Education Is The New Media Arm For SaaS Companies

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Imagine you’ve just signed up for a new software. Brand new! Off the waitlist! You click a link, land inside and…what? What do you do first?

Maybe there is a pop-up that guides you through the basic set-up. But you probably click out of it because you want to explore on your own, and then can never find it again.

Maybe, after playing around a bit, you head over to the support documentation to try and figure out how to do something that you think you should be able to do but the UX isn’t clear. Well, first you have to find the docs (why are they always so hidden!), and then you need to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. You need to already know the lingo and have some understanding of the way support docs are formulated in order to locate the information you need.

Maybe, if you’re lucky and paying enough, you get a 1:1 call to help set up the software. Or, very likely, this is instead outsourced to a free Facebook group full of people trying to pitch you on having them do it for you (for a fee, naturally) instead.

The problem is that none of these onboarding processes are effective. They are largely reactive rather than proactive, and place the burdon on the customer to figure it out.

I believe there is a reason for this: founders are often figure-it-outers! Founders bias towards being able to solve problems. But customers are not the person who made the thing, and that skill of figuring it out is not inherent. And, with the hyperfocus on product-led growth, there’s a belief deep in SaaS that the product should be able to anticipate and solve the customer needs, but customers are notorious for breaking things.

At every step of engaging with a product, customers are learning. But instead of having that be an unplanned and slapped together experience, companies can streamline it, intentionally create it, and develop a truly profound customer experience that increases both product adoption and retention.

Online Education Is Trending For SaaS and Software-Facilitated Products

Online courses and communities are starting to be not just a business model of their own but also a value-add for SaaS products. Education is trending towards the top of the priority list for companies who know that the best way to stand out in a crowded market is not to create some artificial moat through abusive pricing (or randomly adding AI lol) but rather to help customers effectively use and get results from their products.

In 2021, Zapier, the go-to no code “duct tape” of the internet, acquired Makerpad, a no-code eduction community that was already serving the ideal customers for Zapier. In one transaction, Zapier was able to take command of the learning experience of their users while helping them to get better results from Zapier and see the value in using the software even more, most likely leading to plan upgrades as usage increased.

It makes sense for Zapier to lean heavily on education: their entire value prop is making automation easy, meaning their ideal users are people who likely do need some help learning to effectively implement the product. Some B2B softwares are starting to do the same, but overall the education strategy feels relegated to a lower priority, or done with little care or attention to what users actually need. But that’s ready to change.

Education should be the new media arm for SaaS. It was all podcasts and blogs and newsletters in 2021 and 2022. We’ve had our fill of CEOs and marketing staff talking about their feelings. Now the ecosystem can be completed with online courses and memberships that keep customers engaged, loyal, and using the product.

An education strategy also makes it easier for smaller companies with more targeted audiences to become the go-to in their niche. While creating potent education is not cheap, it can be far more transformative than adding to the content pile, and definitely more competitively priced than big ad spends and sponsorships.

If worldbuilding is the new brand building, then education is the expansion pack that creates a full-fledge SaaS world.

Your Customers Need You And That’s A Good Thing

Many businesses run into three of the same problems with customer experience:

  1. Onboarding – how can you get the customer to actually use or do the thing they’re paying for
  2. Retention – how can you keep the customer using or doing or benefitting from the thing they’re paying for
  3. Expansion – how can you use your existing get even more customers?!

Conveniently for my argument, education shines here. Instead of slapping together a bunch of different strategies, a cohesive education platform will:

  • increase effective product adoption. Education empowers users by transferring knowledge in context instead of keeping them dependent on you and your customer support staff
  • create loyal customers by getting them fast results. Instead of difficulty being the moat (so silly to rely on sunk cost fallacy to keep customers, but that’s what the big boys do), ease and efficacy create loyalty.
  • build community and longterm value by becoming the go-to resource for your customers. Most companies outsource this to third-parties which is fine, but a massive missed opportunity.
  • encourage product evangelism by crafting transformational experiences. Users are more likely to share and refer the product if they had a great time learning it.

