Every company has to be in the education business. Germ of an idea or unicorn, disruptor or trailblazer, soft opening or centenarian. Education.

If you’re at the bleeding edge of a brand new industry, you’ll need to educate everyone about what that industry even does long before you’ll ever get a chance to educate them on what your company does or why your widget will change their lives.

If you’re a new entrant into a mature industry, especially if it’s high-profile and/or already has dominant players, you’ll need to educate everyone about how you do things differently and why that’s better (faster, cheaper, etc.) Everyone’s going to want to compare you to something they’re already familiar with. Be prepared.

From any angle, it’s an uphill climb, but the education is the sale. Now, while the education in some form will always have to happen, the sale often won’t, no matter how good the education is. At times you might even educate your prospects right into the arms of a competitor. Such is business.

The education you provide may be for the layperson, or executives, or for a highly technical audience. If it’s a new company in a new industry, there’s a very good chance the audience could be all of the above. You’re going to need very good communicators on your team.

You’re going to need to learn and use terminology that might not match how your company or even some of your industry talks. But it’s not about you, is it? You’ve had your education. 

What search terms are people using? What questions or concerns do people have when talking to sales or support? How do people talk about what they do and what they need? What do people think you do that you don’t? What do people think you should do that you won’t?

For there to be education, there must be the transmission medium of language. Think beyond just terminology. Or literal language, like localizations for Europe, Asia, etc. You’ll need to learn to effectively educate using text, images and video. You’ll need people who speak marketing and customer support, among other things. 

Short-form social posts, long-form white papers, maybe TikTok. Just like German or Tagalog, you won’t be fluent in all media languages, either. Some you will learn, but at some point, you’re going to need to get help from those more proficient than you are. (Companies tend to wait too long to do this.)

You may not always be educating about your company or products and services directly. If the industry is mature, there’s a better chance that people will know how things work generally. Like insurance, or banking, or hotels.

But if it’s all new, you may well have to start way upstream from what you’re actually selling. Cryptocurrencies? Blockchain? Third-party cookies? Is the education about the actual industry, company, or products? Or something peripheral but important like social change or evolving legislation that’s driving these innovations? 

Do you have to address what your competition does? (If you don’t think you have competition, you just haven’t figured out what or who it is yet. Get on that.)

This is where great storytelling can help you. There’s probably a hook out there, something that was in the news, that possibly scandalized people, even if most folks don’t really understand what happened. You can use that.

“You know how it seems your phone is spying on you, and after you have a conversation with someone about X, you start getting ads for it?” Plenty of people are aware of this or think they’ve experienced it. Now what you want to say relates to them. Instant hook. Education opportunity. But be careful. 

Education can be a minefield. Most likely you’re interacting with people you don’t know, at least initially. You don’t know where their areas of expertise are, or their blind spots, prejudices, ego or curiosity.

If you make them feel ignorant or stupid, that’s it, you’re done. Not only is that never going to convert to a sale, they may well hold a grudge and badmouth you. You have essentially anti-educated them. Be the person who makes it safe to ask smart people stupid questions.

Ultimately, it’s not about educating or selling. It’s about building. I know how this is going to sound, but yes, you are building trust. Think about it. There’s a reason we don’t buy things from sketchy strangers out of the back of a van. Or late at night from Wish. 

You start by engaging people. That could be reading something on your site, or handling their support ticket smoothly, or an actual conversation. Engagement is about giving them what they want. Not what you want. They already know what you want.

If done well, engagement can lead to trust, which can lead to education, which can lead to the sale. Maybe even to repeat sales, or recommendations, if you do things really well. 

Your business really is education. But there’s the sneaky lesson. End-to-end in your career, if you’re smart, most of that education will be yours, not theirs. Get to work.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.