The Learning & Development Podcast: The Crossover Between L&D and Digital Marketing with Ashley Sinclair

December 8, 2020

Written by Kiren Kahlon

Crossover Between L&D and Digital Marketing


The Learning & Development podcast is hosted by our Chief Learning Officer David James. Featuring L&D leaders from across the globe, each conversation focuses on hot topics in the profession. This transcript is from the conversation between David and Ashley Sinclair on the crossover between L&D and digital marketing.

Listen to episode 58 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David James: Ashley, welcome to the Learning & Development podcast.

Ashley Sinclair: Hey, thanks for having me.

David: Ashley, as a seasoned L&D leader myself, I can see how digital marketing and L&D overlap and how L&D benefits hugely when it steals principles and practices from digital marketers, but not everyone in L&D sees this. Can we start off by laying out the similarities between the two?

Ashley: I think there’s a huge amount of parity to kick it off really. The biggest thing for me is, ultimately, we’re trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do or know about things they don’t necessarily know about yet. Primarily, when you really boil it down to that, obviously, we’re not talking about developing the learning itself, but more about how we get people to actually undertake it, how we get them to start building different behaviours and changing habits when it comes to learning.

Primarily, from my perspective, that is marketing and exactly as you said, why we can steal from marketing and beg, borrow, and steal, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a lot of learning there.

We Need to Prove the Value of Learning Experiences and Build Trust With Our People

David: I think that from what I’ve seen and with my limited experience in digital marketing, is that, especially with inbound marketing, you’re capitalising on an interest and a need that has already been brought to your attention, either as an organisation who’s selling stuff or has services that are of value to the person who’s looking into it.

People are almost coming and knocking on your virtual door and then you’re adding value by guiding them towards finding the solution that best meets their needs. With inbound marketing, there’s an education element within there, isn’t there? One of the keywords for me within the whole thing, where I think the two really overlap, is in influence, because all a digital marketer can really do is influence an individual to do what the organisation that they work for would like them to do. Again, in L&D the organisation that L&D is employed by is hoping that they can then influence people to do more of the stuff that they want them to do. Am I oversimplifying that?

Ashley: No, I think that’s exactly right. I think the reality is there are so many different stages of what you’ve just described, if you want to boil it down, as a buying funnel or some sort of buying cycle and our learners still go through the exact same process.

A couple of things came to my mind when you were speaking there. Number one is we are in an attention economy and we know that we are competing for the attention of our people. We are competing with Instagram and all of the noise that’s on YouTube and Netflix.

If we don’t come to terms with that ourselves as learning practitioners, that we are in a sea of noise and we need to get attention first and foremost, then what we need to do is start to prove the value of the learning experiences and start to build trust with our people. That’s exactly what you were just talking about. What you described was almost demand generation. You’re getting people to want to come to you rather than you always having to push that energy out.

The big thing for me around building different behaviour or building behaviour change when it comes to buying behaviour or learner behaviour is primarily around that building trust and being relevant. Being there at their time of need, producing content that is of use to them, that is of value to them, that’s all going to help you in terms of building trust and building repeat behaviours over time, whether you’re a marketer or a learning professional.

David: Point of need, there’s some terminology that overlaps between marketing and Learning & Development because it’s at those points of need that we have the biggest opportunity to influence. Now, you also mentioned value there, Ashley, which leads me nicely on to my next question, because for L&D to recognise the similarities, we may need to look at the value that we add to our organisations, and even our identities differently as L&D professionals. That has already been the case for digital marketing when that emerged from marketing, was it not the case?

Ashley: I think marketing has gone through a huge transformation in the past maybe 15 years. We’ve gotten really, really good at proving our value because, suddenly, the C-suite started looking at us and saying, “Hey, you’re blowing million-pound budgets here. What’s the ROI on that? What’s the impact? What’s the business value of the money we’re giving you, that you’re then burning on advertising or whatever it might be?”

I think that’s the stage that L&D is at now, exactly the same where the C-suite is starting to really look at the impact and the value that L&D is bringing to an organisation. We are then left wondering, “Okay, well, how do we do that?” Because we know things like completions and smile sheets and bums on seats aren’t very adequate measures in terms of really understanding whether learning has taken place and whether knowledge and performance has been impacted.

