As much as people argue that “learning should be an incentive in itself”, L&D has a chronic engagement problem. Weeks, maybe months, of planning, mountains of software, and heaps of money are pumped into learning initiatives. But, too often, the bubble’s burst on impact because nobody actually uses them.
Sometimes, it’s personal: if you’ve been doing a job for 15 years you may feel insulted at the idea you need to improve; or you could be worried that your blind spots will be exposed for everyone to see. But this doesn’t account for the majority. Most often, it’s an issue of priorities and time. There’s a lot to do in a day, basically all of it time-pressured, and it’s hard to justify devoting any of the little you have spare to a task that’ll improve you in some abstract way in a hypothetical future.
This second group is the one L&D needs to win over; the majority who recognise that learning is probably good for them - just not right now. This has strong parallels with the attitude that marketing is aimed at. Marketing’s job isn’t to change minds, it’s to jolt things into action. Marketers don’t try to convince bald men to buy hair dryers, they try to convince people who do need one to actually go and get one (preferably one of theirs). As there’s so much overlap between target audiences, it seems a missed opportunity that L&D isn’t stealing methods from marketers - especially given that engagement is crucial to their success.
‘Push and Pull’ methodology is a prime example of a marketing concept that L&D should be plagiarising. Although it seems straightforward, these two tactics of drawing people in provide very different ways of garnering engagement and require very different methods and attitudes. The trick is to use the right mix of both and make them work in tandem.
‘Push’ marketing brings the product to the customer, driving engagement in a relatively unsubtle way through the direct communication of offerings. ‘Pull’ (sometimes known as inbound) marketing is more subtle. It’s about drawing customers to your products by removing all the barriers (anonymity, effort, uncertainty etc.) between them.
While the overlap between the disciplines is not absolute L&D can inform every stage of a campaign with these techniques and steal hard-won marketing theory to get the kind of results marketers enjoy.
Marketing is about straddling the delicate balance of how much people want to be contacted. The opening stage of a campaign is when you can push your luck and, consequently, the best time to let loose ‘push’ tactics (fledgling companies often use ‘push’ marketing at first just to get their name out there.)
Two key components of ‘push’ tactics are clarity and uniformity. This is not the time for the small print. Rather, make the launch broad in purpose but narrow in meaning; give everyone the same message but make it very simple. It also helps to structure it round a timeline, tasking people with specific goals to complete by specific times, even if they’re arbitrary - the purpose of this push method is to inspire action.
Uniformity should extend into something else which is often sorely missed in learning: branding. It might seem a bit forced, but whatever brand you create for your learning initiative will determine the space it occupies in your learners’ minds. If you don’t take control of that, it’ll still sit someplace in their heads, you’ll just have no say in where.
While ‘push’ is the main focus of the first stage, ‘pull’ is necessary to get them through the door you’ve opened. At this point, this requires making the journey from awareness to usage as seamless as possible. This means, firstly, content needs to be easy and quick to find - no searching, clicking, or signing in beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Secondly, whatever platform you’re using has to be either self-explanatory or very swiftly explained. This early stage, especially, is very delicate, and if someone gives up before they’ve properly used a platform, it’s difficult to get them to try a second time.
After learners know what your campaign is and how your platform works, the next stage is to make your users justify to themselves why they should use it. This involves a delicate balance of ‘push’ and ‘pull’; you need to give your learners some incentive but they equally need to understand why they want to learn, not just why you think they should.
A good way to pull all of this together is specificity. Every learner has specific short term goals they need to achieve, longer term aspirations, content needs, learning style, language, preferred time etc. With each one of these you accommodate it’s more appealing for the user to give a piece of learning a try. If you combine this ‘pull’ with a ‘push’ of content suggestions tailored to an individual, they’re more likely to start using your platform and it can start proving itself to them.