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What if, instead of fighting to find help documents, anxiously waiting for the support chat to return their message, or combing through a dead Facebook group hoping someone else has had the same questions, new users were invited to a cohort-based course starting within the month?

What if it combined pre-recorded videos designed to get a new user through the most important parts of set-up so they can see immediate results, and then included one live implementation session and one live q&a call so they could get personal feedback and problem solve, all while learning from other new users who likely have encountered similar roadblocks?

Most SaaS companies already have these resources, but they aren’t a cohesive, coherent experience. The videos that show how to set-up the first thing in a product are probably already there, buried in the documentation. There may already be weekly Q&As, but in order to make use of those a customer needs to understand their problem and have an urgent desire to overcome it.

If these same resources are positioned as a live course, it creates a clear container for the customer’s progress that will make it easier for them to take action and start benefitting. And, it puts the company in control of the user experience instead of outsourcing it to third-party providers who will have different incentives.

Product-Driven Education

Product-driven education comes in two flavors: education that helps with product adoption, and ancillary education that integrates the product into the wider ecosystem in which it is used.

Product adoption education can start with onboarding. Can you get people to actually use the thing? This is a great place to start. But product adoption really shines with project-based education, where customers learn how to use the product in a real-world setting and accomplish specific tasks. Many SaaS companies offer educational webinars, but few are interactive with a clear, actionable goal that a user can complete.

For example, a B2B customer data SaaS could run a workshop that helps users create their first dashboard so they know exactly what is losing money, or a networking platform could do workshop on how to create a user profile to maximize inbound leads. At the end of these experiences, there is a tangible outcome: the user has the dashboard or a finished profile, and they work.

Ancillary education is where SaaS companies can really engage with worldbuilding, increasing retention by providing related but slightly tangential education that keeps users interacting with the product instead of needing to find outside experts.

For our customer data SaaS that creates metric dashboards, ancillary education may be about selecting the most effective metrics to track, how to asses them, and what to do to change them. It’s related to the product, but provides context that adds value to the user at the same time that it builds greater affinity and trust for the company itself.

Don’t Forget To Make It Good

Online education is not a net good, though, without some serious strategy and planning. I’ve had conversations with SaaS companies who thought that for a few hundred bucks they could have a great course in two weeks that solved all of their customers problems and I regret to inform you (I did not regret to inform them as I watched my experience teaching thousands of people online be reduced to an offensive wage) that this is not how teaching people works.

A company must have a reason for the education component that actually meets the desires of the users. Yes, I just spent 1,500 words trying to make the case for adding education, but “learn how to use this software” really isn’t a good enough reason. No one cares. They don’t care about the product, and they certainly don’t care about reducing churn for the company. All the user cares about is what the product makes possible for them. Online education should focus on create that possibility, both in messaging and program design.

These projects can be a huge time suck. Teaching is, in many ways, an art, and without an expert who can not only communicate clearly but also create engagement and build rapport with users while moving quickly to test and refine programming (hi, it me 👋🏻), a company can waste months building a course that no one wants. Like any other product, education needs a clear goal in terms of customer experience and outcome.

This leads directly to another challenge, which is trying to do too much. Something about a screen makes people feel like all actions should be limitless, the never-ending expanses of the Internet a canvas that must be filled. Manifest Destiny will not help anyone when creating an education arm of a company. Start small and iterate quickly on discrete, easy-to-accomplish educational goals.

Format is also a place companies get stuck, obsessing over what they personally have enjoyed, or what kind of education is trending on Twitter. Format matters, but only insofar as it helps a user to achieve a result. The outcome the programming is trying to create will dictate what format is best. Don’t worry too much about it. Just ask, what is required to teach this thing? And then do that.

The best education arm will be the one that truly serves the customer, helps them achieve their goal, and lets the company enjoy its success as a secondary order effect. Put the student first and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleased.

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