The ‘Poodler’ Stops By Our Open (EdTech) Bar — Justin Hunt Ventures Into Marketing

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The first version of Poodll became available in the Moodle Plugin directory in 2012. A few generations later, the audio and video recording plugin family packs more features than ever, has delved into AI and has helped new ideas hit the ground running. Read Seed is coming along nicely!

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Over the years, a small but fervorous fanbase has formed about Poodll. The niche of English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL and EFL) has a special place for Hunt’s work, and he wonders if there are others out there missing out.

An expat and a tinkerer, Hunt has reached a realization: Poodll needs to pay more attention to the user. Basement dwelling used to be the normal for coders looking to create free and open source tools anyone could use. (And make a respectable living while at it.) Today, the recipe for success has taken a sharp turn. Promoting any product, a thing you do now, must have information saturation into account, take advantage of analytics for laser-focused targeting, but above all, remain authentic. Entrepreneurs today, just like those of decades ago, succeed according to their ability to identify new sources of value and extract it in sustainable ways.

Thanks to information technologies themselves, dashboards and quite frankly Python, these dwellers of yore are today’s audience and medium analysts. In the performance-intensive digital world, content marketing may be the game we should all be playing.

It is this frame of mind what is making Hunt feel more comfortable tackling marketing issues. Kind of. Segmentation, channels, ROI, pricing and promotion are topics he’s decreasingly reluctant to talk about, making the present exchange with LMSPulse all the more generous. Earlier this year, he enlisted the help of Torontonian marketing advisor Vladimir Druts.

Have you called your customer yet?

Vlad took Poodll’s basic technology and business factsheet, and a few months later came back with a plan.

What’s Poodll’s plan?

The document explains how we should “re-do” Poodll, from a sales and marketing standpoint. It will help me define better what the product does and who it targets. It includes a series of prescriptions, then it is up to me and the Poodll team to follow through: Be it redesign, create new offerings, bundles and pricings, etc.

There might be some changes for existing Poodll users. It’s quite good, actually. It will be a lot of work. I will start doing things that felt too time consuming, but now I believe to be very worthwhile.

One example is live calls. I thought text-based communication via email was always preferable and a phone call to be just awkward. But after a couple of days of just calling I realize customers actually appreciate it, and it doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all. Some people are quite happy to get a phone call. Users get technical problems when they try to implement Poodll, and phone calls can often help better with that.

Talking to people in general is good advice, it’s one of the things I look forward to in conferences. They mention little things I would not have found out otherwise.


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In broad strokes, how are the demographics of Poodll users?

This year when preparing for a presentation on Poodll, I was looking to add some numbers about how Moodle are used around the world. A really high number was Spanish speakers. Spain, Mexico and Colombia are the three big countries. However looking at Poodll users, Spanish-speaking countries are not there. So I realize that one thing we need to do is to pay more attention to users in these and other non English speaking countries.

How about the subjects? I always assumed Poodll was mostly used in language teaching…

Poodll is used in language teaching the most.

But one of the things Vlad made me realize is that we don’t actually know enough about how Poodll is used. We don’t ask customers what the purpose of using Poodll is. Having spoken to people, we are certain that English is the most popular subject. And I believe French is the second.

So if the most popular countries are English speakers, and English teaching is the most popular use, does that mean foreign students travel abroad to use Moodle and Poodll online to learn English?

Right. Which means the main use of Poodll is ESL.

For many students abroad on English-speaking countries, language lessons are compulsory.

In any case, we have a job to learn more about our users and how they use Poodll.

How important is Poodll’s ability to collect data in your new plan?

Very much. Not just to sell more, but to make sure we are actually helping people and that we are doing the best that we can.

‘Build it and they will come’ may never be true again

Marketing is not always the first thing in the mind of an indie developer. Let alone an open source advocate. Nor should they? It is a complicated question. There is no denying that sound technology and development processes are important. But from a business perspective, it is much easier to measure the effectiveness of marketing and salespeople, see results and right course. Contrast that with the common software development process. Two teams could be working on similar projects with comparable budgets and deadlines, and there’s no guarantee they will both enjoy the same level of success.

