Published On: June 1, 2021By
What customer education trends should be on your radar in 2021? Listen to the Talented Learning Show with Analyst John Leh and Thought Industries CEO Barry Kelly


Barry Kelly, CEO of Thought Industries joins Lead Analyst John Leh to discuss customer education trends in this episode of The Talented Learning ShowToday, I’m thrilled to welcome back one of my favorite guests, Barry Kelly, CEO and Co-Founder of Thought Industries – a leader in extended enterprise learning solutions. Barry is a passionate innovator with proven product development success, as well as extensive experience in online learning, content strategy and digital marketing. Join us as we discuss insights from his organization’s latest customer education trends survey.



  • The popularity of customer education is skyrocketing – not just among software-as-a-service providers, but in other industries, as well. This growth is driven by the rise of customer experience strategies, which put customer interests at the center of everything that is important to an organization.
  • At its best, customer education isn’t just about onboarding. It should be an ongoing process that guides customers through every phase of the life cycle.
  • Recent research reveals useful customer education trends that can help learning organizations inform next-step decisions, as well as long-term priorities. 



Welcome back, Barry. For those who aren’t familiar with Thought Industries, could you share a brief overview?

Sure, John. We founded Thought Industries about eight years ago as an enterprise learning technology company focused exclusively on external learning.

That means our solutions are used in customer training and educational services. We also serve organizations where professional development is a core product. That includes training companies, continuing education providers, associations and others in the business of learning.

Well, you definitely have your finger on the pulse of the market, because you’ve just published the 2021 State of Customer Education Report…

Yeah, this is the third year we’ve issued a report.

Could you tell us about the purpose and the process behind this analysis?

Absolutely. We wanted feedback from organizations that are delivering customer education across the globe, so we could understand various market nuances.

For instance: What departments do they report to? Why are they investing in customer education? How are they measuring this? What sort of impact is it having on their business? And what types of learning modalities are being delivered?

Then we looked at the delta between data points, year over year. It’s a fascinating way to learn directly from the market about what is working – and what may not be working so well.

And you ask the same questions every year, so you can spot trends?

Right. Each year, we repeat a core set of questions. And when we see new market trends, we introduce questions around those topics, as well. For example, the pandemic has obviously had a huge impact on customer education and the business of learning. So this year, we included questions about that.

What are this year’s top insights?

Well, the great thing is that customer education continues to grow at a strong pace. Specifically, over 60% of those surveyed have increased their customer education investment by at least 30% in the past year.


Another key data point that remains consistent with last year’s findings is that 43% of respondents still struggle to measure the impact of customer education effectively.

This is something we’ve heard over and over again. And it’s something we continue to investigate more closely, so we can understand why it is such a challenge.


In part, I think this issue is tied to how traditional learning platforms have measured the impact of learning. For customer education, it’s slightly different, because learning impact metrics are found in other parts of the business – whether it’s customer retention, CSAT, NPS, product engagement, or other metrics. So people are still struggling with measurement.

Funny. I say all the time that the impact of customer training is easy to measure. But maybe I’m wrong…

Well, I think there’s a maturity scale for customer education. And as a program evolves, the way you measure business impact also evolves. So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. It changes, depending on an organization’s stage of maturity.

Makes sense.

Also, it’s important to remember that all those customer-related data points are spread across many adjacent technologies and platforms. CRM systems, product adoption systems, support technology, community technologies and so forth. That’s why it can be tricky to find and use the right information.


Of course, there are default data points embedded in any learning management system – assessments, starts, finishes, progress and other LMS-specific metrics. But if you need to dig more deeply and figure out if customers are having success, that information tends to be elsewhere.

And usually, those systems aren’t integrated with an employee LMS.


But the message must be getting through, with such strong growth in customer education program investment. What’s causing this growth?

Well, there’s a focus on the customer like never before. That’s because the subscription economy has been gaining steam for many years, and subscription models rely on customer retention. So sustaining the value of a customer over time is critical to business success.

Can any business benefit from this?

It may seem like this is only about SaaS business models and software product education. But we’re seeing many metrics like customer lifetime value being adapted and adopted by other organizations that have physical products and different delivery models.

Excellent. Tell me more about the concept of the customer life cycle and the role of learning in that process…

A customer is in a constant state of evolution, right? The relationship is not static. It’s a journey.

People move from being unaware to being aware, to being a prospect, to signing up for a trial, to becoming a new customer, to adopting a product. And ultimately at some point, they become an advocate. Or they may become neutral or a detractor.

It’s a constant metamorphosis. And it’s really a journey of education and learning, right? It’s about understanding the value of a product and how to succeed with it.

So customers are on a learning path, from awareness to advocacy. And many find initial value in the onboarding phase, correct?

Yes. I think about 62% of survey participants said that onboarding and retention are their main focus. And we see in our business that onboarding is a catalyst behind many customer education programs.

Organizations want to accelerate time-to-value. They’ll say, “We’re getting scale. We’re onboarding new customers every day, and we’re also onboarding new users in those customer accounts.”

And that onboarding process never goes away. In fact, it only gets more demanding. So I think it’s a natural focus. Get onboarding right. Then begin to look at education in other stages of the customer life cycle.

Any examples?

Well, when organizations have a complex product or are trying to define a new product category, they consider market education a critical component of their go-to-market strategy.

There’s a term called the “education qualified lead.” That’s essentially a marketing qualified lead. Same thing. Only it’s qualified through publicly available customer education programs.

Some companies are doing a phenomenal job with this. HubSpot is one example, where a ton of people have earned the Inbound Certification. That’s a beautiful example of market education at work.

Right. And it’s a great way to move customers to advocates.


Earlier you mentioned that Covid has been a factor. How has it affected customer education trends?

Our survey suggests that it has had a big impact. In fact, 77% of respondents said that the pandemic has increased the importance of customer education in their organization. And I think something like 41% have shifted priorities from in-person to virtual learning. Those are significant data points.

So I think Covid-19 has been a market accelerant because it has compelled organizations to think ahead about the best learning delivery model. And that’s a really good thing.

Agree. So let’s talk about where program monetization fits into current customer education trends. Are organizations charging for it? And is this shifting…?


About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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