Some instructional design will help content marketers level-up
One of the things I love is looking at the support resources software-as-a-service providers offer their customers. From my perspective, this says three important things about the company's attitude towards clients. First, the effort they put into providing top-notch self-service support documentation is a reflection of the leadership's perspective on customer success in general. Second, it says a lot about the degree to which a company cares about customer success with their platform. Third, it speaks volumes about the degree to which the leadership at the company care about the customer experience.
Customer-focused education requires humility, not hubris
Seeing all three of these factors working in concert (caring about the customer success in general, caring about success with their platform, caring about the customer experience), requires a bit of humility if companies can be said to poses humility. A company that provides excellent self-service support resources is demonstrating a depth of knowledge about their product and customer base which should not be ignored by a potential customer. A company that offers the bare minimum of support documentation and thinks of customer education as just another box to tick are demonstrating that they believe their product is so excellent and their work is so fabulous that it requires no support. I've heard some product officers say this out loud with a straight face. All I can do is sit there and quietly listen to what they are saying and try to stop recalling what Merriam-Webster has to say on the topic of hubris.
The reason I say this is hubris is that I -- and how many of my fellow Millennials -- make decisions when we are buying a product or service by researching the heck out of a product or service online before we even bother talking with the business about what they have to offer. We try and find others with opinions and experience with the product or service we are considering. The adage about the power of word-of-mouth is very much alive and real...I would argue that for my generation, it's all about word-of-mouth and we very aggressively share web content produced by the companies we are evaluating.
Millennials are finally finding our voice as business leaders
Another thing to consider; we Millennials are risk averse as a general rule, especially when it comes to making investments. Remember, that many of the 30 somethings moving up the corporate later today had our worlds shattered when we saw the World Trade Center fall when we were just starting our adult lives. The childhood we had in the 90’s lead us to believe we could look forward to a rosy economic future,but we saw that future evaporate within a matter of months when the Great Recession hit. Many of us have never caught up. To compound this, my generation has endured over a decade of victim blaming for our circumstances. I’ve read and heard more than one triad about my generation’s work ethic with little to no real way to push back on these misconceptions. Afterall, whatever I say on the topic will come across as self-serving so what’s the point? We’re sensitive to how companies engage us or attempt to address our needs considering that we have limited means and we’ve endured one nasty surprise after another for most of our adult lives.
Millennials love change and disruption, but not nasty surprises
As such, we’re okay with disruption and innovation, in fact many of us welcome it considering that it offers an opportunity for a better tomorrow. However, we are particularly adverse to nasty surprises that come in the form of dishonest marketing, messaging that comes across as paternalistic, and we are very vocal with one another when we feel we’ve been subject to such marketing practices. The companies that don't wake up to this as far as their marketing efforts are concerned will take much longer to achieve the market share they seek. Not only will they have a harder time attracting customers, but they are less likely to engender the goodwill necessary to prevent customer churn. For example, if a brand offering a sophisticated product or service neglects to help customers succeed post-sale by providing solid customer education they will fail. Clear documentation, examples and use cases for how to achieve specific results, and on-demand training delivered as micro-learning are all amazing opportunities to build brand loyalty, but you have to see them as such in the first place. Customer education is an extension of your brand, so develop your customer education function with the same care you spend on improving the other parts of your brand. Moreover, I want to leave you with one last thought on this point before we move on. If we Millennials don't like what we see online or hear from our social networks, then you'll never even know you lost our sale. However, you will start hearing from sales targets that their associates are discouraging them from considering you as a vendor. If that's not enough to keep a marketer up at night, then I don't know what will.
Examples of Customer Education Out in the Wild
Some companies have embraced the mentality that customer education is a vital brand extension and have some excellent examples.
