What if learning leaders have it wrong, and marketing actually trumps instructional rigor as a learning retention strategy?
by Michael Noble
December 22, 2015
We know the dire stats about how much our learners truly remember. We repeat them to each other so often it’s surprising we stay employed.
In a December 2010 report titled “How Much Do People Forget?” Will Thalheimer reviewed a few of the most sobering and viral stats that are still floating around today. British company Festo Didactic Training & Consulting said learners forget 40 percent of what they learn in 20 minutes and 77 percent of what they learn in six days; learners forget 90 percent after one month. Canada’s University of Waterloo revealed that learners forget 50 to 80 percent of what they learn after one day and 97 to 98 percent after a month.
However, Thalheimer said numbers like these are chronically misinterpreted, and the complexity of the training warrants a closer look. While that’s likely true, overwhelming evidence of the irrelevance of employee training on performance is hard to refute. A quick Google search will provide lots of similar numbers, none of which are very cheery.
So basically it’s pointless, right? Learning leaders might as well focus on filling stakeholder requests and measure success as timely fulfillment.
Not so fast. There is a shortcut that may prompt some fresh thinking. The Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out” is all about memory and identity, and it illustrates popular science in an accessible way.
There is one childhood memory that just won’t go away for me. I learned it by hearing the phrase over and over again: “Triple Dent gum will make you smile. Triple Dent gum, it lasts a while …” We tend to disparage rote learning, however. We want to believe deeper understanding trumps the ability to simply recall. Yet in 2011, Betsy Sparrow wrote about the Googlization of memory, arguing that we are now using our cognitive resources to remember where to find information rather than committing a bunch of information to memory. So, it isn’t so much about content as it is about retrieval at the moment of need.
Let’s fast-forward the argument. Why does employee training spend so much time on content? We know learners won’t remember it, and we know one proven way to make things memorable is marketing. How might we use those strategies — not to build corny, fake commercials or even memorable jingles — but to develop learning campaigns employees will want to engage with?
Here are some marketing ideas/strategies we can use to break out of the current, dominant instructional mindset.
Create a brand ecosystem. Call it a campaign. Call it a marketing strategy. Just don’t call it a course. We need to use the right channels — not just the few available to us. We need to design at brand level, connecting expertise and performance to the brand in a memorable, emotionally effective and strategic fashion.
- Email messaging, reminders and updates
- CRM features for performance
- Campaign management features
- Learner-nurturing tech
- Tracking and analytics
Target specific audiences. We think we do this well, but we don’t really make it a science. We keep it at the anecdotal level. How can we get real data? What data are we gathering?
- Robust profiles
- Adaptive evaluations
- Performance and retention data
Build awareness of brand promise. What is the promise of the desired performance? Does expert performance have a brand in the organization? What would go into creating branded expertise?
- Taglines and messaging
- Vision pieces
- Executive participation
- Repeated and sustained communication
Employ social customer engagement. Social technology needs to be a part of a performance campaign, fostering engagement and providing feedback. We have to sell the whole ecosystem to our stakeholders — not just the course/program — if we want to break through the obstacles.
- An omni-channel experience
- Proximate availability in work environment
- Traffic driven and measured
- Backchannel dialogue
Use pull marketing. How are we pulling learners to our resources? How are we getting them to “convert”? What compelling messages or proximate reminders drive them to participate?
- Tracking of lead generation (how learners engage)
- Allocation of budget to most effective strategies
- Definition of “conversion” aligned with each group/role
- Connect emotionally. We have to look for meaning and connection in everything we design. This meaning has to support a larger vision of who we are as an organization and how expert performance contributes to or enables that vision.
- Sharable and viral messages
- Compelling visuals and metaphors
This pivot toward marketing likely isn’t entirely new for most learning leaders. The learning and development industry has refreshed its thinking many times by borrowing from other disciplines. However, usually when we borrow, we also water things down or start small. Imagine the possibilities if we apply digital marketing strategies, marketing communications and brand development as strategies to shift the paradigm of learning and performance in our organizations.
Michael Noble wrote this article. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.