Kathryn is the Chief Learning Officer at a fictional manufacturing company called AshCom, located in Minneapolis. Kathryn has been the CLO for more than five years and, with her team, has produced some amazing learning experiences. But things are changing fast. Rebecca is a consultant from MindSpring who has served as an advisor to Kathryn for the last four years. This is their story.
Kathryn and Rebecca finished their first session of the day and then took a thirty-minute break. That conversation began with focusing on how CLO Kathryn was upskilling her team. They talked about keeping learning science at the core of every learning experience they created while using innovative technology and creativity to make those experiences pop.
- What are your top company priorities right now, and how will learning play a pivotal role in achieving them?
- Who are the targeted learners and how well do you know them?
- Do your learners care about learning, and how does learning connect with their goals?
- What organizational factors are influencing your learning initiatives?
- How will you get your learners’ attention and build momentum for learning?
- What are the essential topics for learners right now, what is their order, and is everyone aligned?
- How are you measuring the impact of learning on your organization?
- How are you keeping current or ahead of the curve in the learning industry?
- How are you upskilling your learning team?
- How will you meet your objectives without adding full-time team members?
- What is your 3–5-year plan for learning in your company?
Kathryn and Rebecca had already covered the first four questions. With all that was going on at AshCom at the moment, those were hard discussions.
Kathryn actually looked forward to diving deep into the next question: How will get your learners’ attention and build momentum for learning?
Rebecca began the session. “Are you ready to talk about marketing?”
“Marketing?” asked Kathryn. “Is that what we’re talking about? Marketing isn’t one of our team responsibilities. We figure out what people need to learn, build those experiences, release them, and then track how they perform. Marketing isn’t in our job description.”
Rebecca had known Kathryn long enough to be frank with her. There was mutual respect between them, so Rebecca didn’t hesitate to push back when the circumstances called for it. “Think about it this way—what if you could improve learning performance at every level of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model? What if you could launch a learning experience knowing that your learners were already highly motivated to participate? This is where marketing would help. Does it sound like something your team should be concerned with?”
Kathryn smiled. “Ok. My apologies for the negativity. I’m all ears.”
Rebecca returned the warm smile. “Let’s consider what you already know from our previous conversations. We’ve been through an Opportunity Analysis that identified the greatest needs of your company and your learners right now. We’ve done a Learner Profile exercise so you know your learners. We’ve worked through a Motivation Analysis and have a better understanding of what does and does not motivate your learners. And we’ve gone through an Adoption Analysis, which means we know the organizational barriers to building a solid learner culture.”
“And with all that knowledge and insight,” said Kathryn, “we now need to turn to marketing.”
“Exactly right,” said Rebecca. “Everything we’ve discussed so far is leading to this. I would say that among the many companies I work with, a failure to understand the need to market is most common. I can also tell you that learning teams that embrace the tools of marketing are far more successful than those that don’t.”
“My team doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of that,” said Kathryn. “So where do we begin? What marketing strategies do we need to use?”
“Before we jump into strategies,” said Rebecca, “we need to talk about something foundational. The key to the whole idea will be determined by how you think about your learners. This is where most learning teams fail.”
“How so?” asked Kathryn.
“Usually it takes a while for me to get a learning team to admit to this,” said Rebecca, “but most of them think of their learners as students. The learning team has the information. The learners need to be taught that information. The question is how best to get the needed information to them.”
“I’m not sure where you’re going with this,” said Kathryn. “We do have information and we do need to get it into the hands of the people who need it.”
“What would be different,” asked Rebecca, “if you thought of your learners as customers instead? Customers have a lot of choices for where they can spend their resources. This is how marketers think. Their job is to get the attention of potential customers. They have to attract customers, engage with them, and persuade them to spend their limited resources on the product they’re marketing.”
Kathryn sat quietly for a moment. “Something about this seems off to me,” she finally said. “Shouldn’t learners want to know how to do their jobs better?”
“So, by your logic,” replied Rebecca, “all you need to do is make great learning opportunities and the employees of AshCom will be eager to consume them? Your plan is like the line from that old baseball movie—if we build it, they will come.”
Kathryn paused again, looking thoughtful. “You just used the word ‘consume.’ I hadn’t thought of that before. Are you saying our learners are actually consumers?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” said Rebecca. “They do, after all, consume what you and your team create. They make a decision to spend some of their resources— in this case their time and attention— consuming learning. Your job is to convince them that it’s a worthwhile choice.”
“Let’s say I agree with you,” said Kathryn. “How does this change the way my team and I act?”
“Back to three words I used earlier,” said Rebecca. “Attract, engage, and persuade. Attract is the step of getting learners to pay attention to what you’re doing and building enthusiasm for it. Engage is next and means working with them to keep their attention. Persuade is the final step of convincing them to take action. It uses attraction and engagement to lead learners to choose learning.”
“I don’t think we have a lot of experience thinking like this,” said Kathryn.
“That’s alright,” said Rebecca, because that’s what we’ll discuss in this session. Marketing people think in terms of a funnel. They work hard to plan how people enter a sales funnel at the top and how people are nurtured until someone makes a buying decision. They think about the stages in the funnel from initial curiosity to decision. And they are very intentional about moving people to the bottom of the funnel. I can put it another way if that would be helpful.”