Primarily, I think that there is a huge transformation occurring, and there’s some learning from marketing that can be borrowed and stolen to really enhance how to adapt and evolve as you start to have to prove the impact of ROI with what you’re doing.

David: I suppose we’ll get into that when we look at some of the nuts and bolts of what it is that marketers actually do and you’ve identified some skills that cross over between digital marketing and L&D and for my part, I completely agree with you. I know you begin with personas and segmentation, what can L&D learn about these?

Ashley: I think as a marketer myself, one of the best strategies that I can honestly say have worked for me, working in-house and genuinely trying to gain traction and increase brand visibility, and mostly get more customers, get more leads. The biggest thing is understanding your audiences and really knowing what their emotional drivers are and getting to grips with their foibles and the things that they like, the things that work and don’t work. It is an ongoing experiment and a wonderful heady, toxic mixture of failures and successes of which we learn from.

I think that from my perspective, that is primarily what personas and audience segmentation are about, is really taking that step back and using the opportunity to really understand who you’re trying to reach with your marketing campaigns or even your learning content. Sometimes I don’t even know if that’s really done when we develop learning, nevermind the campaigns that potentially support it from an outreach perspective.

Really, what we’re trying to do is get a better understanding of who these people are, what their emotional drivers are, and for me, the biggest thing is really looking to fulfill what’s in it for me, and understanding that it’s not good enough that in L&D we’re like, “Well, we’ve created this learning and it’s really important to us as a business that you do this.” It’s not enough for learners and people who are busy. You’ve got to understand what’s the value proposition from their perspective. Why should they even bother to interrupt whatever they’re doing to do what you want them to do?

It Doesn’t Matter What You do if You Don’t Know Who You’re Trying to Influence

David: Too many L&D initiatives and certainly technology implementations come top-down in which there is this naive belief that if there is enough content available, then there must be something in there for you if you just dig around long enough. We call that self-directed learning and you can see how naive that is, that it really doesn’t matter whether you’ve got 10,000 or 10 million pieces of content. If you don’t know who you’re trying to influence, and what it is that they are trying to do that they’re not able to do without your help, then it really doesn’t matter.

Then, seriously, it’s as useful as a Google search if not less useful because, at least, Google’s algorithms try to provide you with some context, trying to understand where you are situationally as much as geographically, whereas an LMS just isn’t as sophisticated as that. There’s something around the dismissing or at least challenging top-down product launches and programmes.

Also, on the personas element, I think that what L&D don’t realise is that they have a head start. Their HR systems and everything that is integrated with it provide an enormous amount of information on the people that they’re seeking to influence. Whilst there may be outlines that still require coloring in. Those are outlines that still need to be created for marketers. L&D actually have a head start.

Ashley: Some of those foundations are better than I’ve had in some organisations I’ve worked at as a marketer. I think the thing to be said about personas is it depends, I think, on the mind of the person, some people want everything substantiated and aren’t so comfortable with making some assumptions. The reality is, we have to do that. You can get a good mix of qualitative and quantitative data in order to really substantiate and bulk out your personas so that they feel really cohesive and clear. However, the reality is there are going to be some assumptions.

What you’re then going to do as you start to execute some of your marketing campaigns or even some of your learning, you’re either going to prove or disprove those personas, and hopefully, continuously iterate and evolve them. What we’re doing is almost working with a live version of something that hopefully gets further information fed into it to help it change and evolve as you learn more about the people that you’re trying to engage with, really.

David: As you say, because it’s not a one and done experience, you don’t just create a persona and then that’s finished because as soon as you throw a solution out to a group of people who start using that in anger, or certainly, in service of what it is that they’re trying to do, you collate user insights, whether that be user data or more qualitative data around to what extent that is helping them with what it is that they’re trying to do, and the rich data and feedback will always feedback and inform the next iteration of those solutions. Again, I think we’re best stealing and borrowing from digital marketing.

