What learning can learn from marketing

Posted by on 5 October 2017

Marketing is often focused on delivering messages that evoke particular emotions. Can learning campaigns use a similar approach? Mike Taylor from Mindset Digital talks about the lessons that learning can adopt from marketing.

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Transcript

Robin:
Hi it's Robin here, the host of the Learning While Working podcast and the founder of Sprout Labs. In this podcast I'm talking with Mike Taylor about what Learning and training areas can learn from Marketing.

This is becoming a common theme at Sprout Labs in terms of webinars and past podcasts. This is in part because Glasshouse - our platform for doing elearning content development and learning experiences - has some really powerful tools for building learning campaigns.

Mike has a background in training and learning but now works at Mindset Digital, which is a digital marketing company. He looks after the learning and training aspects of what they do. This means that he has a real in-depth knowledge of what is happening in digital marketing at the moment, and marketing generally, and gives some really nice examples around using emotion in marketing during this podcast. 

We explore learning campaigns in depth, and then we go off on a bit of a tangent about Learning and Development budgets. I introduce a question which is around how L&D can become a profit centre instead of being a cost centre. This is something that is still just an early thought for me and I will explore it over a period of time. 

I really hope you enjoy this podcast. There are lots of rich ideas and thinking that are in this particular podcast and I really enjoyed my time that I spent talking to Mike, so I hope you enjoy it.

Hi Mike, welcome to the Learning While Working podcast. It's great to have you on board today.

Mike:
Thanks Robin, good to be here.

Robin:
Mike, you've got a really deep interest in what L&D can learn from marketing and you've put together some thoughts and a bit of a framework about what L&D can learn from marketing. What are those things?

Mike:
I think there's three big categories. The first is marketers are really great at capturing attention and usually that's through tapping into some sort of emotion, whether it's humour or powerful emotions and that kind of stuff, and then the third thing is they're really good at getting beyond just events and one-time exposures and looking at the world in terms of campaigns.

Robin:
So it's the campaigns that I really want to pick up and really dive into more deeply. It's a really interesting thing because essentially I think of learning as a really wicked complicated problem and quite often in organisations we look for really simple solutions, whereas marketing sort of accepts that it's actually hard to get people to buy and this is where they actually have a different set of tools available to be able to work with.

Mike, what do you think some of the most powerful things about campaigns that L&D can learn from?

Mike:
Well, I think you're absolutely right, and it is challenging and difficult and there are a lot of similarities between what marketing is trying to do and what us as learning professionals are trying to do. I think far too often people are trying to check the box and we've done our piece and you never really get to what the results are. If we contrast that to what marketing people - they've got a really clear through-line to hey, sales are going up, sales are going down, and so it's much more results focused. Those folks are pretty quick I think to get fired when the results don't come. So campaigns, like you said, they are complex and they take some more serious thinking. Any time you see a McDonald's campaign or pick a brand, there's multiple channels, there are stories involved, there's all these things that fit into a campaign to make it successful, and it's not always a simple slam dunk no brainer kind of thing.

Robin:
Yes, so let's just drill into what you think possibly are those elements of what a campaign is. It's essentially multiple channels is one thing I think about it. Sometimes has an overarching story.

Mike:
Yes.

Robin:
Yes. Sometimes. Doesn't always. Which is always interesting.

Mike:
There is. There are insurance companies here in the United States, there's a couple that have really good character development, so it's over time you recognise the character and you know the brand. That doesn't even involve - there's no logo involved with that. When I see the Progressive girl with her scanner, I know that that's Progressive Insurance and they do a really nice job. It's typically humorous is the emotion that they tap into but everybody here, 98% of the people in the United States probably see that and they instantly identify with it. That's a good example of a successful campaign.

So it's not always a logo or that type of consistency, but there's character development, there's a lot of other things that television shows and those sort of things that marketers tap into to raise awareness and lead to successful campaigns.

Robin:
It also - this is an interesting thing because we see so much advertising that we tune out to it, so repetition becomes really important. But there's a little bit of me that sits there and does a whole - is that about humans? Where we do need repetition to remember and perceive and take in things especially if they have no emotion. Or is it just to do with the media? What's your thoughts about the nature of the repetition in campaigns?

Mike:
Yes, for sure, I think there's a really good correlation to some learning theory concepts, space learning and retrieval practise and small pieces spaced out over time, so that's a campaign in a learning context. You think of that as a marketing campaign where it's small advertisements spaced out over time. I think there's some really nice parallels there that fit together, that is a basis for me that makes sense that hey, we should look at what the marketing people do because there seems to be some research that ties those two things together as being successful.

Robin:
Yes. This is interesting hearing and thinking this through as well with you, because essentially a thing that you started with was that sense that a campaign actually has an emotional driver, which possibly is sometimes a story and we in learning - there's been a huge uptake in story based elearning but still it's one of those things that people don't think about first, they have to come second to it quite often. Even a little bit of some of the work that happens around retrieval practise in space learning I just go, "Oh, really? Does someone need to know that quiz? Is that really helping that much?" Whereas I sit there and go, "Actually, if you're weaving an interactive story over time, that's maybe more likely to get actual learning activation and learning transfer happening.

