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12 Lessons for Focusing Your Content Marketing Strategy on Education

focus strategy on educationEducating your customers and prospects is a great way to generate the right kind of leads — and, often, to fulfill your organization’s content marketing mission.

Many CMI contributors have written about the vital role that education plays as part of a powerful content marketing strategy. So when Lorna Breault-Snyder, Director of Customer Education Development at Schneider Electric, reached out to talk to me about her company’s Energy University, I jumped at the chance to share the story. 

About Energy University 

Schneider Electric’s Energy University is a free, online, educational resource that provides vendor-neutral courses on energy efficiency and other information that helps organizations improve their energy efficiency. Energy University currently has over 350,000 active users, and more than 800 courses are taken every day.

In addition to serving as a helpful resource, Energy University also generates millions in lead opportunities globally, as courses are translated into over 13 languages. Moreover, these leads are often unique to Schneider’s database.

Opening up an entirely new, effective lead generation channel is a marketer’s dream —so how did Energy University do it? Let’s take a look at some of the insights Lorna shared on the program, and how their techniques can be applied to a content marketing strategy of any scope, for any industry.

What Energy University teaches us about educational content 

1. Start with your mission: Energy University began as Data Center University, which was started in 2004 by a company called American Power Conversion (APC). At APC, Lorna explained, “Part of our mission was to create delighted customers,” and Data Center University helped fulfill that mission.

When Schneider acquired APC, its corporate mission changed; but becoming a trusted adviser for its customers remained as one of Schneider’s key marketing goals. The program’s close connection to this core goal made it easier to secure — and keep — buy-in from Schneider’s executives. In the end, Data Center University was so successful that Schneider Electric decided not only to continue the program, but also to expand it into Energy University.

Key takeaway: If you’re struggling to get buy-in for an informational content program, start by evaluating your content plans against your company’s organizational mission and overarching marketing goals. 

2. Educating your customers can save you time — and make you money: Buying efficiency products for a large structure, such as a data center, is complex, Lorna explained, so Energy University teaches its users about the processes involved in making their products work.

For example, when people understand the refrigeration cycle, they’re going to come away with a better understanding of cooling products, overall. When customers are educated, they can make more informed purchasing decisions without needing a lot of assistance from your sales team — in turn, this reduces product returns and increases customer satisfaction rates.

Key takeaway: Content focused on customer education can benefit your organization in ways that reach far beyond the sales and marketing department.

3. Focus on teaching: If you hold a webinar that’s all about your proprietary software, you probably won’t get a whole lot of people to sign up. Instead, focus on teaching users about how to solve the problem your software addresses in a more general way. Lorna stressed that, “For adult learners, it’s really important not to waste their time. They need to walk away having learned something.”

Schneider Electric brings the right thinkers to the table to ensure each course is packed with useful takeaways — Lorna heads up a dedicated team of in-house educators who have Master’s degrees in subjects such as instructional design and adult education. As Lorna explained, there simply aren’t a lot of organizations offering that level of high-quality education in their industry — let alone for free. By focusing on education, Schneider Electric differentiated itself in its market.

Key takeaway: Your competitors may be blogging, tweeting, and writing white papers, but are they providing quality, comprehensive continuing education? If not, consider it the perfect opportunity to stand out in your industry.

4. Don’t trick your audience into enduring a glorified sales pitch: Have you ever signed up for a webinar you thought would be educational, only to find out that one particular product or service is pitched the whole time? If you disguise your sales pitch as education, your audience will come to distrust you. At Schneider, Lorna said, “We don’t talk about products specifically; it’s vendor neutral.” Their metrics bear out the success of this approach: 75 percent of users have returned to take two or more additional courses. “It’s not one and done; people are sticking around,” says Lorna.

Key takeaway: To build trust, ensure that your educational materials would apply no matter which product or service your audience members prefer to use.

energy university-rotary compressor
Energy University creates brand-agnostic technical drawings to illustrate a product’s functionality.

5. Convert attendees to leads: To take an Energy University class, users have to complete a registration process, where they are asked to provide information on projects they’re working on. Based on their responses, users are added into Schneider’s lead cycle and are categorized by their potential needs and interests — making it easy for the sales team to take it from there. 

Key takeaway: Does your sales team work closely with your content marketing team? If you have the wonderful problem of creating an overwhelming volume of leads, consider adding a few qualifying questions to your registration or download forms, to help your team drill down to the pain points each lead is most likely to need help with.

6. Keep it short: For online learning, Lorna explained, courses shouldn’t be too lengthy, lest you lose the audience’s interest. “It’s very difficult to keep a learner engaged online for more than 30 minutes,” said Lorna. When her team experimented with longer courses, the attrition rates soared. While 30 minutes may seem like nothing compared to a typical college class, Lorna explained the need for brevity: “Online, you are competing with email, Facebook, shopping, etc. When you’re in a classroom, you can just throw a stress ball at someone who’s distracted.” Because of how easy it is to get distracted, online courses must be very targeted and streamlined.