Ashley: Yes, as you were speaking there, I was thinking, there’s really very little in marketing that is a one and done scenario. I can only think of a small amount of instances, maybe when I’ve done like a brand launch campaign or done kind of more ad hoc event type stuff that’s very usually time-based, actually, where you’d maybe be like, “Okay, that’s done,” but you would still have benchmarked, and you still would revisit that campaign and say, “How successful was that? Why or why not?” You’d still be able to get some learning and insights from your audience, even on these off the cuff ad hoc type campaigns.

Otherwise, everything that we’re doing, whether we’re sending a single email, or building really complex automation and drip campaigns, we’re constantly understanding what’s getting better open rates? What subject lines are working for us? What’s being more effective with this audience in terms of helping us achieve our goals? That never stops.

Listen to episode 58 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David: No. You’ve touched on some smart tools that we’ll come back to, because as you said, digital marketing has been on this journey for 15 years or so. There are smart tools that pick up a lot of the heavy lifting that would certainly put L&D to shame, but before we come to tools, digital content development is huge in this. You’ve already mentioned there about testing in terms of the messages that you get out there, but there’s a lot more to digital content development than simply writing copy, isn’t there?

Ashley: Yes, and I think that again, this is probably one of the biggest skills that I think L&D can take from marketing and really work on themselves, and that is really around that copywriting piece and that storytelling piece, first of all. The amount of times I’ve seen content on an LMS, which is just like, “This course will help you better understand how to be a media manager.”

Let’s be honest, I have this debate all the time. I work in B2B and there’s this whole B2B, B2C debate. I don’t think it exists, because what we’re really doing is people to people, humans to humans. The sooner that we understand that our language and our visuals need to reflect the fact that we’re talking to people, yes, they’re at work, but they don’t put on some magical business hat, they’re still just human beings. That language, I think, needs to change.

Yes, there is a bit of skill to that. It’s not something that everybody is comfortable or eloquent in doing, but again, it is another fundamental part, I think, of marketing because without that, it doesn’t matter how great your campaign is and how much it gets people to your LMS. If that component is missing, you’re going to lose the clicks. You’re going to lose people, actually, at that final hurdle, which is a shame.

We Should be There at the Point of Need

David: This is why I think that the L&D needs to take that leap. It doesn’t replace the educational element, but what I come back to time and time again, is that there is this fundamental misunderstanding that corporate Learning & Development is education. Now, I challenge that and say that a small part of corporate Learning & Development may be education, but the vast majority of it is performance support and guidance to do more of the right stuff.

The educations’ ends are around testing, and it’s about a test of the acquisition of knowledge. Whereas Learning & Development’s only real end is equipping people to be able to do something differently, either in their current role or in preparation for a future role. It’s only really about doing.

In the way you’ve just described it there, if Learning & Development is fixated on providing content, which is precluded by learning objectives, you’re already assuming that it’s an educational problem. Whereas what digital marketing recognises is that when people have recognised they have a need, whether that is to consume, whether it’s to do, whatever it is, then you can anticipate what is coming next.

Digital marketing is really smart in what could be deemed a very sinister way by certain search results recognising when a woman is pregnant and at what stage she is. That’s all the sinister stuff you read, but sometimes we might zero in on the sinister and not look at the broader opportunity, that a lot of the time, especially when it comes to digital, people are just looking for help. Smart organisations and smart Learning & Development functions can be there.

It’s not necessarily about seeking a formal educational opportunity, but simply seeking almost a ninja-like opportunity to bring people through a funnel based on how useful that is rather than necessarily anything sinister about getting people to buy stuff.

Ashley: Yes, I think if you use that example that you just used, for me, it all comes down to intent, and again, then goes back to the understanding of the audiences and their behaviours, and that data set that we’ve talked about, but what we’re really trying to do is be there at the point of need, and God, I’ve heard that term in our industry, “Learning at the point of need,” for a year. “Learning in the workflow,” etc. I’ll give you an example, I use Excel from time-to-time. I’m not very good at it, but if I need to do something, I don’t ever retain this information. I have googled the same thing, how to build a certain sophisticated pivot table or something like that, because I don’t need to know that, I don’t need to remember that information. If you tested me on it, I would never be able to prove to you that I know that because I know I can just go search on Google, find that video again, and then do it, and it’s no problem for me.

