What should we envy about marketing in L&D?

[This is an extract from my regular newsletter (issue #11). You can subscribe here to catch future issues].

Those of you who follow the 10L interview series (yes, both of you) might have noted the enthusiasm for marketing as the profession from which L&D has most to learn and understand. There are some clear similarities: the behaviour change goal (with some envy, I suspect, for the clarity of that purpose), the centrality of content and events to the endeavour (with a tinge of green, I reckon, for the quality and inventiveness of ideas) and the distribution of that content to the right person at the right moment (with some jealousy over the precision of the targeting). The power of those similarities rests on audience relationships (one more parenthesis for the green eyed monster). The sentiment of these observations, from my own observation, is a wish for the learning industry to be more like marketing in both thought and deed.

But, (there had to be at least one) there are some powerful and typical differences. When we covet marketing, we do so because of the audience insights built on well managed relationships. Marketers, or effective ones, start from this point, focusing on what people care about and trying to solve that for them. In L&D, the problems we work on are largely given to us by stakeholders, sometimes with little or no foundation in audience evidence. Our task then must be to find or create solid data foundations to develop on. As learning professionals, we are so often trapped by the conspiracy of convenience and our impulse to deliver, that we overlook this vital foundation. Marketers are much less likely to fall into this trap with the customer as their touchstone and evidence from which to take decisions. Simple, no?

I have recently been working with, the award winning, Ashley Sinclair who runs the MAAST agency. Ashley has a great insight from the eye of a marketing professional into the learning world, in which she has worked for a good long while. I have taken away many sharp observations from our conversations. This is my favourite so far: “Yes, your learners do pay you. Not in money, but time.” We face stiff competition for our learner’s time and the attention they spare for us. That competition can take many forms, which are not always learning shaped. Never underestimate the lure of doing nothing – a time honoured response to a performance challenge in the workplace. Continuing to get by can feel like a win.

Our smartphones are designed to steal our attention from any task. “1 out of every 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.” so, let’s not pretend that learning is an overriding priority amongst the reality of our daily lives. We are clearly not always rational agents. That marketers’ insight into what we actually care about is invaluable.

The courses, content and campaigns we create compete with YouTube, TikTok and the growing army of course creators all the time (to say nothing of family, friends and guitars). It’s obvious, because it is relentlessly true. Spending time with us can be a tough choice to make against the lure of those experience rich services, dripping with data.

L&D often assumes that marketing is about promotion and awareness raising. Overcoming the “If you build it, they will come” mythology is a vital hygiene factor and helps to avoid time-wasting. It is, however, a narrow definition of the value of marketing. We are right, I believe, to look to marketing for signals of how we can progress, but not only for advertising tactics. It is the insight that we should envy.

Envy by Jacob Matham (Dutch, 1571-1631) is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

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