November 11, 2003
Case Study

How to Educate Your Sales Prospects by Launching an Online University They Adore

SUMMARY: If you're marketing an offering with a long sales cycle, such as automobiles or enterprise software, your best use of the Internet is in educating consumers to make the "right" decision.

Find out how Emerson Process Management launched an online University so useful that prospects rave about it. This Case Study includes useful tactical data. Plus, although Emerson is a 3.5 billion company, this University tactic is one we think companies of almost any size can afford to test out.
Talk about committee-hell. On average, 32-people, including engineers, plant managers, and financial execs, are directly involved in deciding whether to purchase Emerson Process Management's software and services.

These prospects are very worried about making the wrong decision.

They are laying their career, and their plant's safety, on the line when they OK seven-figure investments in systems that they'll have to live with for a decade or more.

If they pick the wrong system, resulting plant shut-downs could cost more than a million dollars … per day.

According to Emerson's Global Marketing Communications Director, Bill Morrison, the company has long held a tech advantage over its competition. But, that's not always a good thing when you have to persuade conservative plant managers to buy your system.

"Many of these guys have been in the business 30-40-50 years. These guys run the plant with their five senses. We're introducing tech that's very challenging to traditional thinking.

"In some companies there were these tech evangelists who had enough political savvy in their organization to convince their company to invest in it. But, for every tech evangelist, there's probably 20 literal types who are much more risk averse. It put a tremendous burden on our sales force to educate them.

"From a pure marketing perspective, it was like going to people using DOS and saying, 'Let me tell you about Windows.'"

Brochures touting Emerson's technology weren't cutting it. "It's all just marketing pabulum unless you are very relevant and help him or her understand how to make the best decisions," says Morrison.

So, how do you get past the pabulum and educate entire committees in a manner they find invaluable to making a decision in your favor?

Emerson already had a marketing communications site called PlantWeb. Morrison decided to add an entirely new section to it that would educate prospects -- PlantWeb University.

Morrison believed the most critical element of the University would be removing marketing messaging. He envisioned building the online version of the best convention-speech you ever heard - great info with no sales pitch - geared to make you trust, understand, and even begin a Q&A relationship with the speaker.

An online educational center that good could ultimately have a huge impact on sales.

Morrison and his team embarked on four steps to make it a successful reality:

-> Step one: Offering a variety of courses from Day One

While some marketers might limit themselves to "just testing" an online education center, Morrison threw himself into creating a full series of courses -- 38 in all to start.

"Having rich robust content is job one," he says. "Once you launch your site, if there isn't anything of relevant value, they're not coming back. If I can get someone to my site once, I'm going to have something of relevant value to them, and that's going to cause them to come back. I don't want to screw that up."

Most of the information for the courses was already in Emerson files - in tech docs, training materials, presentations, and brochures. Creating the courses was simply a matter of picking a subject, distilling the info, and removing marketing copy.

Morrison wanted the courses to be easy-to-take and useful, so prospects would be enticed to return to take more than one of them. (The more touches, the better a chance you have of closing a sale after all.)

So each course only took about 15 minutes to take, and featured a quick pop-quiz at the end so users could test (and feel good about) their acquired knowledge. Plus, users had their choice of taking the course online, or downloading a printable PDF.

Courses on both business and engineering topics were included - so every member of a committee would find a few to suit them.

-> Step two: Driving traffic using every media

Once the University launched, Morrison put a fully integrated online/offline campaign into play. (Link to creative samples below.)

Tactics included direct postal mail, email, PR, space ads in magazines, paid search ads on Google, banners on relevant sites, and CDs distributed to the outside sales force. In each case he used unique URLs to carefully track both the amount of resulting traffic, plus ongoing site metrics to determine which traffic was the highest quality (as determined by the number of courses taken per individual.)

-> Step three: Registering users to begin a relationship

Morrison used two Best Practices for the University's online registration form (link to screenshot below):

o Registration is encouraged but not required at first. Visitors who were unsure about the value of the site, and who wanted to dabble a bit before answering questions in a long form, could enter the University as a Guest using a much shorter form.

Only after they took five courses (hopefully proving the value of the site) were they were required to register via the long form.

o The long registration form asks about each individual's specific interests (or as Morrison puts it, 'What's keeping them up at night.") The resulting data is not only fabulous market research, it also helps Morrison's further communications to each individual become more relevant and pointed…

-> Step four: Making the relationship truly interactive

Morrison believes strongly that a true interactive relationship is not just about the marketer sending lots of email to a list. It's about enabling - and outright asking - the individuals on your list to respond, and then sending them more relevant information as a result of their responses.

So, aside from tracking which courses were the most popular so he could make them more visible and create more like them, Morrison also carefully surveyed users to find out how they thought the site could be improved. (Link to sample survey below.)

The goal was not "When will you buy something?" but rather "How can the University serve you better?"

Plus, he used registrants' answers to the interests question on the long form to develop further educational offerings such as white papers and to send the right folks emailed invites to view them.

Yes, he tested sending a general announcement to the entire list about a new white paper, versus just sending the message to the registrants who had said they were specifically interested in the paper's topic.

Thousands of qualified prospects have registered at PlantWeb University since it launched a year ago. The average registered user spends 33-minutes per visit -- that's a lot longer than prospects often will spend reviewing traditional marketing materials.

Emerson is a $3.5 billion company today. While Morrison says the University can't take direct credit for any of this revenue, "we can take credit for preparing the customers and instilling their desire to learn more."

More results:

- Google's paid ads have produced the most qualified registered users, compared to any other media.

- Of the visitors who register, 92% use the long-form and just 8% use the shorter guest-form.

- 79% of registered users wind up taking courses.

- Roughly 10% of users prefer to download the PDF version of a course. Interestingly, Morrison can find no discernable pattern in nationality, industry, or job title between these PDF people and the online course-takers.

- The emailed satisfaction survey was such a resounding success that although the University team only intended it as an editorial tool, they wound up getting testimonials they could use for marketing from it.

- Offering an incentive boosted survey results significantly from 31% responses without an incentive, to 52% response rate with an incentive.

(Note, even with an incentive, most emailed surveys never get close to 10% response rates. These unusually high responses indicate users truly adore the University.)

- 17% of opens clicked through on a general email sent to all registered users about new resources in the University. That number almost doubled with 32% of opens clicking when the email discussed one specific white paper, and was sent just to registrants who'd indicated interest in the paper's topic.

So, yes, if you personalize by topic, they will click more.

Morrison says, "I would rather narrowcast the message that's most relevant to people than send to a bigger list. Permission marketing is not just about email blasts, it's about integration of all components and integrating data."

We couldn't agree more.

Useful links:

Creative samples and screenshots from this campaign:


Emerson Process Management

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