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At the onset of the pandemic, SaaS companies were faced with dire predictions of client attrition and sluggish sales. The cloud-based businesses that were able to grow amidst uncertainty were the ones who met their buyers where they were in an all-virtual world.
This was especially true for the organizational and customer education sector – which pre-pandemic, relied heavily on in-person instruction, training and events to deliver robust learning experiences.
For a deeper insight into SaaS PR and marketing lessons learned from 2020, what’s ahead for marketers and why you should listen to your agency partner, we sat down with Greg Rose, chief experience officer at Intellum, the leading customer education platform. Here’s what he had to say.
QUESTION: What drew you to the customer education industry and to your current role at Intellum?
ANSWER: What drew me to Intellum was the conversation I had with CEO Chip Ramsey on a Friday night 6+ years ago, where he laid out his vision for using a Learning Management System (LMS) – the technology that organizations traditionally use to educate employees – for large external audiences like customers. I had used an LMS earlier in my career as an employee of another company, and it was awful. I was a bit hesitant going into that first meeting with Chip because of my perception of what an LMS was.
That night I realized pretty quickly that Intellum was not the typical LMS vendor. As Chip talked about Intellum’s groundbreaking and extremely successful work with Facebook Blueprint (Facebook’s learning and training ecosystem for digital advertising products), and the work he and the company were doing with Google across multiple initiatives and audiences, it became apparent that Intellum was a special place and that I had a unique opportunity in front of me.
I was definitely intrigued by the fact that Intellum was a privately-owned Atlanta business working with some of the biggest tech brands in the world while simultaneously flying under the radar.
But as a marketer, I was also drawn in by the idea of helping companies educate the various audiences they touch, especially customers. As a user (and a fan) of a wide range of technology, the idea of teaching customers to be as successful as humanly possible with a specific product or service resonated with me. I remember thinking that night that maybe education was the ultimate form of marketing.
Today, I feel more connected to learning than anything else I have ever done professionally. Intellum is improving the way in which millions of people learn, and that’s an awesome mission to be part of.
QUESTION: You’ve now been on both sides of the table – earlier in your career at a tech PR agency, and now on the client side. With that perspective, what are 1-2 best practices you recommend to other clients, to ensure they achieve the most value from their PR partner?
ANSWER: When I think about advising someone on the client side on how best to utilize their PR agency resource, I think of two things:
- You should do what your agency tells you to do. They are living media relations every day and it is a constantly shifting environment. There’s no way you know what they know. The agency has a plan. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business. If you choose wisely, you get to work with a great team and you should do the things they counsel you to do. A lot of clients want to push back and over-direct, and I think that’s a mistake.
- You’ve got to understand the difference between marketing content and newsworthy content. So many clients don’t have a strong understanding of the difference. But there is a big difference between something that is marketable and something that is truly newsworthy. We live in a crazy environment right now and the news cycle has completely gotten away from business. The combination of the most polarized political landscape in our nation’s history and a global pandemic means that every day, there is more noise than the news can deal with; which continues to minimize real business news. And even when things are less chaotic, most of the stuff that a company wants or intrinsically thinks it should be talking about isn’t newsworthy. Learning what tier 1 and tier 2 reporters really want to write about will help you be a better PR client. People on the client side get too personally connected to information, which skews their view of what is really newsworthy. This all supports my first point – do what your PR agency tells you to do.
QUESTION: Enterprise tech organizations had to pivot quickly last year to shift how they typically meet and educate their buyers…like user conferences and tradeshows. How did Intellum help its customers pivot to all-virtual formats, and what are some lessons learned that Intellum is implementing in 2021 and beyond?
ANSWER: 2020 was wild, there’s no question. Unfortunately, I don’t think any business was truly prepared for the sudden impact of a global pandemic. When we started the second quarter, the news was bleak. Analysts were predicting that SaaS software should expect a 60% client loss and that customers would stop renewing. In April of 2020, we were doing what most other businesses were doing – thinking about our employees and listening to our customers.
We make it possible for companies to deploy education-based content that drives specific business objectives like revenue, renewals, or product utilization. This kind of initiative was suddenly in high demand in a scenario where everyone was working remotely, which gave us some positive momentum.
But Chip recognized a new opportunity to help our clients early on during the pandemic, and executing well on that idea changed the game for us.
