What’s the difference between the people who access the online learning content you create and the people who visit your company website?
It’s a pretty simple question really but it’s one that many marketers in eLearning, training and HR seem to sidestep. To illustrate the answer, we’d like you to imagine one stick and one carrot. Now, while most of the cool interactive stuff you use to create really compelling learning content certainly does need to be demonstrated on the company website, the key thing to remember is that your prospects and customers can’t be prodded with the stick, they need to be coaxed with the carrot.
If we build it they will come – won’t they?
Learning tech websites need to educate less and sell more. When we write this all out in black and white it looks painfully obvious, yet time and again, one of the main weaknesses we see in the company websites hovering on the wrong side of this industry’s top 100 highest rankers, is a misguided assumption that if you build a great looking site, customers and prospect will come. These sites can be compelling, engaging, rich in flash, video and other highly interactive content, but they fall down because they lack the essential inbound marketing tactics that online lead-nurturing and customer conversions depend on.
But how can an industry so skilled in the art of educating people in the workplace via the internet, ever misfire when it comes to engaging with prospects via the company website? After all it’s just a case of educating customers about your products and services, right?
Having put the marcomms tactics of the top 100 ranking websites under the microscope this January, we’ve come up with a theory on this (this is where you need the stick and the carrot).
From the boardroom to the course designers, coders and developers that actually make eLearning, the vast majority of people in this industy really get the importance of compelling interactive content: these are the things that make learning immersive, enjoyable, effective and successful. But, outside of the marketing department, what many in this industry don’t get quite so readily, is the importance of the search, social and other inbound marketing basics that people like us depend on.
Tactics that encourage inbound communications aren’t in the DNA of the wider business because the courses that training companies create are usually commissioned for a pre-defined, guaranteed audience.
Almost inevitably, the audience for eLearning content can be effectively corralled. Whether it’s a gentle prod from the HR department or a sugar coated compliance condition in the job spec, your average audience for eLearning is ultimately coerced into engaging with online content using interruptive tactics that marketing people like us would kill for.
Understanding this point is important for almost every marketer working in eLearning because rolling out promotional campaigns in today’s tough business environment usually means recruiting skills from internal designers, coders and developers who are much more familiar with what’s required for a successful eLearning product than they are with what’s required for a successful inbound marketing campaign.
Over the course of the past months, projects like our eLearning, Training and HR Marketers Spending Review or the Top 100 Highest Rankers Chart have helped us gather the thoughts of marketers in this sector.
As far as we can see, marketers in this industry do start out with well rounded campaign briefs that consider the need for inbound, search and social-based marcomms, but sustaining these elements becomes difficult if campaign briefs are fed into a web development machine that is, understandably, optimised to produce the great eLearning that is the lifeblood of the wider business.
Here are some of the most likely casualties:
1. Meta tags that matter: It’s been ages since Google took any notice of meta “keywords” but that doesn’t mean that some of the other meta tags aren’t still important. The “title” (70 characters max) and “description” (160 characters max) tags are really important because they show up in Google search results, but in more than a quarter of the sites we’ve studied, one or both of these tags are either not present or they fail to adequately describe the products or services on offer.
Since students don’t usually find the courses they need via Google, it would seem that meta tags are often extremely low priority for course designers. As a result, they are often little more than an afterthought for internal developers who are asked to assist in the production of online marketing. The worst examples we’ve seen are title tags like “Company XX: we have a catchy slogan but it doesn’t really capture what we do concisely”, or “Company Y: we’re an awards winning company”. Google’s index (usually) hates catchy slogans and customers rarely ever search for “award winning suppliers”. Much better examples are things like Articulate’s “E-Learning Software and Authoring Tools” or (perhaps even better) Skillsoft’s “E-Learning for Business Skills & IT Certification”, where the title includes lots of words that potential customers are likey to use in search. Jump over to our most recent Top 100 ranking websites in eLearning and learning technology and study the descriptions listed for each company under the “their place in the space” column. This isn’t how we chose to categorise these companies, it’s how they describe themselves in their own description meta tags on their sites. The best ones always take a simple “it says what it does on the tin” approach.
2. Keyword research: Another SEO basic that often falls down the void in eLearning, training and HR marketing is careful adoption and ongoing use of properly researched keywords and phrases.
The search engines have sussed out all cheap tricks like keyword stuffing or cloaking and these days good keyword research is all about integrating key phrases sensitively into good, sharable content.
Keyword research and implementation would normally occur sometime after the marketing department has created copy for a new product or service and before the web designer turns this copy into an online promotion. Its effect on the tone and message communicated in the copy may be minimal (for instance, good keyword research may ascertain that a company offer for “serious games” has much more chance of success if it opts to use the key phrase “business simulations”) but its impact on a promotion’s success can be immense.
Closing the skills gap on keyword research can be more difficult internally but if external help is not an option, there’s plenty of decent software available out there, and most of it goes some way towards sparking up a keyword strategy. Two really useful FireFox plug-ins to help with SEO are: KGEN – which displays the strongest keywords on any web page (IE: run competitors that you think are doing a decent job through KGEN to get an idea of the kind of vocab that works well for them) and Keyword Spy SEO/PCC – which allows you to search behind adwords on Google to see which keywords are driving the ads insertions. Basic versions of both of these are free.
3. Localisation: Typically, when a busines works out of several regions, marketers need to devise strategies that allow consumers in one country to access specific content (for instance, at the moment, it’s a good idea for a UK-based learning and training company to promote any credentials and products it has for the health sector or the NHS, but if the same company sells into the US market, it would probably want to promote any credentials it had in defence (see our SEO in elearning story if you’d like to know why).
When search and social marketing experts think about doing this kind of localisation, they instinctively take into account the weak spots that may arise when a company’s web presence needs to be accessible to multiple cultures in multiple countries (Essentially all interactions from anyone anywhere should be leveraged to help build global authority online).
This does not happen if a company’s site in, say, the UK, is hosted and managed independently of its sister site in, say, the US. This type of regionalised, but separate approach is currently the main reason why many Pan-European or global providers in eLearning, training and HR have high ranking websites in one country, but very low ranking sites in another.
Staying the course can be tricky
It’s not that marketers in this industry don’t set out to produce search and socially optimised company websites – they do. It’s just that staying the course can be tricky when the tune you’re asking folks to sing to is in a different key to the one they’re most used to. But since few of the companies we want to sell to are likely to make visiting our sites a compliance point for their training managers and directors anytime soon, we’re going to have to rely on the staples of content and relevance marketing to get us noticed for the foreseeable future.