“An Investment in Knowledge Pays the Best Interest”

“An Investment in Knowledge Pays the Best Interest”

“An Investment in Knowledge Pays the Best Interest”

Chapter 2 of my CMO Blog Series

This is certainly a timeless quote by Benjamin Franklin. I think it perfectly captures my second guiding principle for CMOs: Always invest in customer education and campaign on it as a top priority.

There are expensive ways to uncover new leads, expand existing opportunities and convert pipeline to bookings. We as marketers burn a lot of budget and resources working to uncover that new prospect, who is ready to buy at just that time. Equally, we are desperately searching for powerful ways to create “pull” from the market, both from existing and new customers. And just as in life, the power of education and certification can be a catapult to career advancement for your customers. And a perpetual lead generation machine for your business.

A great example of this principle in action is Cisco. There have been many books written, speeches given and stories reported about the longtime success of this company. Deservedly so, Cisco’s early innovations in Internet routing, management excellence, a vaunted salesforce and acquisition strategy have received ample credit. But I’ve always believed that the true secret of Cisco’s rise and dominance in the networking industry was tied to four simple letters: CCIE.

It stands for the Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineer. Commensurate with the rise of the Internet and enterprise networking, the CCIE became a pinnacle badge of technical excellence for IT departments searching for the talent they needed to network their data, applications and employees together. Having a strong understanding of the myriad of routing protocols, switching technologies, configuration requirements and ongoing technical management chops was in incredible demand in the 1990s.

And as hard as it was to find these experts, it was even harder for a IT pro to climb the academic ladder of courses and tests to achieve that CCIE badge. But when they did, it meant tremendous job opportunities, as well as internal promotions. And for Cisco, it created a true, virtuous cycle. Its minted and growing army of CCIEs, Cisco Certified Networking Professionals and Cisco Certified Certified Network Associates started flooding the market. Only they had the proven skills to manage and operate the complicated technologies and products that Cisco brought to market. Salaries went up, as did job offers.

In turn, Cisco was able to command a premium. They didn’t always have the best product, the cheapest, nor the most simple to use. But what they did have was a rapidly loyal, higher paid buying public thanks to this education initiative. So wherever these CCXX’s went in their careers, Cisco partners and sales reps could follow. But how did Cisco, and how can others build a perpetual, global campaign approach to drive demand for this “product” (the curriculum and certifications), as well as the market pull for the graduates?  

Here’s where a focused marketing organization can architect and deliver a creative and scaling outcome for such customer education initiatives. There are four key elements of a deep education and certification campaign:

  1. The University: Developing and delivering the curriculum, hybrid style, and free of charge.
  2. The User Conference: Every company wants to do one. How to do it right, particularly these days?
  3. User Groups: Community-sourced education and advocacy.
  4. Digital Community platform: A global, vibrant community featuring online support, forums and gamification to create sustained, deep engagement.

The University:

It all starts with developing the right curriculum and delivering it effectively. I have three fundamental pieces of advice here. First, when building your education services offerings, do not outsource it.  I’ve seen too many companies try to outsource this critical kernel to agencies who lack the true intimacy with both the customer and technology to ring true. This shouldn’t be a packaging exercise. It must be a core knowledge IP exercise. 

Accordingly, I’m a big fan of bringing together your best technical sales engineers (SEs) and/or Technical Marketing Engineers (TMEs) to develop this critical body of work. It’s hard to pull these resources “out of market” to get this work done, but the scaling effect and quality you will realize here outweighs the short term hit to market engagement. By all means, have a proper consultant help this content team with proper packaging, but make sure the core IP comes from your customer-facing experts.

The second piece of advice is to avoid making your training exclusively about your own product and/or services. Your education sources will be differentiated to the degree that represent real-world deployments, which are rarely about your product in silo. It’s certainly required to cover the basics on how to set up, configure and operate your product. But the real value of education comes in helping tacticians become strategic architects. These are the subject matter experts who could be developing your 100-, 200-, and 300-level courses.

The third piece of advice? Resist all temptation to charge for your courses. I’ve seen many organizations want to turn education into a revenue stream. This approach ignores the pull-through revenue opportunity of loyal customers, educated to solve tough technical problems by the vendor who has proven loyalty to them and their careers. Testing and certifications?  Yes. That establishes the premium value of your education offerings. 

But the courses themselves? They are ultimately funded in two ways: customer support call-offset, which I will discuss in the digital community platform discussion; and expanded recurring revenue from a far greater number of educated customers than would otherwise be achieved with tuition as a barrier to entry.

The User Conference: Graduation

I’ve had many CMOs tell me, sometimes in a panic, sometimes with dread, that their CEO was asking them to launch a new user conference. I’d call it a perceived right of passage for young, up and coming startups to announce they have reached bigtime status. The first question I’ve counseled them to ask is whether they were ready to graduate their first class of students. If yes, proceed. If the answer is no, don’t even think about it yet.

While it’s popular to think about glitzy keynotes and awesome parties, the absolute heartbeat of any user conference must be to graduate, and yes, celebrate your students. Your user conference is where your students come to take their exams, conduct their labs, and to get certified. This, they will pay to do, as it represents professional development and a justifiable expense for your customers to gain approval to attend. That payment, in turn, serves as a critical revenue stream to offset the cost of your user conference.

I’ve seen far too many young companies go for bigger numbers by not charging for their conferences. By all means, charge for your technical labs and certification testing. Otherwise, you will find yourself among the many who discover that with their growing business and customer base, their free user conference becomes a tremendous budget burden. And it is absolutely no fun to transition from free to paid. Endless pain.