I think that sometimes some of L&D is very steeped in a kind of academic background, and a lot of our platforms were obviously evolved from curriculum-based environments, where exactly like you said, testing was such a big fundamental part of that. We’ve kind of gotten really infatuated with that, as well as perhaps the only way, really, to be able to measure is to look at things like completions or knowledge retention, etc.

I think, very much to compound your sentiment, is exactly the same. People are not always accessing learning content because they have a specific learning requirement, per se. It’s much more around the intent behind it and a very, very predetermined and quick need, which is, often, very quickly satisfied.

From my perspective, then we go back to what I was saying before, what we want to be doing as L&D professionals is building habits with people so that when they do have those points of needs, they know where to go. They know the situation, “Okay, I want to go here instead of Google, because I know I’m going to get what I need and I’m going to find it quickly, and the experience is going to be better and more relevant for my job than something we’ll find on Google.” That’s where I think we’re falling down quite a lot at the moment.

David: I think, as well as the technical side, I’m just anticipating with the listener here saying, “Yes, but it’s all right for Excel, what about the skills?” I think that it’s really important here that we recognise in the past we’ve developed topic-centric programmes that isolate certain skill sets. We think that by removing people from the context in which they perform and educating them on said skill set, whether that be communication skills, presentation, time management, first-line manager skills, then what we’re doing is we are providing enough education for them to go back and then do something different.

What I always say to people is that it’s very rare that those programmes are timely because if you’re a new starter, you’re usually told far too much before you then need to perform. If you’re a new manager, you’re largely neglected for, if not weeks, then certainly, months, if not years after you’ve become a manager. You’ve got to figure this out in the context in which you’re expected to perform and get results because eventually, you’ll go on our flagship programme. What you are able to do is anticipate, simply by creating your personas, and then speaking to people who have been there, done that, and gotten through the pain of being a new manager, to understand what it is that they were trying to do when they first became a manager or what was stopping them from performing?

We’ve done this in some new organisations and it’s stuff like a manager saying, “Well, I just wanted to know what the role of a manager was here.” There’s really important stuff here. What do I do here? It’s largely cultural as much as it is technical, when they ask, “What questions might I be asked? What might surprise me? What tricky conversations may I engage in?” All of this stuff is riddled with anxiety, that all your purists will say, “Well, you can’t learn that by being online.”

What you do is you learn that whilst you’re actually doing it, the vast majority of the time, but what we’re saying is you can also provide people with guidance and support to help them navigate those things in the absence of nothing else, except fumbling along and making the same mistakes that have been made thousands of times in your organisation already. It’s not a replacement for something that was brilliant that now you’re replacing with a digital resource, where you’re saying there was nothing there.

Ashley: Yes, and unless you ask those questions, you’ll never know. Sometimes you do have to speak to the people and again, something you said to me there, the anxiety. These emotional drivers are what makes people really do stuff at work or buying new clothes. Our behaviours are driven by emotions and then we justify them later with logic, sure, but typically, a lot of what we do is led by, “Okay, there’s a fear or there’s an anxiety or there’s excitement,” whatever it might be, but particularly at work, in the example you’ve used, really put yourself in a new manager’s shoes and how they feel.

I know we’re kind of talking a bit of a balance here between developing actual learning to solve some of those challenges, but then the other thing, of course, is how do you get them to know that that thing is there for them in the first place and how do you let them know that that exists? Because you don’t want to have this amazing staff that just sits gathering dust in your LMS or whatever way you’re choosing to serve that up.

These two things need to be done in balance, not only having credibility in terms of actually what you’re serving them is of value and merit and really helping them on a day-to-day basis and delivering impact to them, but also that the campaigns that are promising those truths in terms of the quality that they’re going to get is actually effective in driving people to where you want them to go.

Listen to episode 58 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

Create Targeted Campaigns Based on the Value You Offer

David: You mentioned campaigns there, Ashley. Again, a crucial element of the digital marketer’s toolkit; not necessarily just about promoting what you have that might be useful, but again, a way of understanding what people are trying to do and then guiding them along. How do you see campaigns then as an approach working so well in digital marketing and being a cornerstone of digital marketing, then benefiting L&D?

