Marketing is simply an organization’s effort to get the right product in front of customers at the right time, at a price they’re willing to pay. When it comes to employee development, learning leaders should apply a similar approach to ensure learners get the information they need, when they need it.
Management guru Peter Drucker defined marketing as “so basic, that it cannot be considered a separate function. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view.”
Marketing is about the entire organization’s efforts to get the right product in front of the right people at the right time, at a price people will buy. Most product markets today are customer driven, meaning that if you can’t deliver your product to your target market on the right terms, your customers likely will turn to a competitor whose offering better meets their needs. As a result, consumer marketers attempt to measure almost everything about their customers: their needs, habits, preferences, budgets and more. Marketing plans driven by customer research and measurement are much more likely to achieve their stated goals.
In learning, we have a long way to go to catch up to the consumer marketers, given recent research findings from learning consultancy Corporate University Xchange (CorpU). Only 13 percent of the 288 organizations surveyed used quantitative metrics to measure employee awareness of learning offerings, according to the 2008 edition of CorpU’s annual benchmark study of corporate universities and learning departments. Additionally, only 25 percent of survey respondents used a formal marketing and communications plan to structure promotion of their key learning initiatives.
“It’s surprising that there still aren’t more who measure the marketing of their learning programs,” said Sue Todd, president and CEO of CorpU. “Many times, the organization is trying to shift the responsibility for learning and development to the employee, and the marketing and communication you need to make that happen often get overlooked. The best learning programs we see always include a formal marketing and communications plan.”
A generation ago, training departments published pages and pages of course catalogs and schedules, mailed them out to employees via interoffice and snail mail and then waited for the phone to ring with managers and employees inquiring about and signing up for one or more courses. A lot of advance planning went into this process because, once the catalogs and schedules were printed, it was costly to make revisions. Success was measured in terms of minimizing change and adherence to the set schedule.
However, today your learning catalog is online, and making a change usually is as quick and cost-effective as pulling out your keyboard and tapping the keys a few times. Built-in catalog capabilities such as audit trails easily can track the number of catalog and schedule changes over periods of time.
Marketing professionals love to use targeted mail lists that have been prequalified and sorted by various characteristics including industry, job title, geographic location and more. There is no need to pay top dollar for your targeted list, as marketing professionals do. If you choose the right one, your learning management system (LMS) can be a perfect marketing tool for learning.
The LMS has been elegantly defined as the system that gets the right learning to the right people at the right time and in the right format. The LMS and its ability to prescribe interventions based on job development profiles or learning plans is your best source for defining your target audience. Where marketing professionals would measure the success of their solicitation based on list conversion, you can measure the success of your learning initiatives based on the targeted alignment of your learning to the right audience and its consumption of that learning.
The LMS also is great at capturing learning marketing data and the transactions that equate to conversions. Unfortunately, this is usually where the LMS stops. Although it is wonderfully data rich, at the same time it often is very weak at reporting on the data it collects and stores. In most cases, you are left to fumble with inadequate tools and the complicated LMS data model to pull out the information you need to track the success of your learning marketing initiatives.
Fortunately, there are turnkey learning dashboard and reporting “overlay” solutions designed for on-demand presentation of metrics from aggregated LMS data and related sources. Until recently, organizations lacked the time and vision necessary to move past LMS system shortcomings and adopt these tools. But now, the need to show stakeholders the value of learning’s contribution as an enabler to success is giving learning managers new reasons to break through the LMS reporting barrier.
Historical measurement models such as Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation and Jack Phillip’s ROI methodology don’t attempt to measure learning marketing or its effect. However, in his new work, The Training Measurement Book, Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin & Associates, offers a new impact measurement framework that takes a broader view and looks to measure learning as a process, one that includes marketing and targeting of learning to the right audience.
Bersin’s framework includes nine measurement areas, including adoption and utility, as measures that can drive impact. He defines adoption as how well an organization targets and markets its learning to the right audience, as well as its usefulness. Utility, similar to job impact from the Kirkpatrick model, is the learner’s and the manager’s perception of the on-the-job value of learning.
Consumer marketing models typically list phases of the product- adoption process. These include elements such as creating awareness, or communicating something new or different about a product; promoting inquiry or product trial, or getting prospective customers to respond to marketing communications to learn more about the product, sample it and begin to consider purchase terms and conditions; and closing the sale, or using frequent outreach with all relevant product benefits brought to bear to persuade a prospect to become a customer.
Given these phases, when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of the marketing of your learning programs, what should you measure? Metrics that indicate how well your marketing is creating awareness of your learning programs could be taken from an annual employee engagement survey or your department surveys that ask how well learning needs are met across the organization.
