Of all the daunting social issues for a young non-profit to tackle, educational access is as tough as they come. Students want to go to college, but the cost of higher education makes it difficult for many to complete a degree. While previous generations reminisce about summers spent working to pay for undergrad courses, new enrollees would have to work 22-hour days to cover the average college costs. No easy feat on a camp counselor’s schedule.

The institution presents another set of hurdles. Professors sympathize with the college affordability problem, but their hands are tied. They simply don’t have time to write textbooks, and their options are all expensive. Another unusual challenge: free doesn’t motivate them. You get what you pay for, the argument goes, and inferior material won't cut it.

Many write college affordability off as an unfortunate condition that can’t be fixed. OpenStax managing director Daniel Williamson and director of marketing Dani Nicholson decided to address the issue with an innovative idea: create peer-reviewed textbooks similar to industry leaders and offer them for free.

“If I am completely honest with you textbooks are actually pretty boring,” said Williamson. “That is why OpenStax textbooks are more than just textbooks; they are an information revolution.”

Based at Rice University, OpenStax offers openly-licensed educational resources to students across the country. Over 4,000 institutions have adopted the platform so far, and 3.4 million scholars have used the product to date. The organization has published 29 undergraduate textbooks in subjects from calculus to economics, and they have saved their customers $332 million since 2012. With customers as widespread as these, you’d think the OpenStax team must have a serious number of salespeople. Wrong. They accomplished all this by engaging their audience through social media, email and public relations efforts.

It starts with the copy. Instead of marketing the specific features of the books they focus on their mission, which is to help professors tackle college affordability. The marketing team frames everything by centering on the benefit to the student. Millennials are famous for applying price pressure, but the textbook industry is resilient. For students, this inflexibility casts well-intentioned professors as the villains in their collegiate epic. OpenStax helps both characters turn the page.

How do you show the "pictures or it didn't happen" generation you care? Give professors a way to brag about the amount they saved their class using a shareable online calculator. The OpenStax team also mobilized a core group of educational advocates, smartly named “textbook heroes,” who vouch for the service and enlighten their colleagues. These evangelists function as a built-in advisory board that helps further the organization’s mission and direct product development. OpenStax's marketing efforts give each stakeholder a way to address the common problem they face.

“We are a non-profit,” said Nicholson. “However we want to be a smart non-profit.”

Professors want solutions that help them do more faster. Wish list services like automated testing and online homework meet their needs but move beyond the traditional textbook. They are also costly to produce. OpenStax stays competitive with over 60 for-profit partnerships with titans like Chegg and Lumen that get their product to customers easily.

“The student gets a lower priced homework tool, the professor gets the robust online system they want with their free book, the partner saves money developing their resource, and we get to charge a mission support fee,” said Nicholson. “It works really well.”

All OpenStax content is openly-licensed, which means anyone can use the content rein-free. As educators contend with various learning styles and students demand flexible learning schedules, this feature cannot be understated. OpenStax users are empowered to customize the content, and a richer learning experience is an outcome. Another is price pressure. After decades of stagnation, publishers are starting to customize their offerings in response the shift brought on by OpenStax. Innovation is possible, no matter the industry. Just be ready to rewrite the book.

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