Turning Learners into Fans Part 1: Developing a publishing program for learning personas

March 29, 2022 | Activate Learning | 15 min read

A two-part series by David Meerman Scott, marketing strategist and author of 12 books including the Wall Street Journal bestseller Fanocracy

It is amazing that so many marketers spend their time like this: holed up in comfortable company conference rooms or in Zoom rooms trading ideas about how to market their products. You know, just off the top of their heads. The worst part? In these making-stuff-up sessions, there is no representation of the voice of people who will buy the products and services. People go back and forth, saying, “Oh, I think we should do this” or “I think we should do that.”

The way most marketers operate is by making stuff up.

However, organizations filled with people who take the time to understand the needs of buyers they wish to reach, and then develop information to educate and inform those buyers, are more successful than organizations that just make stuff up.

How a focus on marketing your learning content drives engagement

In this two-part blog series, we will look at tried-and-true marketing tactics that you can easily adapt and deploy in your organization to engage learners in ways that are most valuable to them. The ideas in this series have been used by millions of people around the world to market to customers, however these techniques are rarely used for internal communications. There’s no doubt that these marketing strategies can work to increase engagement with your learners and over time turn them into fans of the learning programs offered by your organization.

When you understand your learners’ needs and develop the kinds of programs to reach them at the moment they are ready, they will become your fans. They will eagerly share with others in your organization how valuable the learning offerings are for their growth as employees.

This series is organized into two blog posts:

  • We will start by looking at how to segment your learners into distinct groups, what I call buyer personas in the marketing world. Then we will consider ways to educate and inform your groups of learners by publishing information and being active on social media.
  • Then, in the second post, we will dig into the concept of real-time communications. And to put it all together, we will consider how to create a plan to implement these ideas into a plan at your organization.

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Developing learning personas

Buyer personas is a marketing term that describes the distinct groupings of potential customers. Understanding the market problems and needs of definable groups are critically important for successful marketing that leads to business growth.

The same ideas can work for you to reach your internal audiences.

Creating marketing initiatives that target specific buyer personas is a strategy that easily outperforms the results marketers get by simply sitting on their butts in a comfortable office making stuff up.

My use of the word “buyer” applies to any organization’s target demographic. A politician’s buyer personas include voters, supporters, and contributors; universities’ buyer personas include prospective students who might apply, their parents who will help foot the bill, and alumni who might donate; and a nonprofit’s buyer personas include corporate and individual donors.

Similarly, your learners can be grouped into distinct personas so you can create communications programs targeted at just what they would be interested in.

Let’s call them learning personas instead of buyer personas.

By working to understand the market problems that your learning programs solve for members of your learning personas, you’ll gain the insight you need to quickly develop programs that will resonate with learners.

For an example of buyer personas used in marketing, consider the rental car industry. Now, I’m no industry expert, but I do rent cars from time to time. It would seem to me that rental car companies serve quite a few distinct buyer personas. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Independent business travelers who make rental decisions themselves
  • Employees in the corporate travel department who make an approved vendor deal on behalf of hundreds or even thousands of company travelers
  • City dwellers who don’t own a car but who need wheels for the weekend
  • Somebody choosing a car for a family vacation
  • A commuter whose own car is in the repair shop for a few days but who still needs to get to work

The incredible value of creating multiple personas and researching the needs of each is that the way they express the problems your organization solves may be very different. In the rental car buyer persona example, a corporate travel manager who cuts a deal for 5,000 employees has very different needs (for example, to save the company money) than somebody whose car is in the shop for a week and needs a reliable vehicle for a few days because, above all, she cannot miss work.

Smart organizations build marketing strategies that will appeal to each of these buyer personas, with a focus on their unique problems. It is precisely those organizations that build sites based on buyer personas that cause you and me to go “Wow! They really understand me!”

The same thing is true for you.

Somebody working in your company’s customer support department who needs a learning program focused on conflict avoidance is very different from a senior manager who aspires to an executive level role and wants leadership training. In turn, the needs of those two groups are unlike the needs of those in software development and IT operations who need to learn the latest technologies.

We can consider each of these three hypothetical groups of learners are a unique learning persona. With a deep understanding of the needs of each of the learning personas you serve, your communications can be targeted to the needs of each persona.

“We approach learning like the Burger King slogan “having it your way”, says Cathy Manginelli, VP of Talent Management at TriNet. “We offer a variety of options directly with the learner. We offer online opportunities, virtual facilitated cohorts, and communities coaching. We offer resources ensuring that there's a multitude of ways no matter what employees are learning—whether its technical, functional, system related or leadership development—that they get what they need. We have a working committee of over 50 colleagues that help us chart the learning journey and they co-create with us. We also have an employee resource groups that we call ‘colleague resource groups’. We have different communities that we tap into, depending on what that need is.” SOURCE: Panel: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Your Learners and Your Customers Perspectives 2021

As you develop communications programs to reach your constituents about learning content, a focus on discreet groups, what we’re calling your learning personas, can radically change how you and your colleagues are perceived.