Mike:
Yes, for sure. The other thing that I want to come back to before it gets away, you talked about tapping into emotions. I've had a lot of conversation around this and one of the first questions that I always ask people is, "What are some of the things that you wish you could steal from the marketing department?" I always get, "Budget," that's always one of the top ones, but I think there's a reason why they have a budget and we don't sometimes. They talk about graphic design and visual assets is a big one, and then the other one which I think is one of my favourites is somebody once said, "I wish I had their efficiency of communicating messages." And I think that that's a really really important one.

Robin:
Yes, that's a really interesting one isn't it. Because essentially marketing messages are down to a sentence and very short - a banner ad on the google banner display ad, just has to be a really sweet, to the point, sentence and visual.

Gee that's interesting. If L&D actually had less time to sometimes do things, they might have to be clearer around the messaging.

Mike:
Yes, for sure. I think my favourite example, if you contrast what some marketers do in some of your favourite commercials with, we've all seen bad compliance courses and walls and walls of text and just mind numbing stuff. My favourite example to illustrate how powerful this marketing concept can be, there's a Subaru commercial and it shows one of their cars that's been just totally demolished. Smashed completely. And it's a 30 second commercial. And until the very end there's only two words, so the car is moving from when they're picking it up from the road and they're taking it to the junk yard and it's going from person to person, and every time there's a pass off it says, "They lived." And they do that three or four times, and then it finishes with the family who was in the car, and it says, "We lived." And it's super powerful. And there's only two words in the entire thing, it's a great example of what we're talking about.

Robin:
Yes, it's a really nice example of storytelling, emotion, visual - yes it's just a really different set of things. This is also interesting because essentially marketing's quite often built by a team of people and this is where quite often - so you made a comment about the visual - there'll be specialists in visual design in a marketing team, and there'll be copywriters, and then there's the strategy people as well. Whereas in learning we quite often have what I call this elearning superhuman, the person that has to do it all. Maybe is to do with budget, but I think it's also to do with a culture that's developed around the notion that the software does it all for us.

Mike:
Yes that's true, I think there's also a piece where most organisations see marketing as sort of a core asset to help them generate sales and to be successful, and I think in contrast there are too many training departments or Learning and Development departments, whatever you want to call them who are off in the corner, they're not really central to what's going on at all, they're more - whether it's compliance based or whatever the case may be they just don't seem to be as central to the overall organisation as marketing and some others.

Robin:
Yes, and I think that's one of those things that needs to really change in the way we position learning as an activity. I'm only starting to form this thinking and it's actually based on reading a book on content marketing at the moment, Mike, that's about turning content marketing into a profit centre for businesses, about whether or not learning could be seen as a profit centre for a business rather than an overhead. It's just a really interesting thought experiment.

Mike:
Yes, I love that idea. I may be slightly biased, but I don't think I'm too biased, I think learning is really central. If you look at every or any successful organisation who's doing really well, there's a lot of learning that's going on to adapt and talk about the speed of business and all those kind of things. There is an incredible amount of learning that has to happen for that to be able to take place. And I think the difference is, in a lot of those leading type of organisations it's happening either much more in conjunction with the learning people, or it's much broader and it's going beyond, and people are learning with each other and they don't need somebody mediating that in the middle.

Robin:
Yes, there has developed a culture of learning and experimentation. I was at a conference last week and someone put up what were the largest companies in the US to compare to the largest companies in Australia. And the largest companies in the US were generally the tech start-ups. At that moment I looked at those and went, "And they're learning organisations." The people inside them are constantly pushing their knowledge base every day about what they're doing. They're doing new things every day, trying new things. It's this culture of continuously learning while working rather than learning being a separate activity, and that then leads to the business growth.

Mike:
And I think another part - I think you're absolutely right, and I think another piece that goes right along with that is they're okay with that being messy sometimes. I think there’s that ‘if you're not failing you're not trying hard enough’ mentality in some of those companies and if I'm trying something with good intent and it fails, well that sometimes can be a good thing because we can learn and then do something better. And I think if you contrast that with some of the lesser performing companies and organisations, it's much more we're afraid to fail, and I think there's a big difference in those type of environments.

Robin:
Yes, I'm actually think about - it was to do with prototyping. A couple of consultants I've worked with have done trials in large organisations and got really innovative things happening but because of the scale of the organisations the trials have involved ten thousand people, and I was just thinking about someone I was working with who wasn't keen on this idea of a big trial, they were more risk-averse and she could have done a bit more work with them around their mindset about how comfortable they were around change and experimentation, and that was the reason why they weren't pushing forward because of that.

Mike:
That's really interesting. I've seen that in a previous role at a big 20,000+ enterprise, I had a director and we were trying to - I can't remember the details but hey he's like, "Let's just call this a pilot. If we call it a pilot we're gonna do the same work but there's not as much pressure." And it's a really ingenious way instead of trying to force something that's this quote unquote ‘official project’, hey, let's just call it a pilot. And the pressure’s not on and it's okay if a pilot fails, it's not so good if a big initiative fails, and I think a lot of the time, the way you frame it, which is another way that marketers are good at framing things, it makes an enormous difference.

