Towards the end of last year, my LinkedIn timeline was overrun by execs talking up the importance of ongoing learning and upskilling, and sharing the shiny new certifications they earned.
I don’t know whether this sudden flurry was because LinkedIn’s algorithm decided I was interested, or if a significant increase of people got certified in the fourth quarter and wanted to make it public.
The interesting thing was that not all the courses were academic certifications from traditional universities. While highly reputable, these certifications are more expensive and need specific time commitments. Instead, the certifications on display came from a range of players, including:
- MOOCs from Ivy Leagues: Paid certifications.
- Aggregator learning platforms such as Coursera and Udemy: Both free and paid certifications.
- Industry bodies such as Digital Marketing Institute, Online Marketing Certified Professionals and Content Marketing Institute: Paid certifications.
- Walled garden platforms such as LinkedIn Learning: Paid (subscription-based).
- Independent content entrepreneurs (Neil Patel, The Tilt): Both free and paid certifications.
- Vendors offering courses around their product, category and beyond. For example, HubSpot, Drift, SEMRush, Trust insights, Sweet Fish Media: Mostly free.
The final group was intriguing.
Informational and educational content have long been the bedrock of B2B marketing for acquisition and engagement. Yet the education was typically aimed at helping potential buyers (members and personas fitting the ideal customer profile) make a more informed purchase decision. You didn’t see a lot of certifications in the mix. That appears to be changing.
Why Are B2B Companies Offering Certifications to Industry Professionals?
This trend — of product companies offering evaluated and certified courses — marks an evolution in content marketing. It fundamentally reframes what educational content from a brand means, while also creating new possibilities in prospect and customer engagement, retention and advocacy.
This is why more product companies (beyond HubSpot Academy, which remains the first mover and leader in the space) are offering educational certifications that 'help you do your job better' versus educational content that helps you 'make a more informed buying decision.'
Here are some of the benefits a brand can expect, if this long-term commitment of funds, resources and expertise goes well:
1. Build an Engaged Community
The community model has gone through some evolution: from in-house communities to more interactive, transparent and decentralized communities hosted on platforms such as Slack and Discord. Brands are now leveraging certified courses and programs to add new dimensions to community engagement. Not only does it proclaim 'we care about your career and have a stake in your long-term professional success,' it also gives the brand a direct line into the pain points and expectations of users and customers. Since professionals tend to see themselves as learners, not students, B2B brands may do a better job of engaging them by weaving it around the broader community experience.
Drift VP Mark Kilens previously led HubSpot Academy and recently launched Drift Insider, a community of marketers who want to go deeper into conversational marketing. Certified courses, he said, offer a powerful new way to bring high-value content to prospects and customers, deeper into the funnel. “As things get more serious, community plus education can really help to pull prospects deeper into the brand’s world. I believe audiences are not just seeking education — but also the brand and community experience, which aggregators such as Coursera or LinkedIn, as carriers and syndicators, cannot.” In addition, he added, brands have the ability to teach the theory and strategy but also how to use and know more about the platform than anyone else at the company. That can be compelling for practitioners.
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2. Create a Category
When a brand is starting out in a relatively unknown solution category, they need to build awareness, usage and demand, as well as drive adoption with process and culture change. Community plus education can play a key role in enabling that goal. Think of content marketing, inbound marketing and now conversational marketing: all three categories have benefited by building a community that also offers category-specific certified education. The approach helps to create a new cohort of practitioners (users and customers) who understand the new solution (ahead of their peers), and even champion the category as they progress in their careers.
3. Shape the Industry Narrative
B2B companies investing in practitioner education and certification actually play a big role in mainstreaming the category, driving standardization or setting benchmarks across customer verticals. They bring a depth of knowledge about the niche that others like MOOCs and learning platforms simply can't. Robert Rose, founder of The Content Advisory and chief strategy advisor to the Content Marketing Institute said that B2B companies are able to offer up much more topical, relevant and differentiated offerings in their niche. “It would not surprise me the least to see a company such as GE, or Apple, or LinkedIn offer a fully accredited four year degree. Why no big B2B brand has done this yet, candidly, baffles me,” he said.
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4. Elevate Customer Success Outcomes
New products, brands in highly dynamic industries, and those having trouble with adoption can all benefit from offering certified courses that boost the perceived value of the solution. Training customers to use your product will help them get better results. Certifying customers as authorities in your products creates champions who can drive adoption within the business long after a training session is complete.
The Evolution of Content Marketing Creates a Win-Win Situation
When brand certification is done right, everybody wins. For example, let’s say a B2B company decides to launch a podcast. Their options are: hire an expensive consultant or agency, and remain dependent; hire a marketer from outside, with a proven track record of running podcasts. Or develop internal talent by letting a mid-level manager take a certified course offered by an in-demand B2B podcasting platform.
With the third option, the company gets an in-house expert for a fraction of the cost of a consultant or agency, while promoting internal talent. The employee gains a new skill and becomes more employable; the podcasting platform likely makes a sale and creates a tangible stake in the manager’s longer-term success; the podcasting industry gets another informed ‘certified’ champion; and the larger marketing talent pool gets stronger.
As you can imagine, this approach is effort- and resource-intensive. Interactive course content designed by real subject-matter experts, real educators to weigh in on pedagogy, relatively high production values, and long-term follow-through for evaluation, feedback and upgrades. While the easier availability of technology such as ready-made learning platforms enables more cost-effective content delivery at scale, it also demands stand-out content and learning experiences. Compared to delivering a bunch of how-to guides, certification is a commitment for the long haul.
In part two, we'll explore how brands can leverage this trend to get real business outcomes. What are the best practices and key considerations to get the model right? What does the future hold? Don’t miss expert insight from Robert Rose, Mark Kilens and Ann Gynn of The Tilt in the next article.