The decision to launch a certified program is not one for brands to take lightly. Although certifications can offer many benefits for both brands and their customers, it involves a substantial amount of effort and resources. But for some brands, this evolution in B2B content marketing is a clear path forward. If that sounds like your company, let’s take a deeper dive into how you can get started and what the future holds for this trend.
A few considerations to keep in mind before starting a certified learning programs include:
1. Why Do You Want to Offer Certified Programs to Customers?
Online educational courses/certifications from brands can serve multiple purposes, depending on the business goal and the audience's needs and goals, said Ann Gynn, managing editor of The Tilt and founder of G Force Communication.
- If the brand is using it as a lead-generation tool, a simpler and faster route may do. For example, after reviewing informational content, the prospect takes a quiz and gets some recognition they could share on social media. It’s really just adding a layer of low-stakes certification onto the standard way of leveraging content for lead-gen, and can be gamified for a more fun experience.
- If the goal is to use the course/ certification to position the brand as a thought leader and to cultivate an engaged community, then a well-structured educational program with the best subject matter experts and educators is key. The Tilt takes the latter approach. For instance, the director of online education, a trained educator who has spent years in the classroom, takes the "I do, we do, you do" approach, where one learns at three levels: from the instructor, with the community, and in their own self-paced journey.
- If the goal is to monetize online courses and certifications, then it is a whole different set of considerations, including pricing, market value of the certification and ownership.
Drift VP of content and community Mark Kilens said ultimately the decision has to be wrapped into your larger go-to-market strategy. An investment into community and certified education is a long-term commitment that impacts credibility and trust, so question whether education and certification help create more efficiency in reaching your business goals: better cost of acquisition, better conversion, higher retention or brand affinity, he recommends.
Related Article: So You Think You Have a Go-to-Market Strategy?
2. Finding the Model That Works for You
To test the certified courses waters, choose a model depending on your goal, business context and budget.
The experts I spoke to all said B2B product education is mostly niche, and that can be a strength: focus on one or a few certifications and going deep, versus starting broad in a crowded space. There are several deployment models possible too: short courses on your own website, microlearning courses on Coursera, or on a Slack community before setting up a full-fledged learning experience platform. You also don’t have to go it alone. Consider sponsoring courses on learning aggregators sites, co-creating a course with an educational institution, or working with complementary industry peers to create a more comprehensive program on a shared platform. Many independent experts — from SEO experts to accountants — are turning content creators and sharing expertise directly with audiences. Brands could also create some form of collaboration with them.
3. Attaching ‘Value’ to Your Certification
While these kinds of programs are a fantastic and differentiating means of value for content marketing, it’s important to be clear about what ‘value’ you want your certification to hold in the mind of audiences and industry. As Robert Rose, founder of The Content Advisory and chief strategy advisor to the Content Marketing Institute put it, the certification is only as good as what the brand puts into it.
“The overwhelming majority of brand certifications are simply certificates of completion — which mean that other than having a 'badge' or something you can point to on your resume don’t really mean that much. So the value of the certification is, literally, only as valuable as the brand is prevalent or recognized," he said. "For example, outside of an inbound marketing position, HubSpot Certification doesn’t mean that much to a marketing career. However, in the context of an inbound marketing job — HubSpot Certification might be the differentiator for a candidate.”
4. Decisions About Certification Pricing
B2B events, which are also considered an investment in one’s own learning, have been ticketed for a long time — including several run by brands. The same rules apply: it depends on your goal. HubSpot and Drift made a choice to remain free, said Kilens, because their goal is brand building, and creating a value-added experience that maximizes reach and impact with minimal friction upfront.
Free, freemium and paid are all options depending on demand and the exclusivity of your content. Access to certifications can also be a part of community privileges, part of membership costs, or an interesting way to extend engagement after a paid event. If you have a breakthrough but unfamiliar technology, offering free certifications for early adopters could be a great way of creating a community of educated champions.
5. Program Management and Ownership
Anecdotally, most of the brands running certification programs do so under a separate name (usually the word ‘Academy’ added to the brand name): SEM Academy, HubSpot Academy, etc. That approach separates the more transactional and commercial part of the business from the learning and growth elements of community and education. Whether the initiative is skewed towards the customer acquisition side or the customer success side, the trick, said Kilens, is to ensure the overall brand experience is cohesive. That can be done by “organizing all three types of content (brand building, engagement, conversion) under a single team and leadership, so we can align these content experiences across the business lifecycle.”
Ultimately, like any owned media exercise the key is to look at an online learning platform through the same lens as products and services. "This is a business strategy, not a marketing campaign. It can, and should, be a marketing-driven initiative — but it will fail if it’s not taken with the same level of budgeting, resourcing and ongoing effort as a product or service," said Rose.
What Does the Future Hold for Brand Certifications and Courses?
It's an exciting time in the lifelong learning space. The idea of taking ownership of one’s own continued education journey, with self-paced, personalized learning at the core of a diverse ‘learning portfolio’ is gaining traction across all levels of the workforce.
With newer members of the workforce questioning the notion of spending thousands of dollars on entry-level qualifications, and some leading companies no longer asking candidates for college degrees, practitioner-led certifications may be far more effective in meeting industry needs. The opportunity is definitely real.
Kilens is also tracking how technologies such as NFT, blockchain and gamification will impact learning, since they can make education and the outcomes of that education very transparent. Certifications can serve as a hugely immersive and engaging content experience, he says, and Web 3.0 holds the potential to change and transform this space even more. He argues it will enable new kinds of decentralized learning communities where members educate themselves and each other. “As brands, we need to find way more and better ways to engage with the education content experience and help audiences unlock value with those certifications. Not just jobs, but even tapping into the growing creator economy, for instance,” Kilens said.
The real differentiator, agreed Rose, is when B2B product companies take the time not only to build their educational platforms, but put real “meat” on their certification bones, sharing that the CMI University is working on that exact thing. He cited the example of Schneider Electric’s Energy University, which has not just certified thousands of professionals, but has also made the certificates mean something by partnering with educational institutions and professional associations to turn those certificates into actual accreditation certificates.
A Growing Opportunity in a Transformative Space
It's tempting to imagine the marketing industry collaborating to facilitate the new-age learning ecosystem. Professionals will build their own learning portfolio based on dynamic career needs, while brands will do their part offering practitioner-focused certifications that hold real market value. This is where investments in community can really pay off, since members bring rich experience, resources, feedback and opportunities for collaborative, peer-to-peer learning.
It’s early days, but the real challenge for brands will be to find their place and purpose in the self-sustaining, decentralized learning ecosystem that are sure to come.