Open Letter - Honoring Faculty Privacy 1

Open Letter Regarding Faculty Spamming by a Response System Vendor

Introduction | Targeting Professors | Cease and Desist | What about web-based clickers? | Technology Transition Process

Targeting Professors

June 6, 2013


You may have recently received a solicitation email or call from a sales representative at a response system (clicker) company.   I have received complaints about these solicitations from some faculty. The company calls it a freemium; I call it spam. I want to let you know what this is about and what I have done.
My message to the company’s management and sales people is that OSU faculty who use clickers want reliable and well-supported technology.  Those who do not use clickers want to be left alone.  When OSU educators want to explore new technologies and techniques they know well enough how to go looking, and they know that they can call on TAC and other support groups for assistance.

The company at issue is a recent entry to the response system (clicker) world. I hear from most of the clicker vendors and am open to converse with them.  I had recent conversations with this company's sales and management.  The TAC team attended a demonstration of the product, then discussed its strengths and weaknesses.  That session ended with a clear explanation to the representative as to why we are not now in the market for a new response system (see Transition for explanation).  He countered that “quite a few” OSU faculty are eager to use the new system.  I asked that he share with me which faculty he contacts so that I may follow-up.

I took a call from the company regional manager.  He wants us to adopt their system for Fall 2013.  I explained that our technology adoption and transition process involves extensive investigation, piloting, and community input.  If we undertake such an investigation in the future we will duly review their product. His response was to send me a quote ($20,000) for a pilot adoption of their product at OSU, claiming that "quite a few" faculty are eager to adopt the product in Fall.  It turns out that at that on the same day as our conversation his sales team was mass emailing solicitations of product demos - "freemium" - to OSU faculty.  They have also been cold calling faculty with the introduction; “Jon Dorbolo said it was ok to call you.”  The next day I (sort of nicely) asked them to stop sending unsought solicitations. The sales representative apologized. The regional manager did not reply.

The company that sent the unsolicited email is explicit that their strength is their marketing strategy.  The company’s CEO said;

“that his company’s approach has been to target the professors themselves with a model similar to that employed by textbook companies. The professors use the platform for free and recommend it to their students, who then pay $20 per semester to use the software on the devices of their choosing....In the short term, asking students to pay $20 on top of the $30 to $40 they may already have to shell out for a traditional clicker is a lot to ask. But, the $20 subscription lets students use the software in any classroom, [the CEO] said. So while the company is targeting professors individually, as more teachers at a given school use the software, the value to students will increase.”

Indeed, “targeting professors individually” is precisely what took place with the recent spam of OSU faculty.  Professor targeting in order to cash in on students is the clicker market condition that existed at OSU before Media Services focused on a single supported solution.  That condition was confusing to instructors, unsupportable locally, and very expensive to students.  The new company’s use of this marketing strategy seems to be in adjustment since they recently introduced a freemium program by which the product may be tried out at no cost to instructors or students (30 maximum per class).  My analysis is that in 2012 this company raised $8m in venture capital to enter a crowded response system field based on the promise of an aggressive marketing strategy: divide et impera.  In addition to email campaigns and cold calling, these tactics includes intensive promotion at academic conferences, another mode of targeting professors.  The strategy is not new nor is the technology.

The new company's functional point of distinction consists in being a primarily web-based clicker system.  Students use their phones or laptops to access the system in class. There are several such products on the market. The argument often made for them is that students will not buy a hardware clicker remote. Instead, students purchase a license for the web or mobile application by the term or for some years.   The company at issue here sells their web-app for $20 per term or $38 for a five year license.  Turning remotes are $48.15 new and $36.23 used in the OSU Beaver Store. When a student sells their remote back to the Beaver Store their net cost for a new remote is $24.15 and for a used remote $12.23. I believe this is the most favorable cost option to students that we may avail for an enterprise-scale response system which provides the significant options that OSU faculty need.
One of my objectives is to manage vendor marketing such that my inbox and voice mail become the point of contact instead of yours. I get half a dozen or more vendor inquiries each week. I give them my time partly to learn what is new and partly to divert vendors from going directly to faculty. All of us who manage campus technologies do the same. This is not an internal barrier.  Every faculty member is free to contact vendors; I'll gladly to share my list of vendor contacts with you.  For those who would rather not be subject to sales pitches, freemiums, and professor targeting, know that we offer insulation from the highly energetic and lucrative instructional technology market place.  I did not do so effectively with the new web-based response system representative who spammed OSU faculty. I apologize for that and will fortify my message to all vendors: "Deal with me and my leadership. Leave OSU faculty alone unless they ask for contact with you."

If you receive unwanted contacts from any vendors, please let me know and I will have a chat with them.

In good spirit,

Jon Louis Dorbolo, Associate Director
Technology Across the Curriculum