What are proven marketing tactics that learning & development (L&D) professionals can apply to their field? This question is asked all the time, in every category, from pet food to political campaigns. Here are two initial questions for L&D when it comes to using marketing techniques to sell training courses within their organizations.

Smart marketers always begin with two questions: who is it for, and what is it for?

In the case of L&D, you have multiple clients, and they believe (and want) multiple things. If you’re having trouble with adoption, or in getting the resources and respect that you seek, it’s almost certainly because there’s a mismatch here.

Some executives seek compliance (a fancy word for obedience). This is the factory mindset, going all the way back to before Henry Ford. Productivity goes up if people do what you say.

This compliance mindset is why we have tests and assignments in public school. The goal isn’t to teach exploration, it’s to teach adherence to the right answer.

A lot of corporate training is built on this model. We want our people to be able to have a certain skill, and prove it. We want our people to use this skill to accomplish assigned tasks. And so we create compulsory training and test people after the training.

There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s a coherent approach to solving the problem of a compliant, safe workforce that performs top-down tasks.

The other kind of training, though, the kind that most L&D people are excited about, doesn’t work this way.

This is training designed to help people think. To invite them to take initiative. To encourage useful creativity, to produce more cohesion, to influence company culture in the right direction. This is training to help your people see and act differently. From the bottom (I hate that word) up.

This is the training that delivers game-changing results.

But it’s sometimes harder to sell this sort of change to the C-suite. If an executive is looking for short-term productivity gains and proof of compliance, a course on nonlinear thinking isn’t going to fly.

Okay, so now we can get to the heart of the question: Once you know who it’s for and what it’s for, can you tell a story (a true story) that will resonate with the people you’re offering it to? Does that story make promises you can keep? Does it come from a person who’s already trusted?

Here are the three goals for effective marketing:

1. Would they miss you if you were gone?

2. Do people ask for it when you’re offering it?

3. When they’re done, do they tell their colleagues?

If these things aren’t happening, look deeper into the training, into the promises you make, and perhaps, into the mindset of the people you seek to change.

Are people hungry for the knowledge offered by your course or training program?

The next step is to assess market demand for your course or training program in the first place—this will make a world of difference on whether you are successful or not. My altMBA, an intensive months-long workshop we’ve been running for a year, has no tests, no lectures and takes about three hours of work each day. And yet, we have a 96% completion rate from some of the busiest people in the world.

And the courses I offer on Udemy also regularly receive high ratings and completion rates.

The reason for both successes is the same: enrollment.

As marketers, many of us like to think that the last step is the most important, that if the flyer or the promo is as good as the course, we are in.

Alas, not so.

In fact, it begins at the beginning. Are your people eager to go where you’re going? Are they enrolled in the journey? Are they thirsty?

If they are, have they given you permission to guide them?

Because once you have that, you’re no longer in the business of finding students for your courses. Instead, you can transition to finding content for your students.

We’re tempted by infinity, by the idea of one more student, one more interaction, one more win.

But we live in a finite world, one with not enough attention and not enough resources. So, instead of pushing the next thing on the next group, we have the chance to dig in and represent the group. Where do they want and need to go? What are they thirsty for? What do they need?

When we reach out to the marketplace and find courses for our students, our posture changes. It means that the difficult part isn’t persuading the boss to free up the money, the difficult part is finding a training that’s worth the time and energy of the people who trust us.

Once you have that, you don’t have an engagement problem. Or a completion problem. Instead, you have students/employees who are thirsty for more.

“Oh good! I have a session with the HR folks.”

If you’re not hearing that, you’re not earning attention and trust. All you’ve got is compliance.

The thing is there’s a huge difference between a kid who’s a baseball fan and a kid who is studying history from the textbook. The baseball fan does it because she wants to. She’s finding the time and the money to make it work. On the other hand, the 12-year old in history class only wants to know if this is going to be on the test.

Ultimately, you want to create more baseball fans in your organization.

L&D as curators: market the course you love

In my experience, the most successful L&D people are the ones who have the very mindset they seek in the team they serve. In their spare time, they buy and read business books. They’ve taken Dale Carnegie or online courses on Udemy, and there’s always something new on their desk.

In fact, sometimes, they even teach these courses. Not because it’s their job, but because they love making the change happen.

If it’s not good enough for you, it’s probably not good enough for your team.

One of the requirements of this trust-based approach is obvious: you have to kill the lousy courses. You have to be the watchdog. It’s not “buyer beware.” It’s L&D guide beware. That’s what we’re trusting you to do—don’t put us in a lousy course.

When you’re excited about a course, your team can tell. When you need to invite a few people to beta test a new training tool, you won’t have any trouble finding volunteers, because you’ve earned that trust.

It’s important to establish this environment of trust as a curator before you begin to push a given course.

At the end of the day, marketing is about selling something people want and love. For L&D, it starts with the course or content itself. The content should be carefully selected or designed just as a product is designed with feedback from the “customers”, aka your employees themselves. If it’s good and what they want, then marketing your content can successfully amplify the results—resulting in employees loving the course and telling their friends and colleagues about it so more people enroll and engage.

That’s the power of marketing L&D when it’s done right.

Empower your team. Lead the industry.

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