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Customer education is a marketing strategy

Written by Bill Cushard

Published on August 15, 2019

Customer education is a marketing strategy, and customer education teams should report to marketing. There. I said it.

This is not to say that education must (or should only) report to marketing, just that customer (or product) education can be an excellent fit for a new marketing function that would live as a peer to other marketing disciplines (product marketing, content marketing, event marketing, to name of few). Of course, to make this decision, it depends on your company priorities. If your priorities are to generate demand for your product, increase product use, increase conversions from free to paid accounts or create a talent pool of people qualified to use your product, then your education team is a marketing team. 

Just this week, I met with a software company to talk about how we can help them develop and execute their education strategy. The two people I spoke to were not trainers, instructional designers, training managers, or VPs of education services. Neither had any background in education. One heads up developer relations and the other one leads marketing. 

Press pause. 

Think about this for a moment.

This company is about to invest in customer education and the technology to enable it, and there is not an education professional in sight. Their primary concern is education precisely, but to help their ecosystem of developers learn what is possible with their product, with an end goal of helping these people to one day become customers. Education is the means for doing that. 

Your customers might not be developers. Your customers might be marketers, project managers, accounts receivable specialists, editors, graphic designers, product managers, sales reps, or even HR business partners. The point here is that if you know who your audience is, you can offer them education, help them do their jobs better by using your product, and turn many of these people into customers. 

Sounds like marketing to me. 

And it sounds like a case for customer education to report to marketing. 

Why customer education should report to marketing

If your priorities are anything like the ones I listed above, you should consider putting your education team in marketing. Here's why: 

  1. Having customer education in marketing brings marketing close(r) to the customer, and you want marketing closer to the customer. If a marketing team runs live training courses (sorry, roadshow events at the Hilton and webinars don’t count), or if a marketing team creates self-paced, eLearning and/or in-product education content, a much deeper and broader knowledge of customers is needed than what a marketing team is used to. Learning opportunities that education specialists create are focused on outcomes by the very nature of instructional design.

  2. Education creates markets. I know. The Shark Tank investors always hate it when educating a market is required. That’s because they mostly want to sell something today so they can get their money back (plus a return, of course) as quickly as possible. If your company sells an innovative product or technology that no one knows about yet, educating the market is required. The late majority, or even the early majority (hat tip to Geoffrey Moore), is not just going to discover the benefits of Kubernetes while scrolling their Instagram feed. A technology that is new and innovative, requires a deeper form of communication (and the time for people to learn it). Creating markets is what marketing does. It is also what education does. 

  3. The purpose of customer education is to sell. Education is selling features. Education is selling the reasons why a product exists and why people in a course should care. Education is selling your brand. Education people don’t call it selling. Education people hate the entire idea of selling. But software training professionals are always selling, even if all they are doing is teaching. Sounds like marketing.

  4. Customer marketing and subscription marketing is all about educating customers on the value they get from your product…so that they renew and expand their relationship with you. No one is more equipped to do that than a software education specialist. Your marketing team is not equipped for this. Your marketing team does not think about learning objectives, jobs-to-be-done, and outcomes. Talented education specialists do. You should consider changing the name of your customer marketing team to customer education team and bring in some education specialists.

Side Note: To learn more about subscription marketing, I recommend Anne Janzer's book, "Subscription Marketing: Strategies for Nurturing Customers in a World of Churn."

Can you think of other reasons? Comment below if you can. 

Education as part of marketing is already happening

Honestly, I’m not as visionary or forward-thinking as you might think. I am not even trying to be a so-called thought-leader (don’t get me started on that term). Education as a marketing function is already happening. It is not new. I just think we have lost our way.

For example... 

Education drives product sales

HubSpot Academy is a marketing function. I don’t know the numbers, and I don’t actually know if HubSpot Academy reports to marketing, but I’d bet $47 that people who take courses from HubSpot Academy are more likely to buy HubSpot products than people who do not take HubSpot Academy offerings. Sounds like marketing to me. 

The education team is the marketing team

Cloudera hired an education professional as employee number 20!

Before the company hired marketing, it hired education. At the 2017 Business of Customer Education Conference, Sarah Sproehnle, then VP of Customer Education at Cloudera said, “Customer education was our marketing.” Here is the audio for a panel I moderated at the conference on that.

Education roles hired in product marketing

Erin Harlan from Smartsheet, posted a link for a Product Marketing Manager: Product Education role to help improve education offerings. 

This is happening because fast-growing software companies know that helping customers discover, adopt, and thrive using their software, makes more and better customers. Education helps growth. 

I suggest you add this topic to your next executive team meeting agenda and discuss it. If your priorities are to generate demand, increase conversions from free to paid accounts, increase product use, and even to create a market of talented people who know how to use your product (so your customers have someone to hire), you might consider a little reorg. 

Design your customer education strategy

You may be an innovator or an early adopter, read this article, and want to go all in. I understand your impulse. My Kolbe A Index shows that I am a 9 on the Quick Start categories, which means I am "uniquely able to take on future-oriented challenges." And that I will "say 'Yes' before I even know the end of the question." You might be like that too. I urge you to take a deep breath and go through the process of designing your customer education strategy. Take that energy and direct it towards documenting your strategy. If you do that, it will make execution the easy part. 

For helping going through that design process, download The Learndot guide to customer education strategy design. It will not slow you down. It will speed you up.