The Next Step in B2B Content Marketing: Certified Courses

PHOTO: Jody Hong Films

Late last year, my LinkedIn timeline was overtaken by executives who emphasized the importance of continuous learning and development and shared the shiny new certifications they’ve earned.

I don’t know if this sudden burst was because LinkedIn’s algorithm decided I was interested, or if a significant surge in people certified in Q4 and wanted to go public.

The interesting thing was that not all courses were academic certifications from traditional universities. Although highly reputable, these certifications are more expensive and require specific time commitments. Instead, the certifications on display came from a range of players, including:

  • Ivy League MOOCs: Paid certificates.
  • Aggregation learning platforms such as Coursera and Udemy: Free and paid certifications.
  • Industry bodies such as Digital Marketing Institute, Online Marketing Certified Professionals and Content Marketing Institute: Paid certificates.
  • Walled garden platforms such as LinkedIn Learning: Paid (by subscription).
  • Independent content entrepreneurs (Neil Patel, The Tilt): Free and paid certifications.
  • Suppliers offering courses on their product, category and beyond. For example, HubSpot, Drift, SEMRush, Trust insights, Sweet Fish Media: Mostly free.

The last group was intriguing.

Informational and educational content has long been the foundation of B2B marketing for acquisition and engagement. Yet education was generally aimed at helping potential buyers (members and personalities that fit the ideal customer profile) make a more informed purchase decision. You haven’t seen many certifications in the mix. It seems to be changing.

Why do B2B companies offer certifications to industry professionals?

This trend – of product companies offering reviewed and certified courses – marks an evolution in content marketing. It fundamentally reframes what a brand’s educational content means, while creating new possibilities for engaging, retaining, and advocating for prospects and customers.

That’s why more and more product companies (beyond HubSpot Academy, which remains the number one player and leader in the field) are offering educational certifications that “help you do your job better” compared to 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 seen some evolution: from internal 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 career success”, but it also gives the brand a direct line to pain points and user and customer expectations. Since professionals tend to think of themselves as learners, not students, B2B brands can do a better job of engaging them by weaving them around the larger community experience.

Drift VP Mark Kilens previously ran HubSpot Academy and recently launched Drift Insider, a community of marketers who want to dive deeper into conversational marketing. Certified courses, he said, offer a powerful new way to bring high-value content to prospects and customers, deeper down the funnel. “As things get more serious, community plus education can really help draw prospects deeper into the world of the brand. I believe audiences are not only looking for education, but also for brand and community experience, which aggregators like Coursera or LinkedIn, as carriers and syndicators, cannot. Moreover, he added, brands have the ability to teach theory and strategy, but also how to use and learn more about the platform than anyone else in the business. This can be burdensome for practitioners.

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2. Create a category

When a brand starts in a relatively unknown solution category, it needs to build awareness, usage, and demand, as well as drive adoption with process and culture change. The community and education can play a key role in achieving this goal. Think content marketing, inbound marketing, and now conversational marketing: all three categories have benefited from the creation of a community that also offers category-specific certified training. The approach helps create a new cohort of practitioners (users and customers) who understand the new solution (before their peers), and even champion the category as they progress in their careers.

3. Shaping the industry narrative

B2B companies that invest in practitioner training and certification actually play an important role in category integration, standardization, or benchmarking in customer verticals. They bring deep insight into the niche that others like MOOCs and learning platforms simply cannot. Robert Rose, founder of The Content Advisory and chief strategic adviser to the Content Marketing Institute, said B2B companies are able to offer much more themed, relevant and differentiated offerings in their niche. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see a company like GE, Apple or LinkedIn offering a fully accredited four-year degree. Why no major B2B brand has done this yet, frankly, baffles me,” he said.

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4. Improve customer success results

New products, brands in highly dynamic industries, and those with adoption challenges can all benefit from certified courses that reinforce 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 company long after a training session is over.

The Evolution of Content Marketing Creates a Win-Win Situation

When brand certification is done right, everyone wins. For example, let’s say a B2B company decides to launch a podcast. Their options are: hire an expensive consultant or agency and stay dependent; hire an outside marketer with a proven track record of managing podcasts. Or develop internal talent by letting a mid-level manager take a certified course offered by a popular B2B podcasting platform.

With the third option, the company obtains an internal expert for a fraction of the cost of a consultant or an agency, while valuing internal talent. The employee acquires a new skill and becomes more employable; the podcasting platform likely makes a sale and creates a tangible stake in the manager’s long-term success; the podcasting industry gets another informed “certified” champion; and the largest pool of marketing talent is growing.

As you can imagine, this approach takes a lot of effort and resources. Interactive course content designed by real subject matter experts, real educators to influence pedagogy, relatively high production values, and long-term tracking for assessment, feedback, and upgrades. While the easier availability of technologies such as off-the-shelf learning platforms enables more cost-effective content delivery at scale, it also demands exceptional content and learning experiences. Compared to providing a bunch of how-to guides, certification is a long-term commitment.

In Part 2, we’ll explore how brands can leverage this trend to drive real business results. What are the best practices and key considerations for getting the right model? What does the future hold? Don’t miss expert advice from Robert Rose, Mark Kilens and Ann Gynn of The Tilt in the next article.