Think like a marketer

We’ve been inspired lately by some of the articles and videos that compare learning with marketing, suggesting that in the learning and development industry (L&D), we would do well to incorporate some of the core marketing concepts into our learning projects.

The purpose of marketing is three-fold:

1.      Capturing the attention of your target market.

2.      Persuading a consumer to purchase your product.

3.      Providing the consumer with a specific, low-risk action that is easy to take.

Overlaying learning design on top of these three general statements, we can substitute the words ‘market’ and ‘consumers’ for ‘learning’ and ‘learners’ The L&D version of those marketing statements might read:

1.      Capturing the attention of your targeted learners.

2.      Persuading a learner to absorb the content.

3.      Providing the learner with specific solutions that emphasise simplicity and outcome.

Clearly, both perspectives are pursuing the same outcome. Marketing professionals and learning designers are targeting behaviour change.

It’s about encouraging our ‘audience’ to demonstrate a specific desired behaviour – whether that’s purchasing a widget or raising the capability of your sales team. The success of an experience designed to encourage behaviour change is in how your learner approaches and responds to the entire learning experience. The marketing world has a strong emphasis on directing attention, eliciting an emotional response, bestowing deliciously attractive design and the best campaigns are sprinkled with anticipation as well.


1. Grab their attention from the outset

A magical visual experience that is not underpinned by robust content will not achieve long-term behaviour change. Nor can we all afford it! However, being clever with the visual design and making a statement from the outset that quality matters, will help. Designing for simplicity and consistency is within the grasp of the least ‘artistic’ of us, and if not, bring some diversity into your team and find someone who can help.

However, it’s not all about animation and glitter! We grab learner’s attention by making the content relevant and giving them context that makes them say: “Yes, that’s me, what can I do about [it]?”. Remember that we have moved past learning being a lecture or an information dump. As well as being relevant, the most effective adult learning includes opportunities for self-direction and motivation, it’s goal-oriented, and calls on the learners’ life experiences to interpret and apply the message. Acknowledging what they bring will make them a more willing partner.

2. Persuade them to absorb the content

In its simplest form, this is ‘engagement’. Although this is fast becoming an overused buzz word in our industry, it’s a concept that will always be at the heart of learning design. Why should someone actually want to complete your module, absorb the learning and – heaven’s above – actually use what they learnt back in the workplace? How do we stop them just clicking swiftly through the content to get their grade or certificate?

It’s about capturing their attention from the beginning; from the moment they sign up or are assigned to a module. In the design, let them know why it is worth their time – their time is as precious as yours is. By all means, make it interactive and interesting, but not to the extent where it is distracting. You can even let them have fun learning – learning doesn’t have to be boring but it can be used to hold their attention!

3. Make it simple to work through it

If you are just trying to be clever and show off your ability to design complex interactive learning, overuse will risk you losing your audience in the complexity and camouflaging the real purpose of the module. The key message needs to be there – front and centre. If they don’t need to learn something, then why is it in the module – it’s just noise, distracting them from the real purpose of the learning experience.

These are just some of the ways we can learn from marketing and ensure the experiences we create: “direct attention, elicit an emotional response, bestow deliciously attractive design and tease them with anticipation.”