I love Slack, like, in ways that grown-ups should be a little embarrassed to admit. As an instant messaging platform Slack is an exceptional product. The number of integrations available for it and the way it reshapes organizational communication makes it a real workhorse. The one downside to Slack, however, is that it's not email. At least that's the subconscious reaction I've seen many professionals have when they first encounter Slack. "What are channels, why should I direct message people, who the hell is this Slackbot person that keeps sending me reminders; doesn't he have a real job?" These are all questions I've heard from seasoned business professionals that encounter Slack for the first time. Sometimes they don't say anything and react like you're showing them a magic 3D poster where you can't see the picture unless you let your eyes glaze over. Customers new to Slack need some tender love and care if they are going to embrace Slack. Despite what some of the folks in IT might think, people rarely just get it right away.
Slack has done a fantastic job of making their support documentation searchable on Google by investing in Search Engine Optimization services. They also have a robust YouTube channel with a helpful set of getting started videos in a play list that separates them from the rest of their marketing videos. I've even streamed some of their videos from YouTube into new employee orientation eLearning to help employees who've never used Slack warm up to it.
While fundamental to the point where some folks might roll their eyes, these videos are invaluable resources for the busy professional too self-conscious to ask questions and for those it will never occur to them to ask Google for help. Slack's getting started videos are an excellent resource for new employees -- or even customers if you can seduce them into your company Slack instance -- so they can fit in with the communication norms of the company. I'd love to see Slack produce some more videos showing customer success stories as mini-case studies. Such videos would be helpful for marketing and training purposes.
Smartsheet is one of my favorite project management suites. While I do not currently use the software in my consulting work, I happily endorse their product whenever asked about it. Smartsheet is also one of my favorite examples of customer education because, like Slack, they've done a fantastic job of making their content accessible to search engines by hosting it on YouTube. I first learned about Smartsheet when I was a web development project manager, and my boss wanted me to identify our next project management suite since it was time to level up as an agency. Once I started digging into Smartsheet, I started asking Google a ton of questions: How do I work with dependencies in Smartsheet, how do I back-schedule a project from a launch date, how do I enable team notifications? All these questions -- and many more -- were anticipated by Smartsheet which helped move my agency and me toward purchasing the software. After we bought it, these same materials I found with Google helped me adapt and work with the software with just-in-in time microlearning. The rest of the team also asked Google lots of questions, each from their unique perspective, and a basic poll of my development team confirmed that each of them found the answers they needed. Bravo Smartsheet.
The level of content Smartsheet produces is top notch. Using a Drupal front-end, they carefully organized and optimized the text for Google search and also provided a mixed media experience combing text instructions or closed-captioned video instructions to help keep the content accessible for everyone.
Check out their YouTube channel, and you will get a sense of just how seriously they take customer education.
I'm going to use Confluence as the example where I see some room for growth. Now, I'm not trying to throw shade, but in a recent sales conversation with a prospective client I pulled up Smartsheet's and Confluence's YouTube channels. I asked the client to consider the training value of the different channels he saw and to answer this one question, "Which company do you feel cares more about their customers?" His response, Smartsheet, no doubt. The client's assessment is significant for Confluence because this was the assessment of another player in the project management software space and Confluence and Smartsheet do compete for customers. You don’t have to take my word for it. Compare these two examples and you tell me which one offers more training value for the busy professional who needs an answer now.
Smartsheet Getting Started Tutorial
Confluence Getting Started Tutorial
Why should Confluence invest their Customer Education program
Don't get me wrong Confluence is a great product and they are always tinkering to improve things. One of my clients uses it extensively as an intranet, knowledge management platform, and development wiki. They use Confluence in conjunction with their LMS to provide post-training performance support. Confluence is also critical as a means of driving cross-silo communication in ways that are searchable and referable later; important for a fast paced and evolving tech company. Confluence is a powerful tool, but it has a steep learning curve. While the tech savvy can climb this curve with relative ease, other users are going to need more support. If the average professional is to work in Confluence and help build a corporate culture that values knowledge management, they are going to need training and post-training support. And whether you are a tech-savvy player or someone who has panic attacks at the idea of creating content outside PowerPoint, it's a rare bird that can create a user-friendly Confluence experience without formal training in website UX.
What does Confluence’s YouTube channel say about their attitude towards customer education?
