In a previous post I discussed some of the ways that learning and marketing were similar

  • Listening to and understanding the needs of your audience or customers
  • Putting across messages in memorable ways

Having last month attended the Learning Technologies Summer Forum (#LTSF16) I have been struck by further similarities between the challenges in the two disciplines as well as in the terms used to describe new approaches.


A key problem for 21st century learning professionals and marketers is working out how to engage the audience.  For learning professionals, it is no longer the case that you can expect a classroom of learners to sit for an hour being lectured to.  No longer is the onus on learners to pay attention even if the lecture is boring.   Learning content must engage the learner for two reasons: firstly because research has shown that lecturing at people is a poor way to help them learn; and secondly because learners nowadays are taking control of their own learning and will avoid materials that do not stimulate them.

Similarly, marketers can no longer expect prospects to pore over long brochures or sit through pages of PowerPoint bullets.  Even attractive videos and TV adverts only hold attention for a short time and compete against more and more alternatives.  In addition, customers are less likely to stay loyal to brands since there are so many other options that scream out “Try me instead”.

As both marketers and learning professionals struggle to work out what will engage customers and learners, they have to focus on the same critical elements:

  • Asking questions
  • Personalisation
  • Use of emotion
  • Attractive formats
  • Social reinforcement
  • The user journey

Understanding needs and pain points

The very first thing we all need to do is to understand our audience.  To do this we need to ask the right questions then listen to the answers and reflect on them.  This is true whether we are providing a learning environment to help people develop or offering products and services to address their needs.  Often the instinct is to concentrate on the product first – what we want them to learn or buy – because that is the easiest to manage.  Instead we should start by tackling the difficult area of understanding the audience’s needs and current situation.  It involves opening up conversations, running surveys, listening and collecting answers.  Once we understand enough about them, we can tailor our solution to address their needs.

Let’s take an example from CLS Performance Solutions, with whom I have worked recently.  They provide learning solutions for companies implementing or upgrading major business processes or software, such as ERP systems.  So they start by finding out what processes or solutions are already in use, how they are used and the existing level of software skills and understanding.  With this basis the learning programmes can be designed to bridge the gap between existing practice and the new ways of working.

Likewise in marketing, understanding the pain points of your prospect’s current solution is key to identifying the particular product features that will bring real benefits to them. When I was working for Dell marketing PCs and laptops to large corporations twenty years ago, it was often tempting to emphasise their fast performance above everything else.  However on many occasions, talking to the purchasers and users revealed that although performance was important, it was less important than being able to provide consistent product worldwide over a long period of time.  This consistency made software installation, support and service so much easier and hence provided users with much more reliable tools to use.

Engaging Curiosity and Personal Interest

Once we have discovered user needs and worked out how to address them, the next stage for both marketing and learning is to put across the message in an engaging way.  I had the privilege of attending a masterclass given by Andrew Stanton a few weeks ago.  Andrew is the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director of a number of Disney Pixar animations including Finding Nemo and WALL-E.  He was talking about the process of creating a story and the incredible work that goes into developing a script for an animated film, with particular reference to his most recent film, Finding Dory.  For him the key question that you had to answer was “Why should I care”?

“Why should I care” is the same question you have to answer for the participants in your learning programmes and the recipients of marketing messages.  Everyone needs to understand what the benefits will be for them. You have to engage their curiosity so they bother to listen to your messages about what you are providing. Then you have to present the messages in ways, and using the right words, that resonate with their personal concerns and interest.

Of course, there is one major difference between learning and marketing at this point.  Often, learning is something that people are told they have to do and find it difficult to avoid.  Whether it be in business life, where your company provides mandatory training, or in formal education, where students are required to attend courses, there is often significant pressure to participate in learning.  In marketing however, prospects are usually much freer to ignore any marketing messages.  However, learners who are forced to participate without being engaged, are unlikely to gain much from their training.  So the drive for engagement of learners is vital in order for training to result in real learning.

Marketing has the long experience of trying to engage prospects who will ignore its messages unless their attention is grabbed quickly.  As a result, it has techniques that learning can profitably use. Customer testimonials and case studies (real or even theoretical) are commonplace in marketing, allowing prospects to relate to the experience of “people like them”.  They provide a story which shows needs, concerns and pain points which are met by the benefits of the solution being marketed.  Just as marketing creates marketing personas which are representations of the different types of customer for whom messages can be personalised, so learning can create their own personas and personalise the learning benefits for each one in order to engage their audience.

Engaging Storytelling

Humans are wired to react to and remember great stories.  Think about the stories you remember vividly: those that someone told you – maybe a parent, grandparent or teacher when you were young; those that you have read or seen on TV, at the cinema or in the theatre.  We remember them because the characters excite our interest and we connect emotionally with their emotions – hope, fear, anger, sadness and happiness – as they journey through the story.

Marketing and learning normally cannot touch our emotions nearly as deeply as the best fairy stories, blockbuster films, classic books or musicals.  However, they can harness the same principles at a less intense level.  Each should be trying to show the audience their journey from a point of need (either for learning or for a particular product) to the emotions they will feel once they have achieved the learning or acquired the product.  We are emotional beings which is why we respond so well to stories.  So we need to show that the result of learning some skills or purchasing a product is not just a bald fact but has an impact such as relieving pain or worry, giving us a sense of achievement, opening up new possibilities, making life easier or more enjoyable.