Ashley: There’s a couple of things, and I actually just did a webinar myself on this last week and talked quite extensively about learning campaigns. There’s a couple of things, for me, that I think we’re not quite doing right. Number one is, sometimes I’ve seen a campaign which is one email sent to a group of users or an audience, maybe a post on an intranet or a Slack or Teams or something like that, and that’s it.

A lot of time might be spent on building out a really complex learning programme or maybe even implementing a new learning platform, and that’s the amount of energy that’s being put into actually raising awareness of this. First things first to me, a campaign is slightly more medium term, at least, like eight weeks to three months at minimum, I would say. Because, primarily, what we’re trying to accomplish with a learning campaign or a marketing campaign is consistency over time, keeping front of mind and maintaining visibility with our audience sets.

Because every single message we send them isn’t going to hit them every single time. They might not open every email. I mean, let’s not flatter ourselves. Our audiences aren’t so entirely engaged that everything they get, they’re like, “Ooh, email from the L&D team, I can’t wait.” No, that’s not how people are working, so we have to play a kind of terminology of throwing some stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, that’s kind of what campaigns are.

We use multiple channels and we use multiple messages, different visuals but the same kind of overarching theme. If you were doing something around performance management, talking more about the outcomes and emotional drivers rather than this is performance management, it is likely to get much better traction with your audiences because we’re going back to those emotional drivers and that what’s-in-it-for-me piece rather than just a kind of mandate from the L&D department.

David: Much more around, if we understand what it is you’re trying to do, then we can help you in anticipation of the blockers to that, the friction you might experience rather than what I hear quite a lot is L&D teams want to create a campaign to let people know about the new platform. I said, “No, that’s not the what’s in it for me.” People really don’t want your new platform. They don’t want any new platform. Or saying, “We’ve just got a subscription to X elearning suite.” It doesn’t matter. Your people really don’t care about that.

If you’ve got something useful in there that might help a distinct group of people that you understand enough about, that are not able to perform because of something that you have the answer to, then create a campaign based on the value that you’re selling to them, not the content or platform that you’re selling to them, because they really don’t care.

Ashley: Exactly, and it is selling to them, whether we want to admit it or not, that is exactly what you’re doing. If you want it, I do believe that you should launch a new platform, but it shouldn’t be, “Hey, we’ve got this new platform.” Very much to your point, it’s again, what is this doing for these people? What do they need that this new system is going to give them?

If you want to just say, “Hey, it has all this new functionality and it’s populated with lots of different learning content libraries where you can’t find anything.” No one cares, as you said, and that’s okay. The sooner we accept that our learners don’t really give a crap about what we’re doing and it’s our job to actually make them care, I think it will put us in good stead. It’s so important to us in L&D that we bridge this gap that actually it’s really important to our people and it’s not, and that’s okay.

David: I think, as you were saying there, it just made me think, imagine a brand building trust with you and you’re following them, you’re an avid consumer and a fan of what they do and then they send you, at the beginning of a campaign that says, “Great news, we’ve just started using HubSpot.” I mean, it really doesn’t matter.

We’ve got to get away from thinking that everyone’s going to be as pleased as we are that we’ve got a new tool and focus on the value that it can bring to them. Which moves on nicely, because, of course, if we’re running campaigns, it keeps us away from single engagement initiatives or activities, which of course, we’ve always secretly known offer so little in terms of what it is that we’re trying to achieve in L&D.

Ashley: Yes, they’re completely a waste of time. For example, some of the best email open rates I’ve ever had as a marketer or through some of my automation channels where I’ve got quite an engaged audience, and I’m getting 50%, 60%, 70% open rate sometimes, which is industry standards or what? 18% to 22%, something like that. That is because that has been a consistent and useful message over a period of time for them.

Exactly as I said earlier, these kind of single, quick kill points, they’re just a waste of everybody’s time, they’re not actually going to get the outcomes that L&D wants. My worry, truthfully, is that they’re going to dress that up as marketing and then say marketing doesn’t work. Actually, it’s because it’s not being done in a consistent fashion over a prolonged period of time.