“Please do,” said Kathryn.
“Marketing and sales people talk a lot about the ‘sales journey,’” said Rebecca. “We could think about it as a learner journey that begins at the point where you initially get the learner’s attention and ends with the learner freely choosing to consume more learning?”
“Yes,” said Kathryn. “That connects better with me. I see your point. So if we need to make this transition from thinking about learners as students to thinking about them as customers or even consumers, where do we begin that process?”
“You begin by thinking about your brand,” said Rebecca. “There’s no need for you to make one. Your learning team already has a brand. It’s how learners at AshCom think about learning. Your brand has several layers built into it. Brand promise is one of the first things to consider. In other words, what promises are you making about the learning you create to those who consume it? Do you promise accuracy? Information? Opportunity? Your brand promise helps identify what value you’re bringing to your consumers.”
“So our value proposition,” said Kathryn.
“Exactly,” said Rebecca. “And like I said, you and your team already have one, but it might not be the one you want. We aren’t going to work through it today, but this is an important topic for you and your learning team. Of course, I’m happy to help you think through that. Maybe you should begin by identifying what you think your brand and brand promise are, then ask your learners to do the same. Chances are, they’ll say something different, which creates an opportunity for you to decide what you want your brand to be and how you’ll communicate it.”
After letting that sink in, Rebecca continued, “I have some other suggestions, some exercises that might be worth your time. Have you ever considered spelling out the vision and mission of your learning team? Or do you have some values that you could define— things by which you act and make decisions?”
“We’ve never thought about that,” said Kathryn. More hesitation. “I’m quite sure we’re operating with a mission, vision, and a set of values, but I don’t think we’ve ever spelled them out in a way like you’re describing.”
“Then that would be a good thing to add to your conversation about your learning brand,” said Rebecca. “We’ve talked a lot about how your learning team thinks of itself. We also need to talk about how you think of your learners.”
“I thought we covered that already,” said Kathryn, “when we discussed changing how we think of them moving from students to consumers.”
“True,” replied Rebecca, “but I want to take a deeper look at your learners as consumers. As you market to your learners, what’s your voice? What’s your style? Things like wording, terminology, and tone really matter. Do you know what to always include? Do you know what to avoid because it will raise barriers in the minds of your learners?”
“We always want to avoid creating barriers to learning,” said Kathryn. “Maybe we haven’t been intentional enough about our voice and style, though. That’s something for me to chew on.”
“In the time we have left,” said Rebecca, “let’s get practical.”
“Hallelujah!” exclaimed Kathryn. “I plan to take time working through your questions with my team, but in the meantime I’m very excited to talk about what we can start doing right now.”
“I know you’ll pursue those questions, so I’ll give you some practical steps you can take as soon as we’re done here,” said Rebecca, walking over to the whiteboard. She wrote:
- Make a list of the people who can help you.
“I would engage the marketing and sales leaders at AshCom,” she went on. “Ask them. They can provide all sorts of insights for you. As you progress, show them your plans and take their feedback seriously.” Rebecca continued adding steps, pausing to comment on each one after she wrote it.
- Find the influencers.
“Some of the best advocates for your learning brand are people who are already living it and have influence with other people. They might be managers, but they might not be. Sometimes the most influential people are the ones who have had the same job for a long time and are trusted by most everyone. Find them and talk to them.
- Explain the WHY.
“Make it clear why it’s important that you actually engage with learners. ‘Because we said so,’ or ‘because we need to be compliant’ are ineffective answers for any learner who wonders why they should invest their time in learning. Instead, when you talk about the ‘why,’ you’ll have better engagement if you use words like ‘opportunity’ and ‘value.’ Be clear about why each learning session or module will be worth the learners’ time. Explain how it will benefit them.”
As Kathryn listened, Rebecca ran down a list that she didn’t write on the whiteboard. “Make use of videos and animations as teasers to get attention. I’ve seen companies make very short videos with the CEO that signaled the importance of what your team is doing. Use test groups. Get endorsements just like marketing people do. I’m sorry— I don’t mean to throw all this at you at once.”
“I’m taking notes,” said Kathryn, “but I’m sure I’ll have some follow-up questions.”
“That’s totally fine,” said Rebecca. “What I mean to communicate clearly today is that it’s worth your team’s time and effort to think like marketing people. It will benefit your work, your learners, and this company. It might stretch your team, but it will be worth it.”
Kathryn glanced up at the list of eleven essential questions that had guided their conversation over the previous sessions. Smiling, she said, “I see our next big question is, ‘What are the essential topics for learners right now, what is their order, and is everyone aligned?’ I think we’re heading into territory more familiar to me.”
“Yes, we are,” replied Rebecca. “You know all about curriculum mapping, so maybe our next conversation won’t feel quite so awkward.”
“I think a better word is ‘unfamiliar,’” said Kathryn. “Let’s take our break and come back to it. You’ve given me a lot to think about here today. It wasn’t easy, but I certainly see why you call marketing one of the essential questions.”
“Good to hear you say that,” said Rebecca. “I’ll see you back here in about twenty minutes.”
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