Robin:
Yes, interesting. I'm just thinking we probably should get back to the focus of what we're talking about but it's interesting how we got here as well because we got here about talking about budget and about L&D needing to be better at showing its impact on the business so it can actually get more budget. I think that's a really important thing to think through. Not to complain, to actually do something about thinking through impact.

Mike:
Yes it's almost a chicken or the egg, which comes first? Your impact or your budget?

Robin:
Yes, actually organisations that I have seen that have got budget, they have talked always impact first.

Mike:
Yes and I think that's true. I think if you're good, you can get impact regardless of the budget. It's easier if you have the budget but it's not impossible.

Robin:
So, if an L&D or training person was thinking about getting started with campaigns, Mike, what would be your advice?

Mike:
Well the example I always use it's a great entry into campaign is an email marketing tool, so something like MailChimp or there's a number of others out there. And one of the push backs that I hear commonly is, "Oh this is another thing to do, I don't have time to do all of this kind of stuff," and the reason I like these type of tools, MailChimp in particular is I can take materials and content that I already have, and I can pull bits and pieces out of that and build a campaign, so let's say for instance that I've got a training workshop and I want to do, whether it's in advance or as a follow up, "Hey in the training we did this, have you updated your profile picture on the platform?" Or whatever it is, and so I can space that out, and I'm not developing any new content because I'm just pulling content that I've already got, and that's really easy to set up, and it can be automated so you spend a really small amount of time setting that stuff up. All the subscriptions and unsubscriptions are all automated.

And the second piece that training people often are challenged with is - like we said - is budget. And MailChimp's got a really generous I think 12,000 emails a month for free until you've got to upgrade. So I think that's a really great way to start into a campaign type experiment.

Robin: So what I'm hearing is that you come in, you might sit there and say, "Okay, I want to run a workshop or a webinar," to sit there and think, "Well, how can I then build this as a series of messages that go out over a period of a month? What would those messages be? What would the timing for them be?" Is that sort of-

Mike:
Yes, absolutely, and the other application which - I've proposed this a number of times - I haven't been able to get any of the compliance people that I've worked with to go for it, but if you think of a typical annual compliance, so pick your topic: information security, whatever. Once a year, your once a year course and ‘check the box’, that might be good for the attorneys and the lawyers but that's not really - if you want effective results, why can't I take the content from the course that I've already got, and parcel that out, and just spread that out so: reminders, updates, and just space that out across the entire year, and I'm really super confident that I would see much better results than just the once a year ‘check the box and move on’ approach.

Robin:
It's actually interesting with that particular one. I've heard a couple of things where people have started to do follow-ups from more formal compliance training with some space to the email follow ups. We've done it a couple of times at Sprout Labs. It's interesting because some of it comes down to tracking, so in our Glasshouse, in our content platform we can do that sort of spaced things after, but we can also feed it back into xAPI as well so it stays within the learning ecosystem. It seems to make people a little more secure, so they can sit there and go, "Oh yeah, alright, so we can still satisfy the auditors because we still have that data in our existing learning systems."

Mike:
Yes, and I think that's another thing that we could steal from marketing folks is just having data. One of the nice things about MailChimp is I can get some - granted it's pretty basic, but I can see who's opening those emails, what are they clicking on inside those emails, maybe there are people opening them multiple times, so you can start down the path of data, and then - like you say - if you go into xAPI and all that stuff, then it can bloom from there as well.

So I think that a lot of people are talking about data, I don't know that there's a ton of people actually doing anything with it just yet.

Robin:
Yes, it's actually been a bit of a theme on the Learning While Working podcast this year, trying to figure out who's doing what interesting with data and I think you're right. A lot of people talking about it but there's not a lot of people actually - I think the first step is we're encouraging clients to just collect more data to start with, because marketing tools just have this huge data onslaught. Then once you actually have the data, then you can start asking questions of it, but if you don't have the data to start with, that's the first step.

Mike:
Yes, absolutely, absolutely. And balanced with not going overboard, right, like I've seen people that are collecting boatloads of data that becomes a burden that then just sits and gathers dust so I think there's a sweet spot in there.

Robin: Yes, and that sweet spot's about automatic data collection.

Mike:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I don't know if it's lazy or efficiency, I'd like to say I'm efficient but that sort of stuff, I don't want to sit here and manually do a bunch of stuff and spend hours every day, and like you said, a lot of those marketing tools are super handy being able to automate a lot of things that you would otherwise have to do manually.

Robin:
Yes, cool. Been a great conversation, Mike. In terms of following up on your thinking and presentations, where's a really good spot for people to be able to connect with your thinking?

Mike:
Yes, I am pretty active on twitter, I'm @tmiket on Twitter, my website is mike-taylor.org, and everything else flows either from or through either of those two platforms.

Robin:
So thank you so much for joining me today, Mike.

Mike:
Thank you, Robin, it's been a pleasure.


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