The way that I have done a lot of my marketing strategies have been very much kind of an overarching brand campaign, which will sometimes span a year. Which is more around our value prop, our story, the value that we’re adding, and starting to get some advocacy and build up some energy behind the brand itself.

Then I might break down each quarter into a specific campaign where I’m focusing on selling products, but obviously, never just selling the products or feature sets we’re talking about. Emotional drivers and needs that we’re fulfilling, etc.

There’s almost these two different threads running at all times in marketing functions that I’ve worked for and I think that’s something L&D needs to consider as well as their own reputations internally and the L&D brand itself and how that’s already perceived. Because that exists, a learning culture exists, whether it’s something that you’ve shaped and molded or not, people will have their own opinions and their own perceptions of maybe elearning–

I mean, gosh, for example, if I try to explain to people what industry I work in, which I’m sure you’ve tried to do and it’s always fun. Then the response you end up getting is, “Oh, is that where you click the next button?” No, no, we are doing more. No, we do way more interesting stuff than that.” You’re overcoming that in the minds of your people too.

David: That’s right.

Ashley: I think we need to have a little bit of a reality check about where we actually are other than where we think we are because that will allow us to really start to understand where we can move the needle and where we can start to genuinely change things.

Data is Critical to Understanding What’s Effective and What’s Not

David: I think such a key to this is data because it’s played such a huge role in the maturing of digital marketing, and yet, it’s little more than an emerging trend in L&D. In L&D there’s been too much emphasis in the past with summative evaluation, which is looking back and asking, “Did that stuff that we spent all that money and time on actually work?” And so little in the upfront grunt work of, “Is it a real problem that needs to be solved?” How do you advocate L&D get more involved with data?

Ashley: Well, first of all, don’t be so afraid of it. It can be such a scary place, I think, data is something we kind of move away from because it’s an area we’re quite uncomfortable with. I am very mindful and aware that actually getting meaningful data in the L&D function can be really difficult because, really, if we’re looking at proving impact and correlating, say, performance with learning and we’re taking something like that, or actual effect on sales or product knowledge, whatever we’re trying to do, it’s not always so easy to get that information.

I think that’s the first understanding, that maybe the reason that it’s not always been so prevalent in our industry is that it’s just not been very easy to get a hold of. Then I think, secondly, it is a bit of a wrangling of cats at times. I think there’s so much you could gather, but primarily, from my perspective, the best decisions I make are based on data. Sometimes they’re still wrong. For me, data isn’t an absolute, it’s to help us hypothesise. Maybe we get some information and we say, “Okay, well we think that based on the data, this is likely to occur, X, Y, and Z.” You prove or disprove it. Don’t use it as an absolute because I think that can be a dangerous place as well, saying that data means everything. No, it’s helping us inform and enhance our personas and enhance our campaigns and enhance our learning as a consequence. I think that’s one thing.

The other thing that I really don’t see a huge amount of is benchmarking. It blows my mind, truthfully. If you’re going to do anything, like in marketing, if I’m going to implement a campaign or spend some money, I’m going to see where I was versus where I end up. Even if it’s a tiny, incremental improvement, you bet your bottom dollar that’s going to go in my report and I’m going to show the value that I’m adding. We don’t do that a lot. I don’t know how many awards I’ve seen submitted in my time where the people liked it. Everyone liked it. I don’t know, is the C-suite satisfied with everybody just liking it? I don’t know. 

David: Yes, it’s a funny one. There’s an enormous amount of L&D spend, which organisations seem happy to spend, with the hope that there’s at least a byproduct of value rather than some intentional spend to make an intentional difference. I think it goes back to a lot of the time where earlier in a conversation with a stakeholder or when decisions are made, a performance problem is translated into a learning need. You might be thinking, “Well, I’d like my people to become better at project management.”

All of a sudden there’s a brilliant project management course, so would you like PMI? Would you like PRINCE2? Then it becomes about the educational format rather than the performance problem. People turn up and then they say, “I don’t really know why I’m here.” Of course, you don’t, because what we’ve done is we’ve distorted a real performance need and we’ve turned it into a learning need, so when it comes to it being delivered and then start hoping that there’s a difference at the end, there can’t be.