It’s fairly easy to develop something that actually works, at a small scale. But there comes a point where you cannot scale anymore. It’s much easier to achieve success at a small scale.

It seems the abundance of venture capital (VC) is disrupting the natural dynamics in open source development as well…

Right. A VC can fund a team after they achieve success at a small scale. It can work, but sometimes it may not. Many developers fall into thinking that they should keep doing what has worked before. In reality, a new stage of growth and success requires a new skillset.

A bootstrapped company like Poodll always has to achieve results and stay within budget from the beginning.

After the technology and the business has been validated, Poodll open for partnership proposals. Carefully. Hunt has been looking into options with Vlad’s help. Far from a smooth ride, he admits.

I found that I couldn’t accept everything Vlad was producing. I kept changing it. He got pretty frustrated. I was aware of it, but I just couldn’t let him describe Poodll in a way that felt completely different to how I would describe Poodll. I just couldn’t let that go.

Perhaps the solution is neither to shrug off all marketing concerns, nor becoming an ad-centric operation. Marketing does concern the needs of the user after all, and begets an interest for understanding the humans behind. (Or should anyway.) The trademark solopreneur stubbornness, largely deserving of credit for what Poodll has accomplished, must now step back and listen. At least, share the wheel.

What’s the next course of action?

Within the next few months, we will be implementing Vlad’s plan. We will improve our presence on the Moodle Plugin Directory, which is an important source of leads. We need to improve the way moodle.org refers potential customers to poodll.com.

We have also realized the potential of the Spanish speaking population —technically Moodle’s largest language group— so we need to create documentation and promotional materials in Spanish. It is fairly simple, but there’s always a lot of small decisions I need to make.

Poodll 2020

Calling people also helped realize many happy customers are willing to speak on the virtues of Poodll. Testimonials from happy people are coming up. Even the staunchest defenders of free software take advantage of positive name recognition.

How to make sure Poodll keeps users hearts and minds?

I talk with a lot of people now. Some are existing users, others are in a “pre sales” stage. I realize that even with existing customers I need to reiterate Poodll’s benefits and features. I need to stress the fact that Poodll does everything: It automatically transcribes speech, uses AI technology to detect mistakes, and so on.

It’s interesting to note how people subscribe to services like Poodll because of its key value generators, but can then fail to use it to its potential, or very frequently at all. It puts Hunt in a sticky situation. A gentle reminder, for example, of Poodll’s benefits and how much better their courses would be doing it they were properly used, could either increase engagement, or make users realize they can live without it. 

Marketing often plays a fundamental role in “value realization.”

Right. When I talk to people, and show them that Poodll is set up on their LMS —many times they don’t even know it’s there— and how to use it, I find that it is hard for them not to keep using it.

It is also a matter of deciding when the value of Poodll has been realized. From thinking Poodll would be an ally that would be a part of every session or every week, now I see that having it on the LMS is worth it for users if it’s used for one session per semester. In many cases it’s one very meaningful use, such as a placement test. I am comfortable now with people not using Poodll year round.

There is a “dark side,” if you will, of being too close to the customers. It is to realize that it is not always feasible, or not financially viable, to give everyone what they want.

I used to take time to customize Poodll by customer request. I found that to be quite stressful. Now I focus on a streamlined workflow that delivers a good product at a single annual fee for everyone. If someone wants customization, I am happy to refer them to a developer I trust.

Meaning, no more custom Poodll development for the foreseeable future?

I take a look at their needs and requests. If I see that I can include it in the plugin for everyone, I do it for everyone. That way I don’t have to deal with back-and-forths and NDAs.

Simplicity and transparency seem to be effective antidotes against Hunt’s skepticism over marketing and business development concerns. It is in fact a lesson born on the Open Source side but worth listening by everybody: Think of marketing as “listening to people.” As a way to move out of your comfort zone. Nothing else. If thinking about promotions, sales and discounts is taking away from your enjoyment, feel free to stop. Your customers will thank you. Not all of them, to tell you the truth. But some will.

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