It’s common for a learning technology solution to support “events” like in-person or virtual instructor-led training or webinars. I think Intellum does events better than most, but we certainly are not the only learning technology company to offer this functionality.
What changed in 2020 was that some of our larger clients started asking us very early in the year if we could support “other” types of events that suddenly had to go virtual, like large internal meetings, sales kickoff events, and even full-blown user conferences. Because the audiences for these events were, for the most part, already in our platform as users, they hoped we could keep them from having to purchase a temporary virtual event solution. What’s interesting about this story is that we didn’t really build anything new. We reimaged some user journeys, we delivered some new ways to organize and present the content associated with these large meetings and conferences, and we got our first client user conference off the ground very quickly. The Intellum platform is incredibly flexible and the underlying technology was easily applied to virtual events.
We ended up supporting about 50 virtual conferences and events in 2020. It was a fascinating year – learning how to market and sell that was amazing – and we found ourselves competing with traditional events companies and known virtual platforms like ON24 and INXPO. We did a few large events for Adobe, Zoom, and Facebook that had more than 100,000 attendees each, which is insanely large for a virtual platform. It really proved what Intellum is capable of, and this success wouldn’t have been possible without the people at Intellum. Our team worked really, really hard in 2020 to make these events stellar for our clients, and it was humbling to watch.
The big win is that this experience made the Intellum Platform even stronger, leading to a number of important features and functionality improvements that better support all event types, from recurring instructor-led classroom training and webinars to sales kick-off meetings and incredibly large user conferences. Our clients are now thinking more holistically about what can and does live inside our platform, because at the end of the day, all of these events are really about educating a specific audience. Why would your large user conference not live on the same platform as the rest of your customer education and engagement initiatives?
I can tell you that we have no intention of pivoting or becoming a one-off virtual events company. But our success with virtual events in 2020 did help us rank 12th in the Georgia Fast 40 Awards this year.
QUESTION: What’s the most dramatic shift you’ve seen in the last year in your prospects’ buyer behaviors? Do you see anything changing back to pre-COVID trends, or is there a “new normal” for customer education?
ANSWER: Predicting buyer behavior kind of went out the window in 2020. Previously, we knew our buyer personas and personalities really well and could predict prospect behaviors. But, I think internal processes at companies went sideways during the pandemic – not the least of which was procurement and the ways in which organizations purchased large SaaS software solutions – and why they purchased them.
Buying cycles in 2020 got pretty short for us because everyone was panicky and moving fast, especially with virtual events. But by Q2 of 2021, timelines were getting back to a 3 to 4-month cycle on average, which is pre-COVID normal for us.
I do think the pandemic changed the general concept of work (especially the ideals associated with where work happens) and I don’t think work will ever fully revert to its pre-COVID state. I think working remotely for an extended period of time has given our typical buyer even more insight into the benefit of customer education, and more specifically, the Intellum approach, and the impact it can have on their (largely remote) audiences.
QUESTION: If you could crystal ball the year ahead, what trends will have the biggest impact on corporate and customer education?
ANSWER: We see, discuss, and work on a lot of learning industry trends at Intellum. Presenting learning content “in the flow of work,” certification programs, and microlearning initiatives are all trending right now. But I think the last 18 months have proven out a truth that we’ve been living at Intellum for a long time – but not many companies embrace yet; a well-orchestrated education strategy is the one thing that actually improves business performance and outcomes.
Companies are very good at selling outcomes, but not very good at teaching their customer how to achieve the outcomes they sold them. If you educate your customers, partners, and even your employees on how to use your product or service to achieve the outcomes you sell, everything performs better.
We fret about renewals, product utilization, and the consumption gap – yet all these things can be positively influenced by education. The trick is knowing how to structure an education initiative and develop educational content that actually moves the needle.
Too many companies focus on features and functionality-level fads and trends. If I had to pick one trend that will have the biggest impact on the education industry, I would have to say the rapid increase in the number of organizations that are developing a cohesive strategic framework that drives learning across the entire company. These are the organizations that will successfully leverage the power of education to drive real business results like significant increases in revenue and decreases in churn.
Click here to learn more information about how ARPR’s cloud practice group is helping clients like Intellum – that are shaping the way we live, work and play – with an integrated approach to SaaS PR.