Because the end has become the delivery of a programme, rather than, as you mentioned there, a hypothesis around a point of friction or a need that people aren’t able to either execute or manage and lead projects. Here is the data to suggest that this is the case. As soon as you look under the hood and you say, “All right, at the moment, we’re not completing 80% of projects on time,” there’s your benchmark. There is a figure that we could work with.

You might even want to look back to see what the trend is and say that, since the beginning of the year and budgets have been hit and people have been working from home, this figure has decreased. Then you’re thinking, “Aah, so there might be a correlation between people working from home or working remotely, and then not engaging in these projects” or it might be the redundancies that happen.

Listen to episode 58 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

As soon as you start looking under the hood, then you can start really focusing on what it is that people are experiencing and then look to move the needle. But far too quickly, L&D think, “Aah, I’ve got a programme for this, or I’ve got a friend who’s got a programme here.” Of course, when you then look back summatively, as in, “Did what we bought or design actually work?” You’ll never know because you didn’t do that benchmark work, you didn’t look for one moment to see what the real problem was. We based our decision on minimal observation, stakeholder waiting or best practice and that’s it. You can’t prove the ROI or the impact on something based on either of those three because they’re fatally flawed assumptions.

Ashley: They just don’t add any value to what you’re doing. I’ve spoken to a lot of L&D practitioners as well and one of the biggest issues that they complain about or one of the biggest challenges that they have internally is that they don’t always have a voice in the way you’ve just described to be able to actually push back and say, “Well, hey, hold on a second, why do you need this project management training? Why is the sales manager coming to me and telling me that they need X, Y, and Z?”

They’re not necessarily given the voice to challenge in the right way. They’ve been a cost center, they’ve been in a very much an order-taking function, which has been built to be a machine of creating learning programmes and training environments, etc. That’s the dynamic that really needs to shift. I’m not sure L&D needs to wait for permission in order to really start doing that, but that, to me, is one of the biggest issues that L&D is experiencing right now.

David: Ashley, if the shoe was on the other foot, and these were managers and leaders in a programme that L&D were running, L&D right now, would be saying, “This is where you need to lead.” It seems so easy when it’s not you, but again, I get this all the time, Learning & Development saying, “Yes, but I don’t have permission for this.” Or, “The expectation is X,” going, yes. so, what is required is leadership.

Then there’s a tactical element and a strategic element to this, but it’s not going to be given to you and you’re certainly not going to gain support for change by saying yes to requests and jumping at what is minimal observation. We digress because finally, you advocate in your skills that translate from digital marketing into L&D, you’re an advocate of test, test, test. Now, what do you mean by this in an L&D context?

Ashley: Very much kind of what I said earlier, it’s always going to be an iterative process. Everything that I do, like remember, we were talking about campaigns and it’s very much never really a one and done scenario and that’s exactly what I mean by that. Hopefully, what I’m doing, everything that I’m setting up and sending out, and the conversations I’m having are all built in a way that allows me to glean some level of insight into what’s effective or what’s not. Again, some of the functionality that we have in marketing is quite sophisticated and makes this stuff really easy and I’m very aware of that.

Again, the likes of Learning & Development don’t always have some of this more sophisticated technology at present. God knows I’d love to develop some marketing tool for learning, I just can’t code. I think, primarily, from my perspective, it is about giving yourself the space and opportunity to fail, because that’s where the real learning is.

Some of the most important pivots in my career have been around failures and understanding why something didn’t work because that’s helped me be way more effective in the next thing that I do, and then boom, way bigger impact because, “Well, heck that was a flop, why?” As long as you’re asking why, and you’re not just saying, “Well, that didn’t work”. We need to take a step back and really start to understand why and dig deeper.

Again, use the data to give us some hypotheses and start to understand a little bit more about what’s working and what’s effective and what’s not. Not everything we do is going to work, that is okay.

Automation Tools Save Time, Energy and Resources

David: You mentioned there about the tools and I mentioned earlier, HubSpot as an example, which can automate huge chunks of admin and guide consumers to where organisations want them to go. Again, like L&D would like them to as well. Now we’ve looked to incorporate a lot of these into Looop, but I wonder if you can just explain how these types of tools can help L&D?

