Taking A Page From Marketing: Lessons For Workplace Learning

What Marketing Can Teach Us About Workplace Learning

Those who follow me know I value my business acumen, specifically as a financial and strategy professional, and how it aligns with workplace learning. So, it should come as no surprise I get suspicious hearing ‘learning experts’ preach about how learning should be ‘more like marketing’. It’s like asking an electrician to install your plumbing; you just wouldn’t. Like I always say, verify your sources and be a critical learner… Question everything.

These experts, however, are right; you should learn why marketing is valued and what techniques can help you to gain internal support for your initiatives. But what you should be asking is why marketing?

Why Marketing?

It may seem intuitive to some, but no one really asks 'Why we should emulate the marketing function?' The reality is that learning and marketing have much in common.

First, leaders evaluate both roles cost centers. Rather than getting uptight about this label, you should embrace it (See The 4-Letter Word Learning Practitioners Hate Most... Cost!). A cost center must contribute to a company's profitability indirectly, unlike a profit center, which contributes to profitability directly through its actions. This is wonderful news since learning activities don’t have to (and shouldn't) correlate directly to a metric like profit or revenue.

Second, both internal activities are intangible but absolutely necessary. A business can’t exist without marketing and it also can’t function without well-skilled employees. Your leaders know this but being intangible is a challenge. How does one actually prove either activity makes a difference?

Take a television advertisement. You watch it but don’t immediately act on it. Let’s say you watched a fast food ad the night before. You may consider it for lunch the next day. So, did marketing work? How do you prove it? Can the marketing director go to their business leaders and say, “I got Bob/Mary to watch the ad and it made them go to the restaurant the next day”? The answer is no. There’s no correlation between the action and ad, but there may be causation.

Key Marketing Tactic For Learning

The other reason you should be like marketing is actually applying marketing tactics to your learning efforts. There’s much we can learn especially the one go-to tactic you should use.

One thing practitioners, humans in general, enjoy doing is trying to convince others about their ideas. Don’t believe me? Think about the last time you tried to convince your spouse you’re right about something. Marketing refers to this as the ‘push’ approach. What you should be doing, even in a heated argument, is the ‘pull’ approach.

What’s the difference? Well, it’s simple. The push approach forces people to accept or to do something. While you may find success doing so, it leaves the receiver with a bad taste. Essentially, they bought into your idea because you convinced them rather than openly accepting it themselves.

Pull marketing, on the other hand, takes the latter or opposite approach. The goal of pull marketing is to get the receiver, in this case your internal customer, to come to you for the learning solution, hence the term pull. This usually occurs when you listen to your customer’s needs, how it will address their precise concerns, and ultimately solve their problem.

Isn’t this what learning practitioners do well? Don’t you conduct needs or skills gap assessments? But do you actually speak to the person needing your help? Too many times I discover this is not the case. Practitioners tend to focus their assessment on the job role rather the person's need. Speak to them. Have them contribute to the learning initiative that works for their needs. Do this and you'll get them to pull your learning efforts and build lasting and trusting relationships rather than forcing training upon them.

Show Them The Money!

Lastly, never forget the money. This is where I lose many practitioners. Like marketing, you’re a cost to the business. And like marketing, you need to demonstrate value for the money they’re investing.

Those in marketing aren’t financial experts either. But they provide value correlation and causation for their marketing initiatives. Even though they may not be able to prove their fast food ad got you to go to the restaurant the next day they are able to show the increasing trend in restaurant sales from the release of their campaign. You need to do the same.

The first step is addressing the user needs. But to show monetary value for your initiative, it must align with precise business and performance metrics. Your operational leaders refer to these as Key Performance Indicators (KPI). Meet with them to identify performance areas to improve and how they correlate to the KPI and the people doing the work. The closer you align with KPIs positions you to demonstrate causation and ultimately monetary value to the business leaders.

Did you enjoy this article? Would you like to learn about how you can do the same for your company? If so, please contact me. I'd enjoy hearing from you. I'm always seeking topics that shake the status quo. Who knows? It may be the topic of my next eLearning Industry article.