Atlassian, the company that produces Confluence, is a market leader in Agile Project Management Software, so they have some legitimate laurels upon which to rest. However, the longer one rest on his or her laurels, the more opportunity one gives the competition. While Confluence has some excellent and searchable product documentation, I don't get the impression that Atlassian sees customer education as an extension of their brand. Compare the way Smartsheet designs their video collateral for customer education vs. Confluence. Smartsheet offers clear task-oriented, bite-sized, micro-learning tutorials with high production values discover-able via Google and YouTube. Confluence re-purposes their explainer, promo, and webinar videos as customer education tutorials.
While this is just my professional opinion, I do see some indications Atlassian lacks a strategy for customer education beyond making sure someone, somewhere, is offering it. According to one of my contacts in the Customer Education field, Atlassian effectively outsourced the bulk of this function to a 3rd party called ServiceRocket rather than keep this function in-house.
But there are other signs that Atlassian has yet to wake up to the value of owning Customer Education as a brand extension. First, Atlassian's Confluence "training" videos are out of date relative to their most recent user interface update. It's also been a while since they posted anything to YouTube that wasn't marketing collateral. Second, Atlassian's Confluence training videos tend to take one of two forms, neither of which offer high instructional value.
The first form is the explainer videos that introduces a feature but rarely demonstrate the feature in action. I've seen some product and marketing officers think that they can re-purpose marketing content as training content to save money, but as a client of some of the companies that do this I can say this really misses the mark...by a mile…and I make sure my peers know it. Understanding what the feature is and its value proposition doesn't show me how the feature works or how to apply it on the job. Awareness of a feature and its value is no more training than awareness of the gym is exercise.
The second form Atlassian's Confluence videos take is the ubiquitous recorded webinar. This old chestnut of the unanointed is probably one of the worst approaches to training I’ve every experienced and it’s completely over used. These recorded webinars are very common and you see corporations use them as training materials quite a bit. However, very little thought is given to the usability of these recordings when they are pushed out to customers as, "just in time training." Let’s review some of the reason this strategy fails to be user friendly. There are typically several lessons contained in an hour-long webinar, and there are often multiple topics covered within a lesson. Presenters may or may not have the skill to present the content to the degree a professional trainer would meaning the will likely jump around a lot and allow meeting participants to derail the webinar if there is audience participation. The quality of presentation design will often vary widely within an organization producing webinars. Not bad if you like large knowledge-dumps posses a photographic memory, but what if I want to refresh my memory and only have 10 minutes? With a quick five-minute review of how to use one of Confluence's more common macros, my need has been met and I am back to work. Sure I could read the documentation for the technical details, but this sometimes isn't enough. For a lot of folks, they need to see something in action to fully grok its application. When it comes to Confluence's training videos, that five-minute chunk I might need is embedded in a very long webinar which makes it pretty inaccessible as a form of just-in-time learning. No one is going to watch a hour long webinar for the five-minute tutorial he or she needs to make use of a Confluence feature. Users won't scrub through multiple parts of the video searching to find what he or she needs. For anyone working in the change management field, don't expect Confluence's just-in-time resources to make your job any easier.
In conclusion, how you present your self-service training materials on YouTube speaks volumes about your brand
Smartsheet makes it easy for me to jog my memory of how to use a specific feature. A quick Google search and a two-minute video demonstration with closed captions —accessibility matters folks— and I'm off and running again. With Confluence it's a bit more laborious and not half as user-friendly...again, just my opinion. “But Kevin, why should we care about a Smartsheet vs. Confluence YouTube showdown, this feels like you are nitpicking over details that don’t matter?” Remember the sales conversation in which I asked a potential client to tell me which YouTube channel was more customer friendly? He picked Smartsheet, after thinking about it for less than 15 seconds. The moral of the story is that your customer education program is an extension of your brand. Use it as an opportunity to delight your customers and win product evangelists before your competition does. If it takes an industry player less than 10 seconds to decide which company cares more, you need to make that 10 seconds count.