Ashley: Yes, automation’s a really big one from my perspective, because it saves time. If you do a lot of your early doors work around understanding your people and really creating some good segments based on your personas and build out a series of automations and engagements that produce a variety of touchpoints across multiple channels with your contacts over a period of time, the beauty of that is, whilst it’s not one and done, you can build it and let it roll. So that your team’s energy and resources are then spent on more outreach type stuff or things that are going to really move the needle quickly.

I talked about that brand in those campaign layers that I was mentioning earlier, your automation piece can really help in just keeping the engine going and keeping that momentum and get you guys out of the inertia that you sometimes have. I think automation is a really big one.

Again, I think there’s a bit of reticence in our industry to engage with it because it’s daunting and it’s scary, but it’s not that complicated once you get your head around it. The other tools for me are a really good email sending client. If you can start to use that and start to get better insights into your open rates, and also be able to send emails that are more visually appealing, and actually, you can start to measure where people are clicking and all that sort of stuff.

The last one for me is Google Analytics. Please, for the love of God, install it on your platform. It’s free, it gives you a huge amount of insight in terms of behaviour. Whilst it’s anonymised behaviour, you don’t get to see Bob in Coventry did X, Y, and Z, but what you do start to see is cumulative behaviour trends over time that will allow you to understand what content has been of interest to your people, and again, you can then use that to hypothesise and maybe create some new campaigns to target those areas of need, but primarily, it’s just an incredible data source that tracks from the day you install it, so even if you don’t plan on using it for a year, put it on there. When you’re ready to use the data, then you have some data rather than collecting it from the day you decide you start needing the data.

David: That’s the valuable part of this, that as soon as you’ve got something that’s working in the hands of those people you’re seeking to influence, you start collecting data, and just as valuably, I know it’s a subset of data, but user insights as well to understand to what extent you’re hitting the mark and helping them to do the thing that they are trying to do. Again, capitalising on their points of need, rather than necessarily just marketing the content, which again, as we’ve talked about here, is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As we look to wrap up, despite what many believe, L&D can actually be quite stuck in its ways. The listener may think that what you’ve described is unattainable in their organisation, but how would you recommend L&D folk get started with developing and incorporating digital marketing skills into their practice?

Ashley: I think start small. Don’t try and become a digital marketer overnight. If you have minimum resources, some of the things I recommend to my clients is starting small, so running a pilot and just doing a small campaign, maybe that just uses one or two channels or something like that, so you’re not biting off more than you can chew. You can also do your benchmarking and maybe actually get some data and impact that you could then go to your C-suite with and try and prove a little bit of, “This is what we’re doing here. Yes, we didn’t ask for permission, but look at the impact it’s having or the benefit of that X, Y, and Z.”

I think that that for me is probably the biggest thing, don’t be too daunted with it. Even if you just look to curate some really great media and marketing sources to help improve your copywriting skills or help you better understand how to become a better storyteller or how to write more engaging copy or what does it really take to make a good email? These are all fundamental components of a marketing function, which don’t need to be learned overnight and these kinds of small incremental gains are what we need to look at. We need to just start small and not overwhelm ourselves, because if we do that, we’re setting ourselves up for disaster.

David: Yes, I completely agree. Ashley, if people wish to follow your work or connect with you on social media, how can they do so?

Ashley: Well, I’m on LinkedIn, my name is Ashley Sinclair. You can probably find me putting some nonsense about dinosaurs and whatnot on there. I would say the other thing is check out our website, which is

David: Wonderful, and we’ll put some links in the show notes as well.

Ashley: Fabulous.

David: Ashley, all that’s left to say is thank you very much for being a guest on the Learning & Development Podcast.

Ashley: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Listen to episode 58 of the Learning & Development podcast here or book a free demo to find out more about incorporating digital marketing into your learning strategy.

About Ashley Sinclair

Ashley has extensive experience of building Marketing functions and is an expert in Marketing automation, search engine optimisation (SEO) and content marketing. Ashley is a Marketing Consultant delivering Marketing skills and solutions for L&D and learning technologies. Branding. Strategy. Original, lead-generating campaigns. Copywriter and storyteller. HubSpot expert; enablement coach.

Connect with Ashley on LinkedIn

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