How Marketing to Your Global Workforce Can Transform Corporate Learning

Jerry Zandstra (JZ), Senior Director of Learning | Miriam Taylor (MT), Customer Success Manager | Adam Eling (AE), Vice President of Client Services

Miriam Taylor (MT): Welcome to this conversation Adam and Jerry. I’ll start with the obvious question. Why do learning, training, and development professionals need to think like marketing people? I spent some time researching how to best marketing and thought this definition was helpful: “marketing consists of promoting and selling products or services and includes both market research and advertising.”

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): I’m guessing you did not have a class on marketing in your instructional design training?

MT: I did not. I would say that in my early years as an instructional designer, I never really thought much about marketing. I thought of my role as designing learning experiences that would meet the needs of the organization and the learners. Truthfully, once I was done with my part, I moved on to the next set of tasks related to what I needed to build. Since then I have learned how very important it is for a variety of reasons we’ll get into as we continue. 

Adam Eling (AE): I’m sure many learning professionals would say the same. I remember being on a webinar a few years ago and one of the panelists brought up marketing. The reactions from the participants were immediate. Some commented that this was not their job. Others said that this was one of the most overlooked components of being a learning leader. 

MT: I’m pretty sure that most of our peers have come around to the second point of view that marketing is a core component of delivering learning and training. But that doesn’t mean we are all doing it. 

JZ: Most of the learning teams we work with are overloaded. There are almost always more tasks to be done than there is time to do them. And the standard answer to the question, “When do you need this?” is almost always an emphatic “Yesterday!” So I understand how learning leaders find it challenging to make time to think about marketing. 

MT: Adam, you’ve been involved in marketing for a long time. Would you agree with the definition of marketing I gave earlier about promoting and selling products and services?

AE: I suppose those are the basic components of marketing but something is missing. What people in marketing are really trying to do is get our attention. To give attention or, as is commonly said, pay attention, someone has to watch or listen to or think about something carefully. It means that someone is interested in what they are seeing, hearing or experiencing. 

JZ: When you say it like that, it seems like a natural fit for learning professionals. At the end of the day, that is what we hope learners are doing: thinking carefully about what they are learning because they are interested in what they are learning. 

MT: And you are both saying that this means more than just creating learning that is interesting?

JZ: Yes!  I believe we are. We certainly need to create learning experiences that are interesting to our learners, but we also have to think about how we will get their attention or even create anticipation for learning. 

AE: Something else needs to be said here. We are competing for learners’ attention with many other things.  Their jobs require their attention. They have task lists and meetings. Production deadlines and schedules to keep. In some cases, learning has their attention but in a negative way because they don’t see how it connects to their jobs or their success. Most marketing people will say that people’s attention is the most valuable piece of real estate on the planet. 

MT: Let’s talk about how we get learners’ attention in the midst of everything else that competes with learning. 

JZ: I think it begins with us realizing that we have a story to tell. We need to make the case that learning is not disconnected from all the other things learners have to do in a day or a week. Our story is that this learning experience is beneficial to them as individuals and to the organization. Training ensures that people have the knowledge and skills to do well at their jobs. It helps keep people safe and protects them. It can make their lives easier and give them opportunities to advance in their careers. These are things we need to say out loud.. 

MT: Telling the story of learning is a powerful tool. Many of our clients are multinational companies which means they work in a variety of cultures and languages. Does this change how this story is told?

AE: It does in many ways. Learners in a single location at least share familiarity with the culture they are in even if they come from different cultures. People who work for the same company but are spread out all over the world will not share this basic familiarity. That means they may be motivated by different things. In one culture, focusing on how a learning offering will benefit individuals and help them climb a corporate ladder might be a powerful tool to the majority of the workforce. In another, such individualized attention might be off-putting. In their culture, they may place higher value on honor or contribution to the good of the whole. 

MT: Let’s stay on motivation for a bit. In a global company involving many cultures, is it possible to market learning in a single way?

JZ: The answer is probably not, specifically because learner motivations will vary from culture to culture. The goal is to tap into powerful motivations that will help learners value what they are about to learn. As we said, we want to capture their attention before the learning even begins. To do that, it is helpful to build personas. Even in an organization with a single location, building personas is helpful. It becomes essential when dealing with many cultures. 