There are already great learning companies which have really embedded storytelling techniques as part of their process.  At the Learning Technologies Summer Forum, I came across a number of them, such as Simpleshow with their explainer videos and their emphasis on turning viewers into participants; or eLearning Studios and Nokia with their virtual reality scenarios which are discussed below.

Engaging the senses

Engagement of your audience is helped by involving their senses as much as possible.  Learning used to have the advantage over marketing in that it involved face-to-face contact making it easier to see, hear, touch, taste and scent.  With the growth of eLearning and mLearning this advantage has reduced.  The good news is that new technology is bringing the power to engage people’s senses more fully even remotely.

The presentation by Nokia and eLearning Studios at Learning Technologies Sumer Forum was a great demonstration of this.  They presented virtual reality (VR) scenarios that had been developed to make people really feel they were in the situation in which they need to use their learning.  For example, to test learning of ethical conduct the VR can simulate the atmosphere of relaxing in a bar after work, where it is easiest to be tempted or lulled into behaving unethically.

VR may not be yet be commonplace, though it is likely to be so in 10 years’ time.  However, use of attractive and interactive video is one example of a technology that can involve the senses more and that is affordable and easy to use nowadays in both marketing and learning.  The way that music and song creates and evokes strong memories in most people shows us another way that we can make messages memorable by including sound, rhythm and music as part of our learning and marketing material.

This article talks about how to use visual metaphors to enhance learning, as is often done in marketing:


7 Tips To Use Visual Metaphors In eLearning


Engaging the network

As Julian Stodd remarked at LTSF16 “we’re innately social – & latterly technical”.  This reminds us of the necessity and power of involving people’s social network for both marketing and learning.  Over the last ten years with the rise of social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn, marketing has become obsessed with the use of social media to promote products as well as to communicate and listen to feedback.

Three factors work together to make social media such a powerful tool for marketing: firstly, as I mentioned earlier, testimonials and recommendations can be very persuasive and when they come from those we know, they are even more powerful. So social networks are ideal places to spread positive (as well as negative) reviews. Secondly, online networks make it easy to spread the message quickly to many connections. If someone recommends a product, the recommendation can quickly be seen by hundreds of people.  And thirdly, it allows marketers to find specific groups of people, based on the likes, location or online habits.  So messages personalised for different types of people can much more easily addressed to the right target markets.

The use of social networks brings similar advantages to learning: firstly, because of people’s enthusiasms for using them, they make great places to share experiences.  So it is easy to spread experiences of how to overcome difficulties in learning new skills as well as useful tips on specific topics. Secondly feedback and questions can rapidly reach a large number of people.  In this way best practice can be circulated quickly. Also many people will see a question that has been raised, making it more likely that a solution is speedily given.  Thirdly, people can search content by topic so that problems and answers are seen by the relevant people.

There is one additional advantage for learning in using social networks that does not apply to marketing.  It allows many people to build on the suggestions and comments of others, building a deep set of insights and ways of working.  As Charles Jennings says in ‘Love Learning, Love Sharing’: “Social learning is not dependent on teachers and trainers, but on sharing experiences through rich dialogue and conversation.”

Social networks provide the power to bring together people who can learn from each other and build a rich set of knowledge and practice.  This shows how the social element of learning can be even stronger than the social element of marketing.  “The new social learning reframes social media from a marketing strategy to a strategy that encourages knowledge transfer and connects people in a way consistent with how we naturally interact” (Marcia Connor and Tony Bingham “The New Social Learning”)

Engaging journey

The sections above show how both marketers and learning professionals can, and must, take their audiences on a journey: from asking them about their current situation and needs, through providing personalised marketing or learning experiences, to helping them share and enrich their experiences both online and offline.

Whereas in the past it was the marketer or teacher who mapped out the journey, nowadays it the customer or learner who chooses the path themself.  For the marketer it is a question of gaining attention for their brand as early as possible, ideally even before there is a specific need, so that the prospect thinks of their brand as soon as the need is established.  The move is from “push” marketing to “pull” marketing, with the consumer or client selecting information they want when they want it, rather than having it forced down their throats.  So the marketer has to build brand awareness and have relevant content ready to be accessed by the prospect at their time of need.

For learning professionals, the learning goals may be set – by a company in the case of professional development or by exam boards in formal education.  But the learner must be provided with materials to reach the goals by the path that suits them.  It is a question of providing a “learning playlist”, to use the term used by Saffron Interactive. Learners must be made aware of what the playlist contains, and how to access it.  More importantly, they need to be able to personalise it with their experiences and share those experiences with a growing network.

The role of both learning professionals and marketers has become that of a guide for the journey which the learner or customer manages for themselves.

Donald H Taylor remarked recently that it is “A vibrant time for learning”.  The same could also be said about marketing.  Changes in people’s expectations coupled with new technology are forcing us to change.  They are forcing us to engage and have conversations rather than to shout.