Exeros, an enterprise software firm that specializes in Master Data Management (MDM), has found a compelling way to provide valued guidance to its prospects and turn them into customers over time.

It launched an online university.

How did this happen? Many of the prospects the company engaged at industry events said they were interested in its products, but were in early stages of project lifecycles and were unprepared to make a software purchase. Further, they stated that they needed more detailed information than they were getting at industry conferences and through other sources. This persuaded Exeros that there was an unmet demand for education on the subject of MDM. MDMGIF

With this in mind, the company decided to launch what it is now calling MDM University (MDMU).

Having initially considered putting its own name on the initiative or calling it a "webinar series," Exeros eventually came to the conclusion that there was far more value in creating an entity that was independently positioned to provide thought leadership, training and education.

As Denise Sparks, director of demand generation at Exeros, explained at MarketingSherpa's Demand Generation Summit last month in San Francisco, this was a "classic lead nurturing situation. We needed a way to keep prospects warm while giving them the information they needed to keep our name in front of them."

Exeros initially set up a series of five webinars to be delivered by industry experts. The next thing the firm knew it was behaving much like a media company. It promoted its events with email campaigns and electronic newsletters and sought sponsorship from complementary partners.

The initiative has since evolved. It now has produced 18 webinars with 14 speakers in 5 topic areas. Through these webinars, it generated 2550 registrants — half of which were new to the organization's database. The perceived neutrality of the site is certainly a driver of attention as is the ongoing movement of prospects from on-site venues (such as trade shows) to online ones (such as webinars).

The company is now producing the webinars for approximately $2000 per event, but it's offsetting the costs through partnerships and sponsorships (that include lead sharing arrangements). Which brings up a good point: the need for total transparency. When prospects are called, the relationship between Exeros and MDMU is made clear by stating upfront that "Exeros is one of the sponsors of MDM University" and clarifying that this is the premise of the call.

The results are particularly interesting. When assessing prospects in the MDMU database, one finds that 8% are in active conversations (vs. 4% of those in the company;s standard database) and 40% are being actively nurtured (vs. 25% in the standard database).

Sparks calculates that Exeros is generating raw leads through MDMU at a cost of $4-$17 vs. $100-$112 for those generated through external media approaches. She also notes that the quality of leads and information obtained are better through this approach than those generated by outside media companies.

The downside? "It takes a great deal of time to execute," explains Sparks, noting that it means an additional web site to maintain and the necessity of having registration infrastructure (something made easier through marketing software from Eloqua). "It also requires the constant care and feeding of participants."

What's clear is that Exeros has positioned itself as a trusted advisor and guide by launching its own online university. As buyers seek more education and advice in the years to come, this may prove a compelling tactic for many other companies.