I think the best example of this strategy is Cisco Networkers, born in the 1990s as an education- and certification-first user conference. Even as it grew exponentially over the years into today’s Cisco Live, the core tenants of technical education and certification still remain the heartbeat. At Aruba Networks, we embraced the same footprint, aiming to provide an alternative, wireless- and mobility-first option for networking engineers looking to embrace new Wi-Fi technologies. We started with “Airheads” technical events, which evolved into Aruba Atmosphere, which survives to this day as part of HPE. VMWorld isn’t what it is without the foundational VMware user groups (VMUGs). I offer up these examples to hammer home the point that User Conferences must start with graduating your education students at its core.

It’s A Virtual World, Until it’s a Hybrid World

Of course, the past two years of pandemic have forced all of us to embrace virtual conferences … so much so that, along with Zoom fatigue, we have virtual event fatigue. We’ve seen plenty of data that supports the notion that virtual education is significantly poorer than the interaction and retention of in-person education. As with many realms of the IT world, everything is moving hybrid. I would advise a similar hybrid approach as we return to normal with a hopeful emergence from COVID pandemic to endemicity. 

How? Produce your keynotes like a CNN broadcast, or even a Hollywood blockbuster. (See chapter 1: Signature Moments).  Teach your best executive speakers to be camera ready, and to impart their wisdom in a matter of minutes in-studio, versus hours on-stage. Invest in an election night-styled broadcast studio. Make it visually arresting so it pops from the computer screen. Drive your audience to attend, and borrow tricks from Netflix on how they launch original series (Cobra Kai is a recent favorite of mine…finished season 4 in two nights).

In tandem with this production, activate your field marketing organization to hold regional technical boot camps and certification sessions. Go to your top 30 cities and bring graduation to your students. Host these with your community super members and SE staff. Hold watch parties of your keynote production and then breakout into technical sessions. Attendance should be limited, and your field marketers should target your customers and prospects with pipeline set to close in the current quarter or next.

User Groups

If the user conference is about a big moment, user groups are about the remaining 11 months of the year. The best user group programs start with a small group of company technical evangelists to develop the content and deliver like a university pro. The absolute key to scale though is enrolling an army of “technical activists”. These are the combination of partner and customer advocates who organize community-level user group meetings. 

In my opinion, there’s no better example of stunning success in our industry than the vaunted VMware User Group (VMUG) program. Here again, similar to the Cisco CCIE/Certification program, I believe VMUGs were a key secret weapon that catapulted VMware to their dominating position in server virtualization. The VMware army of technical enthusiasts challenged conventional wisdom in running applications and bare metal and moved the industry forward.

At Aruba Networks, we wanted to run a similar playbook. In our case, we were up against two formidable incumbents.  One was a vendor in Cisco, and the other was a technology in Ethernet switching. We had fun rallying our army of “Airheads”, as we advanced a “mobility age” networking professional who was uniquely trained to operate high performance networks, over the air, with WiFi. Our goal was to create a counter culture of Wi-Fi enthusiasts who rallied around the clever phrase by Keerti Melkote, the Founder of Aruba: “People Move, The Network Must Follow”.

Going Digital

If User Conferences are about the year and User Groups about months, your digital community platform is about the days, hours and minutes spent with your technology enthusiasts. These once-“chat boards” designed for customer support evolved into vibrant digital communities, powered by a wide range of conversations, customer stories and best practices. At their best, these online communities can materially reduce the inbound volume for customer service and support by at least 20 percent. The beauty of this model is that customers help other customers, fueled by Community Managers who are diligently fostering these interactions and content.

And while these digital community platforms start with customer service and support, they can quickly become a powerful marketing engine, if handled appropriately. I’ve seen many companies make the mistake of “promoting” to their community members. This audience is not there to be pitched. They are there to learn, to network and to solve problems. I always recommend that companies rally their product managers and engineers to actively engage with their communities. What better way to LISTEN to their target market, and gain incredible insight that can influence roadmaps?

In turn, if your community members feel listened to, they will double down on you as a vendor they can respect and trust. The best way to tie the knot here is to introduce new product releases exclusively to your community members as a special preview. This way, your product managers have a personal way to prove that “you asked, and we have listened.” Never forget your digital community as the most potent “earned media” you could ever muster. Just keep it educational, and not promotional, and you’ll have a loyalty engine that will pay off handsomely.  

System-Level Thinking

I firmly believe that the opportunity here for CMO is to treat education as an integrated, line-of-business. The heart of the practice is education services and certifications. The User Conference must be based on providing a destination for testing, and “graduations.” User groups and digital communities are the platforms to scale, fueled by any army of activists from your customer and partner base. Each should be orchestrated to work together, and measured for impact on the business.

How to measure? Simply put, product adoption expansion, pipeline expansion and bookings associated with the human student over the years, not just the account, are key. I’d also recommend considering bringing in a senior-level leader to architect and build the practice. The best example in my career of this was Todd Shimizu, who is now Vice President of Digital Marketing at Cisco. When I met Todd, he had built his own company to advise companies on building community strategies. When I brought him onboard at Veritas, his role was to deliver, in his terminology, a “Connected Customer Experience.” 

Find someone who understands both modern community building and digital marketing. Resist folding the critical elements of education, user conferences, user groups and community as projects in a corporate marketing group.  Consider, with the right leader, a system-level approach to customer education. Invest in customer knowledge, and you could be building a powerful, cost-effective top-line engine for your business. 

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