Measures that show levels of employee inquiry or trial are easier to see: the increased number of management requests for courses and new learning offerings, the number of employee requests for more course information and the number of employee and management e-mails to learning with questions about courses.
Measures on “closing the sale” — enrolling someone for a class — also are more concrete: the percent of people who inquired about the course and went on to enroll in the course, the percent increase in the number of employees who took at least one course and the percent increase in the number of employees who took multiple courses or increased the amount of learning they took during the past year.
The key words for learning in the boardroom today are alignment and results. The enduring questions are: How can learning align its work to the needs of the business? How can it help drive results? Alignment measures components of marketing, such as strategy — how well the learning maps to overall organizational priorities and positioning and how well the program meets the needs of learners and their managers.
An alignment index measures how well learning executes on its value proposition. It would typically be made up of commitment-based metrics such as the percent of planning meetings scheduled and held with stakeholders and the percent of learning initiatives committed and delivered, as well as select question responses from post-training and follow-up surveys targeting alignment. Most course surveys and tests measure the stated goals of the learning program itself. Often, these are efficiency- and effectiveness-oriented measures related to how well and how quickly learning enabled some part of the organization to better perform its mission.
One of the most effective marketing tools for learning in the executive suite is the success story, taking a positive business result that was enabled by learning and promoting it to others. Yet CorpU’s 2008 benchmark study reveals that only 39 percent of the learning functions surveyed included testimonials in their marketing materials. Although the LMS may not capture the conversion of this type of marketing initiative, learning should use these stories as it goes out to other parts of the organization to sell itself as a strategic partner.
As parts of the organization come back to learning and ask, “Could you help us in this particular area?”, it behooves learning to ask, “What is the defining factor or reason that you want to engage with us to help you meet your business objective?” Perhaps they’ll say, “It was that story you told us about how you saved manufacturing $300,000.” Think about how when you go to a Web site and fill out a company’s contact form, they frequently ask, “How did you hear about us?”
Marketing professionals like to know which products are the hottest, and which are not. Their measure of success typically is product sales. In the learning space, the measure is utilization. Think about your large catalog of courses, and which ones are being leveraged and which are not. Learning organizations can easily produce a top 10 report of the most utilized training resources or even expand that to the most utilized by business unit or department. Utilization can help you determine a shelf life for your learning resources. Do you really need to keep those resources around forever? Do they deserve or need to be updated on a regular basis?
How about that large library of e-learning content you subscribe to each year? Do you really make use of all that content? Do you really need the “all you can eat” buffet, or is a smaller menu right for your organization? Knowing the utilization rate of the resources across the library may help you reduce your costs by narrowing your subscription to only those that your organization really needs and uses.
Resources for Marketing Learning
Many resources exist to help you better market your learning initiatives to employees, including consultants, marketing courses, books and communities of practice.
If your budget allows, instead of pressing your learning staff into service to plan and implement marketing outreach, hire a marketing pro on a part- or full-time basis to position and promote your initiatives to your optimum benefit. If funding precludes doing that, partner with your organization’s marketing department to make sure your efforts are on target. CorpU’s study notes that 46 percent of learning functions now are doing just that, with 9 percent even accessing the organization’s advertising agency for planning and expertise.
Marketing consultant Gordon Johnson has been working with internal training departments for more than 10 years on strategies to improve their reach and impact.
“It’s not all about tactics,” Johnson said, as he thought of some learning marketing plans he’d seen that included an endless series of e-mail blasts. “You must have a strategy that includes management buy-in, a great training Web site, and most importantly, you have to think like a marketer and focus on making it easy for your workforce to enroll for the training.”
Johnson, who runs HowToMarketTraining.com, said he has seen his share of ill-fated marketing outreach on behalf of learning programs, including boring “talking head” videos running on largely ignored TV screens in public office areas and quizzical wall posters that few noticed and even fewer understood.
In 2002, Lance Dublin and Jay Cross authored Implementing E-Learning, a book that encourages learning professionals to think of learners as customers and their e-learning as brands to be marketed to those customers.
“Implementing e-learning is still hard to do today,” Dublin said. “Successful implementation hinges on executive endorsement of what you’re doing and relies heavily on both change management and consumer marketing principles.”
In addition, Expertus, a training services provider based in Silicon Valley, has developed a competency in helping corporate training departments market their wares.
“Most of a company’s training spend is a fixed cost, so if they can get one or two more employees into a classroom or get an additional 100 to take an e-learning course, it’s all gravy,” said Mohana Radhakrishnan, Expertus vice president of client services. “The trick is using marketing to get more people to take advantage of what you already paid for.”
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