majority market share, while textbooks have lagged dramatically in the transition. Tech savvy entrepreneurs have pursued lots of the digital efforts, but all have ended in a resounding thud (at least so far), in large part because they have not understood this unique characteristic of the higher ed market. They generally targeted ‘consumers,’ not making the nuanced distinction to target just the decision making part of the ‘consumer.’

Maybe this is arrogance of technologists who believe that technology will ultimately rule the day and win in all markets. I don’t disagree with that notion, but it will take a lot more time in higher ed given the inertia of the sector and the unbundling of the decision making, payment, and consumption of the product.

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