The L&D industry’s best eLearning courses and resources are supported by some of the lamest marketing strategies we’ve ever seen.

OK, so we’re a B2B marketing agency and our work is focused on marketing deliverables that bring new sales opportunities into the pipeline. We don’t usually get involved in the marketing activities that help L&D departments “sell” courses into the workforce.  But when it comes to creating campaigns that communicate course materials to employees, you don’t need to be the world’s most insightful marketer to notice that some L&D professionals just don’t have their heart in it.

When you ask L&D people to think like marketers they panic. They start acting like the cast of Mad Men and come up with ideas that haven’t really worked since the late 60s: “What about a nice poster in the staff room to promote the new sales course?” “How about a fun to enter competition?” or “Maybe we need a regular newsletter to remind staff that L&D is alive and kicking”. Frankly, if we ever proposed any of these classics without real rigour and substance we’d be shown the door.

Sure, we’re lucky enough to be allocated reasonably good budgets for the work we do because most companies think that good B2B marketing is a critical contributor to success. That’s not usually the case when L&D professionals are asked for a marketing plan to launch a new course or boost take-up in a course that’s floundering. In these circumstances, budgets are tight or even non-existent. Usually, this is because marketing requirements have been factored into the course roll-out programme too late.

Quick fix marketing never works

L&D people usually resort to inadequate, lacklustre marketing when high expectations for a course’s take up are not realised. With a hefty chunk of change already invested in a course that’s failing to gain traction, L&D parks the problem with marketing and crosses its fingers. This bolt-on approach never works.  It’s too little too late.

It’s much easier (and ultimately more cost efficient) to weave agile marketing into the course development from the beginning. Toward’s Maturity’s 33 reasons why e-learning projects fail download suggests this when it stresses the role that pilot programmes can play in powering early stage marketing success.

Turning early adopters into heroes and publicising departments that have benefited during a course’s pilot phase is agile marketing at work. Messages may not be clear and concise at this stage, but they’re evolving. The Eureka marketing moment that delivers the big idea may be some distance down the line, but the fact that it can be seen on the horizon provides early direction.

A plan is no substitute for an idea

L&D professionals who want to market their courses and resources better aren’t really short of good advice: Shift’s 9 Steps to Marketing and Promoting eLearning Projects details a rigorous enough process and Aurion’s Top Tips for Marketing Your eLearning offers up some great getting started help. But these guides, and others like them, explain the marketing process without stressing the importance of the idea.

Just as great course designers have a clear learning point in mind for every course they create, great marketers know that all communications need to lead to one simple, straightforward idea. L&D professionals who don’t have marketing in their DNA simply gloss over this detail, usually because they feel the big idea is something they need to come up with all on their own. They don’t. Great ideas are never hatched by one person, the agile marketing process allows them to evolve, in the wild, over time.

Big ideas don’t need big budgets

The key point here is that the idea isn’t the pricey part of any marketing programme. In the B2B world communicating an idea saps budget because external channels are usually required to push the message out to the target market, but within the company, these channels exist already and are free to access. When L&D professionals are asked to “market” courses to the communities they serve, they usually have unfettered access to the channels they need to deliver high definition messages to incredibly well-segmented audiences. It’s a degree of granularity that most B2B marketers can only dream of.

So how do you support L&D output with marketing that doesn’t stink?

1. Make marketing matter from the start

We think that marketing needs to be in the DNA of any course roll-out programme right from day one.  Communicate the idea for a new course before even thinking about how it might be created or how it might look. Ask the workforce you serve what they think about the training need you’re trying to address and press for feedback: what are their pain points and how do they think the L&D department might help address them. Never assume that your learning priorities (as the L&D professional) are the same as the learning priorities across the workforce.

2. Learn from feedback

Many marketing plans for course materials fail because they sell the benefits as the L&D department perceives them. They promote what you will learn rather than the advantages that the new learning will actually deliver to the worker. Pure-play L&D professionals think that base benefits like “finish work faster”, get promoted quicker” or “cut corners to achieve the same result” diminish learning’s status but these are the simple, straightforward benefits that real workers usually want to hear about. Any feedback that comes in because you promote new course ideas early is invaluable market research that will speed a course’s development and help ensure it’s properly positioned for the target market.

3. Cultivate big creative ideas

Great ideas are actually the evolution of lots of ideas inspired by lots of people. Since much of the marketing that supports course material in the workplace is bolted on late in the day, L&D people are essentially looking for the silver bullet in a vacuum: that’s quite a stressful environment to work in. Much better to create an eco-system where lots of ideas allow the best ideas to stand out on their own. In the workplace, this means getting marketing engagement at the start of the course development process and encouraging early input to go viral.  If agile marketing is in the mix from start to finish, “marketing that just works” is what comes out of the process.

Cool stuff that just makes it easier:

Hatch great ideas with a #hackday

James Webb Young, in his book “A technique for producing ideas” advocates a particularly ordered 5 step approach. Jon Warning summarises the entire process in his 3Sixty Design blog.

Paul Brown’s “The 6 best marketing ideas I have ever had

5 lessons to learn from McDonald’s marketing

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