This specificity doesn’t just need to be tied to the individual. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; there’s always a company initiative, economic change, cultural/social event affecting your learners. You can tie this to personalisation to make ‘push’ and ‘pull’ work together stealing something else from marketing: a multichannel approach. For example, one week you could send out a broad informative email informing your learners about a specific trend in their industry. The next week, each learner could get a Slack or MS Teams message with learning recommendations relevant to that trend while simultaneously tailored to the individual’s own learning signature.
With that much ‘pull’, the gentlest of ‘pushes’ is enough to get your people engaged.
This is one of the main barriers to consistent engagement and, unfortunately, the most complicated to break down. Changing a company’s culture in any measurable way is a very tricky business, requiring high level buy-in alongside groundswell. Senior buy-in is the hardest to get and, in a catch-22, can sometimes only be bought by evidence of a successful learning initiative. That being said, L&D can still use ‘pull’ tactics, encouraging small behavioural shifts that can evolve into longer lasting cultural changes.
One tactic is to get users to start small. As in setting a learning goal of two minutes a day. Even if learners find themselves doing more than those two minutes, they should be encouraged to keep the goal the same. If a learner happens to do more learning than the allotted two minutes that’s just an added bonus; but all they have to do is 2 minutes, which feels like nothing. This tactic conforms to the ‘pull’ methodology as it makes re-engagement far easier by lowering one of the key barriers between learners and learning: commitment.
A similar idea is encouraging users to put learning in their way, to build it into their schedule, preferably where stuff doesn't compete. For example: they could squeeze in learning first thing before checking email, whenever a meeting finishes early, or as a stopper between Zoom calls. It’s also a good idea to have a prioritised list of what they want to learn so that they don't waste time deciding what the first thing is. If you can codify this kind of practice in your company, your people will see learning as more than just a boring obligation. They’ll buy in and their commitment will naturally grow over time as they see results.
A final, key area of ‘pull’ marketing is in converting users into product champions. People with personal experience and without a vested interest are far more convincing to those on the fence. Of course, the fundamental way for L&D to guarantee loyal supporters is to make a great learning experience that satisfies users. But, alongside that, you can incorporate reviews, provide areas for discussion around learning, encourage users to share their own learning, and publicly reward engagement. This can lay the groundwork for the kind of public support that impels potential users to trust in your campaign.
The last thing to mention is something that wraps round every marketing campaign: data. Not everything works the first time round, and the best way to find out how to improve is through data analysis. And it’s important to find solutions quickly because users are unforgiving of messaging or content they find annoying or redundant. While the potential uses of this kind of data is huge and varied, it can clearly inform ‘push’ and ‘pull’ techniques.
For example, if you find a user has dropped off at a certain point in the onboarding process, you can remind them where they left off and take them back there. This is certainly a nudge but by leveraging the ‘push’-’pull’ dynamics the user can get back on track with as little friction as possible. Alternatively, if it becomes clear that a certain section strongly correlates with users dropping off, it can be taken out or modified to optimise the experience.
User data can also be analysed to find out who the most engaged learners are, and how they became invested. Did they RSVP to webinars or did they open introductory messages? Who activated their account earliest? Who is engaging most with bots? This kind of information can tell you where you can find your learning champions; it also tells you what works best for them and can dictate how you communicate with them in future to keep them engaged. This constant loop of customer-centred data to customer-centred action is a glimpse at another area of marketing that L&D should loot.
It’s become a truism that learners are becoming more like customers. But, while the learning community might have understood that fact, understanding hasn’t turned into action. This is partially down to the fact that the digital transformations and broader cultural shifts which catapulted the role of the customer internally into businesses are still relatively fresh. But it’s unavoidable now.
Perhaps the idea of wholesale stealing a marketing theory and applying it to a learning campaign is a little too far. However, it does show just how productive the overlap can be, and how much untapped potential L&D can find in marketing theories and practices. Marketing experts, thought leaders, and academics have devoted decades amassing the knowledge and experience they need to inspire action. Why not steal it?