Key takeaway: When I pointed out that many webinars in the industry are an hour long, Lorna conceded that for a session that includes an interactive Q&A, this is just fine. Still, her advice is to consider editing your recorded content into shorter snippets to see if this leads to better response rates.

7. Pack as much as you can into your allotted time frame: Though Schneider Electric’s courses are brief, they are designed so that users can gain a lot of knowledge in that short period of time. “The rule is that one hour of online learning is worth three hours in person,” said Lorna. 

According to Lorna, when her team writes a script, “Every sentence is pored over to make sure we’re writing in a technical, accurate way. We’re taking the waste out. You’re not hearing the ‘ums’ and the ‘ahs’ and the tangents.” Additionally, during in-person classes, individual teachers create a different experience for each time the course is given. In contrast, online classes are extremely consistent. The messaging strategy carries through every single time the course is watched. “It’s a great way to reach a huge, vast audience with a consistent message,” said Lorna.

Key takeaway: While you don’t want to sound like a robot, consider scripting your next webinar, and implementing a review process for the script, in advance, so your participants don’t get distracted by a lot of “ums” and “ahs.”

8. Conduct thorough research using only reliable sources: Energy University is meticulous about where its information comes from because, as Lorna said, “anyone can throw out a training [session]. Just because it lives on the ‘interwebs’ doesn’t make it true. The first time we put out bad information, we’re done.” 

The education team draws information from college textbooks, reliable sources in the public domain, and in-house subject matter experts. “We’re the experts in learning; they’re the experts in tech,” said Lorna. Every course goes through an approval process that involves both instructional and subject matter experts.

Key takeaway: When your content marketing program relies on education, the information you distribute must be accurate and beyond reproach. Implement a rigorous approval process so you don’t get caught delivering bad information.

9. Work with professional associations to provide program attendees with continuing education credits: Many of Energy University’s courses are associated with continuing education certifications and licenses. Some courses even qualify attendees to sit for in-person exams that are offered through third parties. Energy University works directly with these organizations to make sure its courses are in compliance with the strict guidelines required for accreditation.

Key takeaway: If you invest the time and effort necessary to gain accreditation for your educational content programs, it likely will pay dividends in the consumer trust and support your organization gains.

certificate of completion
Continuing education certification

10. Offer your courses free of charge (whenever possible): A few years ago, Energy University experimented with charging a fee for its courses — and registrations went down. Schneider Electric reverted to the free model, but now charges for certifications. Offering the education for free shows how invested Schneider is in their customers’ needs. “Right now, the goal is to keep it free as long as we can,” said Lorna.

Key takeaway: Providing free courses will help grow your brand and gain trust. However, even if it isn’t feasible to offer all of your courses for free, you can still reap many of the branding and lead generation benefits provided by an educational content program.

11. Integrate your educational program into your other marketing efforts: Schneider Electric uses Energy University as a call to action on its other marketing channels, such as traditional advertising, email, and the company’s corporate magazine. Yet, Energy University also brings a lot of users in via word of mouth — and those users are then added to the company’s database to be used in its other marketing activities.

energy university-call to action
Calls to action encourage enrollment in Energy University.

Key takeaway: Any educational program should work together with all of your other marketing efforts — that way, both audiences grow.

energy university-infographic
An infographic to promote Energy University

12. Measure multiple types of success: Running a program like Energy University, “is not like training your sales force, which you will always need to do,” said Lorna. “If the numbers aren’t right, I don’t have a job.” Measurement is essential to prove Energy University’s worth on an ongoing basis. Schneider Electric tracks leads, how users are coming into the site, and where users are coming from. “We try to follow them all the way through,” said Lorna.

Key takeaway: Even after you’ve gotten buy-in, you’ll need to keep working to keep it. To do this, it’s essential that you start tracking your educational program’s impact from the minute it launches.

As Schneider Electric has grown and acquired other companies in the last decade, Lorna has observed “a real corporate emphasis on creating one Schneider Electric brand. Energy University has been a great tool to advance brand awareness and position us as thought leaders.” Yet for Lorna, the most rewarding part of building Energy University has been the validation the program has achieved — both in terms of the customers who willingly choose to spend time with Schneider and the support from Schneider, which demonstrates that it cares about its customers enough to continue investing in a large-scale educational content program.

Energy University — and the educational content marketing strategy it was founded on — has reached the unique and elusive point where money and mission are in alignment. What can your company do to demonstrate its concern for customers and simultaneously uncover new business leads? We would love for you to share your ideas with us in the comments below.

For more guidance on how content marketing can help meet your audience’s informational needs, read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook.