Why L&D needs to think like marketing

Ross Stevenson examines what L&D gets wrong about marketing tactics and how to do things that work


The headlines for the last 5-ish years have constantly been around ‘learning needs to think like marketing’ and ‘L&D professionals need to be more like marketers’. This is admirable and I’m sure the intent is to help our industry but often it hinders us.

Making what I refer to as ‘captain obvious’ statements that tell you to do something but provide no clarity on how to do that very thing is useless. You don’t need to be running around your office with a billboard hanging around your neck trying to get people to take your latest course.

L&D is not marketing, yet you can supercharge your work by understanding basic marketing concepts. We’re all marketers in some way. We market our work to others to show our performance and our skills to employers for jobs. You’re doing more of it than you realise.

As L&D professionals, we must practice what we preach in learning new ways to improve our craft

Let’s focus on four ideas from the marketing world that we can apply in the world of learning and development to connect with an audience.

1. Content marketing

Exactly what it says in the title, marketing your content. And no, that doesn’t mean the usual ‘click here to access our new training course email’. Instead, this is sharing your content like a human. 

You can use the AIDA framework of Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action to solve a problem for your audience through your content. This helps us shift messaging from ‘we want you to do this’ to ‘here’s how we can help you’.

Anyone can share a piece of content. Only those who understand the power of marketing can connect people with content and convert them to act.

2. Build campaigns

You can’t just launch an L&D product and assume people will use it.

This thought has been the downfall of content libraries launched across many L&D teams. Instead, we need to think about product and content releases like engagement campaigns.
As an example, you could build a six-week multi-channel content campaign around the topic of career development which highlights all the tools and resources you have in this space, across email and collaboration tools.

You can build campaigns to inform, educate and inspire to take the desired action on any topic. Seeing something only once rarely sticks but seeing it multiple times to recognise the benefits does.

3. A/B testing

A/B testing is a type of experimentation that allows you to compare two marketing campaign versions to see which one performs better. For example, you could create two versions of an email campaign, send each version to a different group of people, and then compare the results. 

A/B testing can be used for any type of campaign. Think about tinkering with the titles of your courses or the intro text for your performance support resources. Find what connects with your audience, not what you think they should connect with.

4. Personalisation

Personalisation is tailoring your messages to the individual needs and preferences of your audience.

It’s important to be clear on whose problem you are solving with every message you share. It’s helpful to your own marketing strategy, or simply, what is it you want people to do. In marketing, it’s typically conversion to a brand or product purchase. For L&D department, it would be to consume content and experiences to improve skills and performance.

Using the same messaging for every part of your business won’t work. Each business area will have different needs and challenges. If you make your message specific to solving a problem your audience has in their part of the world, you’ll find way more connection than bland generic messaging.

These tactics are used on us every day through many channels. We’ve all made purchases at some point because of one of the above approaches. As L&D professionals, we must practice what we preach in learning new ways to improve our craft. And the basics of marketing are one of the ways we can improve.

The famous martial artist, philosopher and movie star, Bruce Lee once said “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not and add what is uniquely our own”. 

This is useful for us to remember in looking to advance our own craft and industry. You don’t need to become a marketer but our friends in this industry can certainly help us get better at what we do.

Ross Stevenson is learning strategist at Steal These Thoughts  

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