Rather than one-size-fits-all, develop strategic themes and tactical messages for each learning persona about how learning can help them on a day-to-day basis to do their job better, how to grow as an employee, and move up in the organization.

The first step in turning learners into fans is to communicate to them in a personal way they will appreciate.

Develop an information publishing program to educate and inform your learners

Once you’ve identified the learning personas that you want to communicate with, you will need to understand the best way to reach them.

At most organizations, communications channels such as email and slack are clogged with all kinds of messages competing for employees’ attention. The challenge to communicate effectively is to use the tools each learning persona prefers.

As you create your strategy, consider how you can utilize video, social media, and other alternative communications methods to break through the clutter.

As many smart marketers know, well-crafted information that serves to market a product, service, or idea such as blogs, video, infographics, social networking feeds, podcasts or virtual events are essential for reaching buyers and pushing them into and through the buying process.

I’ve been talking about how drive action for more than twenty years now. In that time, I've seen thousands of organizations around the world implement these strategies and they work. It doesn’t matter the marketplace—business-to-business, consumer brands, services, or independent consultants—a modern marketing approach works better than traditional advertising.

“We don’t think of learning as an event, but rather as a process that takes place over time:” says Ben Sieke, Director, Talent Development and Learning at Delta Dental of California. Sieke takes a consulting approach when working with internal clients. “It isn't just one day we go and do this or three days we go and do that. The learning experience takes place over time in bits and pieces. And then leaders within our client group, and in particular the contact center, coach against those same expectations.” SOURCE: Panel: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Your Learners and Your Customers Perspectives 2021

The new marketing model on the web also works to reach internal audiences including learning personas. It’s not about hype and spin and messages. It is about delivering exactly what is needed and, in the process, branding you or you and your team as leaders, developing fans as you go.

If you adopt social sharing tools popular on social media such as “like” and “share” buttons, learners can help promote content to their peers.

Similarly, “upvote” systems (a way to promote content that learners appreciate via voting) and “badges” (online certificates of completion of learning programs) can be used to share learning content.

Here are some marketing basics to keep in mind as you create an information publishing strategy to reach your learners:

  • Information Publishing Strategy #1: Start with your learners.
    When you understand your audience—specific learning personas who will benefit from your offerings—you can craft a content strategy just for them. What works is a focus on each group and their problems. What is less likely to break through is a simple display of your offerings.
  • Information Publishing Strategy #2: Consider your learning persona’s problems or questions and be helpful by showing that you and your organization understand their needs.
    To dig into their problems, read the publications that your learners read, attend virtual events that they attend, read a few of the blogs they read, and maybe interview a few people from each learning persona. You might also consider tapping managers to learn what learning content is the most needed by the employees in their departments. Rather than simply talk about what you have to offer, show that you understand learners’ problems.
  • Information Publishing Strategy #3: Define your organizational goals first as well as how you intend to measure the success of the marketing strategies you implement.
    When possible, try to align your departments objectives with those of the organization. For most corporations, the most important goal is profitable revenue growth. In newer companies and those built around emerging technologies, this usually means generating new customers, but in mature businesses, the management team may need to be more focused on keeping the customers that they already have. When learning programs align with the overall company goals your efforts become much more strategic.
  • Information Publishing Strategy #4: Use examples and stories! Make it interesting!
    Imagine you’re at a cocktail party. When someone says: “Let me tell you a story…,” you’re interested, right? However, when someone says: “Let me tell you about my company’s training programs…,” is your reaction the same? Hearing about someone’s training doesn’t sound like a way you want to spend your valuable time, does it? Stories are exciting. Most marketing is not. As you create publish information to promote your learning programs, consider how you can tell stories of how your learners have grown through your offerings.
  • Information Publishing Strategy #5: Consider creating an editorial plan for each learning persona.
    You might create a calendar for the upcoming year that includes learning content for each persona, and the ways that you will deliver that information, such as blogs and video. Notice as you build an editorial plan and an editorial calendar for the next year that you're now focused on creating and publishing the compelling information that your learners are interested in. Unlike the way you might have done it in the past, you are not just creating a big brochure about your learning content. Instead, you are focusing directly on your learners.

In the second post in this series, we will dig into the power of real-time communications. We will also consider how to create a plan to implement these ideas into a strategy at your organization.