AE: Let’s talk about products that are global. Things that are commonly found in most markets around the world. Even large, sophisticated companies with extensive marketing teams have made mistakes.  There are well-known stumbles from companies like KFC, Coca-Cola, and Nike that did not connect with their Chinese customers. Some attempts were mildly amusing while others were downright offensive. Companies that connect well with their consumers will pay a great deal of attention to personas in cultures that are not their own. They do their research. They alter their message and, in some cases, may even alter their product. They often change their packaging to better connect with their target customers. 

MT: How do we translate what these companies have done into the marketing of learning?

JZ: Adam mentioned research. That’s a very good place to begin. It helps to know something about the cultures into which you are going to release your learning. This can come from books, social media, and travel. One essential is actually building relationships with peers in those cultures. The insight gained from putting in the time and effort to get to know people in another location and culture will be invaluable. If you are going to be making strategic learning decisions for people in a distant location, put in the effort to get their input and take it seriously. Check in with them as things progress. They can help you think through how you will roll out your learning initiatives and give you insider information that can keep you from taking missteps. 

AE: In some cases, you may need to change your rollout or marketing strategy from culture to culture. Yes, it takes extra time and effort, but the payoff is that you will actually have their attention and your learning is much more likely to achieve its objectives. 

MT: You both mentioned building personas. What are the steps to doing that?

AE: First of all, it is important to remember that not everyone will be adequately described in the personas you create. That won’t be possible to do unless the company is actually made up of a single person. In most cases, you will be creating a persona of a very large group of people based on an aggregation of them and their culture. Not everyone will fit it. Personas are composites. But it is still important to do.

JZ: The goal of building a persona is to understand some common traits among a large group of people. The exercise is based on a series of questions. What is important to this group of people? As we’ve already mentioned, what motivates them? What do they truly care about? What are their pain points? What are their key passions? 

MT: How do you learn these things through the process of building personas for different global regions?

JZ: A great place to start is with quantitative analysis. Build a survey asking the questions you determine are important and then compare the responses by region. You could survey randomly selected learners or even choose managers in different regions to answer the same set of questions. You can also compare demographic information like average age, gender, and education level.

AE: That is a good place to begin, but I would also recommend reviewing your findings with leaders in each location. Not only can they confirm the accuracy of what you’ve discovered through your surveys, but they can also add some color and flavor to your data. In many instances, they can also help you take action based on what you’ve learned. They may know of other learning that was very well received. Or learning that did not work. They can help you change your approach to marketing so that learners will be engaged. You can gain a lot through some simple interviews. 

MT: So assume I have done the surveys and the interviews. What is next?

AE: You build the persona. Often, a persona is given a name, gender, age, and location. You would describe this person as if you were introducing her to someone she did not know. Next, you describe the pain points that this person regularly experiences in their work. What is this person’s typical day like? What do they wish they knew or were able to do? After that, you describe what motivates this person to learn. What matters to them?

JZ: Like marketers who sell products, the key focus is always on the customer or learning in our case. Consumers sometimes think that marketing people create the need and then fill it with their products.  And sometimes, that is the case. But most often, market research is focused on learning what consumers want and then designing products that will meet their needs and their wants. In the end, it is all about the learner. 

MT: I like the “learner-first” focus. I sometimes suspect that our profession thinks like doctors whose job it is to get people to take their medicine. 

JZ: Maybe that is accurate in some instances. Safety training for people in very dangerous situations might just be medicine they need to take for their own good.  But even there, good marketing will explain the dangers and harm that can come to them if safety precautions are ignored. It can do that by sharing stories of people who have been injured. Or those who have been injured by ignoring safety protocol can tell their own stories, which is even more powerful.

AE: Like we’ve said, being ‘learner-first’ helps us ensure that our learners engage in the content and activities we create. The personas will help us connect with them as we market our learning to them, build anticipation, and increase their engagement. 

MT: Adam and Jerry, thank you for your thoughts. I look forward to the second part of our conversation in which we will look at some examples of companies that have done a great job of marketing their learning across their global learning audience.