Part 1 of “Thriving in a Customer-Learner World”
Marketers have to adapt to a customer-centric world.  Similarly L&D (Learning and Development) professionals work now in a learner-centric environment.  This creates challenges for each profession in the way they operate, the skills they need and the tools they use to interact with customer-learners.

Reasons to compare L&D with Marketing

Why is it worth comparing and contrasting the challenges faced by Marketing and L&D in today’s business world?

In a user-centric world, neither function is any longer seen as a voice of authority.  As learning & development and marketing professionals face up to this fact, there are three main reasons why they can gain from looking at each other’s situation:

  1. Learners have become customers and customers have become learners.  So both professions are dealing with a world centred round customer-learners
  2. L&D and Marketing are the two business functions most affected by the explosion of social communication powered by digital technology
  3. Marketing’s inherent strength is gaining attention while L&D’s is gaining engagement. Both attention and engagement are vital.

Learners = customers

Digital-powered social communication

Attention + engagement

Learners have become customers and customers learners

How learning has changed

In the past L&D concentrated on training, producing courses that employees were expected to attend.  Senior management outlined the need for specific training, such as induction programmes or courses to support new processes and software; and department managers came to L&D with functional training needs.

L&D then worked with the overall training requirements and used their expertise to produce and deliver standard courses.  That did not work well and is no longer acceptable.

‘When we give people loads of information in one ‘injection hit’, they can’t contextualise it.  There’s no point giving people any knowledge transfer, unless they can go back to their workforce and actually ask – ‘how does that impact me?’  Michelle Parry-Slater [1]

Nowadays senior management are focused on the ROI of training; and employees look for performance support and expect to find learning content readily available when they need it.  Managers and staff naturally turn to online resources and to social media to ask colleagues, friends and the wider community for support and share learning.

So employees and managers act like customers, shopping around for the best solutions.  L&D have to anticipate, uncover and respond to needs by providing appropriate learning solutions very quickly.  As the CIPD states they need to be “savvy” and have “commercial acumen” [2].

Realising they are dealing with learner-customers will enable learning professionals to sell the benefits of L&D skills.  In particular it will help them emphasise how they can support learning that is relevant to the needs of the employee, the department and the organisation.

How marketing has changed

From the marketing perspective, the main challenge used to be to gain the attention of your prospects.  Once you had it, you could position your solution with authority and fight for a sale against a few known competitors.

In today’s world the customer can find out about a vast range of possible products or solutions from the internet.  Once she or he has an idea of something to buy, they can quickly learn about it.  They can ask friends, colleagues and other users for recommendations and advice.

Marketers must make their brand known by offering valuable content well in advance of potential sales.  Then through multiple contacts (touchpoints) they must keep potential customers interested while building up their approval and trust.  Once this has been done, marketers are positioned to sell the benefits of a solution to a particular person at the right time.

‘Relationship marketing is grounded in the idea of establishing a learning relationship with each customer, starting with your most valuable ones.’ Harvard Business Review [3]

Customers have become learners, consuming the knowledge readily available to them.  Marketers must make attractive content available for potential customers, so they learn about benefits and gain trust in the brand.  Otherwise customers will shop elsewhere.

The explosion of social communication

The key role of both marketing and L&D is to communicate with groups of people – the customers and learners.    Both have to find out the needs of their audiences, as groups and as individuals. They need to build up their understanding of what would improve their customer-learners’ jobs and lives.  They must identify solutions and explain their benefits.

Moreover those of us in L&D and marketing no longer start from the established position of authority we occupied in the past.   No longer can marketing state “Trust me, I have the ideal solution for you at a fantastic price” nor L&D say “We’ve got a standard course for you to attend on which you will learn all you need to know”.

As marketers or learning professionals we need to remember that we are joining in customer and learner journeys.  Our audience is clarifying their needs (to themselves as well as to us); they are finding about the possible options before choosing solutions.

There used to be a few voices to listen to – focus groups and market research panels for marketers, executives and managers for L&D.  Now there is a hubbub of conversations taking place between individuals on social media and in group conversations.  We can and must pay attention to them.  These conversations give us a great opportunity to uncover and discuss needs, because people are often willing to share openly with those they trust.

However, the conversations create a number of challenges: first to find the places where these conversations occur.  We may even have to nurture spaces that allow the conversations to flourish.  More often, we will have to gain admission to listen or participate in them.  Lastly we have to be skilful to pick out the relevant conversations and to clarify the underlying concerns.

All this could be very time-consuming.  This is why we need a range of tools and techniques that help us to manage our part in social conversations.  Marketing and L&D each bring different elements to use, such as social media tools from marketing and coaching and analysis skills from L&D.  We will look at these in more detail in the next article in this series.

Gaining  Customer-Learner Attention and Engagement

While each profession may be able to do both, marketing is traditionally good at gaining attention while L&D’s strengths are often in gaining engagement.  Both are vital in working with audiences who do not autmatically look to you as an authority and who can be easily distracted by alternative solutions or activities.

Marketing has always been good at grabbing people’s attention and getting their products and messages noticed.  There is a long history of market research, clever wording, striking images and use of colour.  Marketers have developed skills to make sure messages are seen and heard.  Some of the techniques are highly relevant to L&D.  They can help them be listened to by senior executives and be invited to a seat at the top table.  At the same time they can enable them to be seen as a go-to resource for employees who are looking to develop skills and abilities.

L&D on the other hand has intrinsic skills in helping people to express their needs, in involving them in learning, in coaching them to discover the next steps, in providing reviews at measured intervals and in keeping them engaged.  Marketing needs to improve its capabilities in this area as it seeks to personalise its messages, gain approval and trust, and offer the right solution at the right time.

Compare, contrast and learn

With their shared challenges of dealing with the learner-customer, of handling the explosion of social communication, and of being able to attract and engage, L&D and marketing have much in common.  However, they come with different backgrounds and skills and each can learn from the other.

In this post I have just touched on some of the areas of where experience can be shared.  These will be explored in future articles which will look in detail at “Engaging the Audience”, “Enabling the Learner-Customer Journey” and “Measuring the Results”

This post is the first of four on “Thriving in a Learner-Customer world” which are part of RSC’s “Marketing and Learning” series.  If you are interested please have a look at some of the other articles, which explore different areas.  You can see a “map” of the other articles here)


  1. Expedite Consulting interview with Michelle Parry Slater
  2. CIPD report: “L&D: new challenges, new approaches” Dec 2014
  3. Harvard Business Review: “Is your company ready for one-to-one marketing” 1999