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Feature: Marketing Tips to Make E-Learning Work


Piers Lea and Patrick Dunn, from LINE Communications Group explain why learning and development professionals should take some marketing tips to improve their e-learning.

With today’s tools, producing basic level e-learning and getting it out to learners isn’t particularly difficult. But making e-learning really work for your organisation and your learners is a more complex task. For those involved in learning and development, to meet the challenges we face and continue our impressive progress, we need to learn from our peers, and think like a marketer.

Learning from our peers
We’ve been looking at some of the challenges we face from the perspective of an expert marketer. We’re not talking about forcing products down peoples’ throats. Marketing, in its pure sense, is about putting your customer at the heart of everything you do.

Taking a simple, well-known model, Jerome McCarthy’s “Four P’s of Marketing”, it's possible to see how a marketing perspective might help:

Effective marketers understand that the best thing about many products isn’t the product itself: it’s the experience that it creates. This is at the forefront of their mind whether they are developing an iPod, a Ford Focus or a low-carb crunchy bar. Do e-learning developers think of experiences, or do they think of courses, objects and quizzes? The shift of mindset that occurs when you start thinking experience means that you’re less likely to see your job as converting content, or worse, creating software. Instead, you’re in the business of offering people compelling, high quality experiences they really need.

How do you find out what people need? A marketer would unhesitatingly recommend robust research that gets to the root of the real-life challenges people face. You cannot take a successful strategy or model from one organisation directly into another – or even from one subject to another within the same organisation. So unless you uncover genuine needs every time, there’s a fair probability that your product will miss its target.

Researching your product does not end with needs analysis. Marketers know that trying to improve the experience of a product without tracking customer behaviour at an almost forensic level is the road to disaster. They live in a world overflowing with data on users and usage, perceptions and beliefs. Yet report after report on the e-learning industry confirms that the sophisticated tracking and reporting systems we have available are, at best, underused and often ignored.

Marketer’s lesson one: Use real data to get inside your learners’ heads and hearts so you can offer an experience that really changes them.

Much of the early hype around e-learning involved the dreaded Martini promise (“learn anytime, anywhere”), while actually ignoring the impact of the learners’ surroundings on how they learned. But just like marketers, the e-learning developer must regard the environment in which the product is consumed as a key part of the learner’s experience. And this goes well beyond obvious considerations such as avoiding the use of audio in quiet offices, or designing concise learning interventions for staff that are often disrupted by customers. Just like expertly designed consumer products – think of Nokia mobile phones – the learning experience must integrate seamlessly into the learner’s life at home or work and actively exploit the characteristics of their environment. It must resolve their problems and build on their day-to-day experiences. It must be easy to access (for example, through a single login to a single system), easy and pleasurable to use, and always available.

Marketer’s lesson two: Develop an intimate understanding of the environment in which your learners learn. Then don’t fight it; use it.

As e-learning is increasingly embedded into organisational life, it has to compete on equal terms with everything else that the employee has to cope with. We have to understand our learners deeply: what excites them, entertains them, captivates them; their real networks of communication (not just the corporate intranet or staff portal) and how they use information when they get it. We must latch onto peoples’ needs and wants, and convince them that our offering will resolve the challenges they face. Then we need to position each e-learning intervention carefully in an overall communications plan that may include pre-course teasers and animations, newsletters, online discussions and – although trainers tend to look down their noses at such things – a full array of merchandising.

Learner perceptions are critical. What perceptions do your learners have of your e-learning? Do they feel that e-learning helps them resolve the problems they face at work or is it an imposition?

Marketer’s lesson three: Support your learners in developing a perception of your e-learning that is exciting, positive and supportive. Then make it incredibly easy – even transparent – for them to use what you are offering.

Training functions in organisations have a tough task demonstrating the value of e-learning because very often they can’t demonstrate the worth of what they do in ways that are familiar to senior management. And this is the case even where e-learning is shown to be popular and well received. Simplistic cost comparisons with classroom training – largely based on savings from travel, subsistence and downtime – can’t make a robust case for strategic uses of e-learning. Instead, we need to demonstrate how e-learning adds value, such as by enhancing service, accelerating product launches, or improving competitive positioning.

E-learning is a product where the person who pays the bills often isn’t the person who uses the product; most learners get e-learning “for free”. But marketers understand that even where something is “free” there is still a price to pay. What price do learners pay to use the e-learning? Giving up their lunch hour? Increased stress? Missing putting the kids to bed?

Marketer’s lesson four: Use real data to work out what your e-learning is worth and get a good understanding of the price people are willing to pay for it, even if users get it “for free”.

Process – the fifth P
Since Jerome McCarthy first came up with the Four Ps, various other marketing gurus have expanded the model to accommodate changes in marketing methods. For example, the Chartered Institute of Marketing website now outlines a fifth P – process - which appears to be particularly important for e-learning. This is all about the process users go through when encountering and using a product or service. How do they know it’s for them? How do they get started with it, find out more, buy add-ons, get support, and so on?

Examining the processes that e-learners go through can help to highlight some common weaknesses: clunky, user-offensive LMS interfaces; multiple logins to navigate; technical hiccups that require technical support.


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