Using storytelling in learning campaigns

When we think about storytelling, our minds often wander back to a time of childhood bliss. We might think of Disney, or the stories our parents told us. But what we often overlook is that storytelling is all around us. It’s part of our everyday lives – yes, even as adults. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as a TV series or a film. But other times it’s not. How we relay the happenings of our day to our partner, how we daydream about our future, and even how we build emotional connections with the world around us. These are all storytelling in action.

In fact, a 1940’s experiment proved that humans use stories to rationalise the things they see. Using a simple video of shapes moving on a screen, psychologists Heider and Simmel asked people to describe what was happening. Almost all participants gave the shapes personalities, emotions and motivations. (You can check out the video here, if you’re interested!) And it’s this emotional connection that we want to tap into with our marketing for learning campaigns.


The power of emotion in marketing

What’s a marketing professional’s primary aim? Those without a deep understanding of marketing will often jump to the conclusion that it’s to make people buy something. Which isn’t completely incorrect. But marketing is much more than that.

Effective marketing does three things:

  1. Captures attention
  2. Educates
  3. Prompts action

For example, the marketing team at Innocent Smoothies…

  1. Grab attention through witty social media posts
  2. Educate us on the goodness in their smoothies through their website & packaging
  3. Encourage us to buy the smoothie!

It’s a winning recipe. But how does it work when we’re looking at marketing for learning? Well, we want to:

  1. Grab the attention of our people (they’re very time-poor, so this is a challenge in itself!)
  2. Educate them on why they need to embark on the learning we’re offering them
  3. Encourage them to sign up for training or log in to our learning platform so that they can access the amazing resources we have for them.

But we live in an attention economy. Cutting through the noise is a tough job, especially as our people don’t necessarily want to learn. And we’re asking them to give up something more precious than money, their time. Which is where storytelling – and the emotional connection it forms – comes into play, through learning campaigns.


Wait, what is a learning campaign?


“Build it and they will come” is one of the most disastrous phrases in business – especially when it comes to learning. No matter how fantastic your content is, if your people don’t know it exists, how can they engage with it? That’s where a learning campaign steps in. Learning campaigns, with marketing at their core, ensure engagement with your content and resources and ultimately drive impact. Which I’m sure you’ll agree – is a very crucial step in learning.

But we’re seeing the phrase ‘learning campaign’ used incorrectly quite often lately. Or perhaps these people are just trying to describe something else entirely… But here at MAAS, we want to clear up the confusion about learning campaigns. This image gives you a quick overview of what’s included in a campaign. It’s about exploring what’s in it for your people, what will they take away from engaging with your learning? Then telling them the answer to that question by tapping into their emotional drivers – which will ultimately make them take action. Simple, right?!

It’s in the ‘tapping into their emotional drivers’ phase that storytelling comes into play. It’s this stage that prompts your people to engage with your learning, which is our primary aim, right?



Using storytelling in learning campaigns to personalise

Good marketing persuades an individual that your product or service will have the power to change their life, without talking to them one-to-one at all. As marketers, we create messaging, adverts, emails and so on, that go out en masse. But when it hits someone’s inbox, it should feel as though it’s entirely bespoke and personalised to their needs.

It’s a tough feat, but storytelling can help. Stories allow you to convey a message for interpretation. Take the ‘Lynx effect’ advert for the popular antiperspirant range. They never mention that Lynx smells good – they leave that open for interpretation. Their target audience could watch the video and interpret it in any way they wanted: Lynx spray makes you irresistible. Lynx spray attracts the opposite sex. Or they might get it ‘right’… Lynx spray smells good.

This was such a strong story for the brand that there has been scientific research into ‘the Lynx effect’ and the phrase ‘the Lynx effect’ is still on Urban Dictionary – five years after the brand ditched the campaign. Though the story it tells may be questionable in today’s age (and that’s why the brand rightly ditched it a few years back), the power of storytelling cannot be overlooked. It told it’s target audience that if they used its product, their life would change for the better. It made it personal and made the target audience the protagonist of the story.

This is actually often much easier in the case of learning. Your learning resources will teach your people a new skill, behaviour or way of thinking that they didn’t have before. Which will then positively impact their personal or professional lives. In our marketing for learning advertising – we must tap into that need, and convince our people that the learning we’re offering will help them get to their aspirational goal. 


Using storytelling in learning campaigns to create compassion

Whether you’re a marketing pro or not, I bet you spend time each year discussing at least one advert: The John Lewis Christmas ad.

From their 2015 team-up with Age UK for the ‘man on the moon’ advert, to 2019’s ‘excitable Edgar’; the John Lewis Christmas advert always sparks emotion. It made the audience care so much about the elderly at Christmas time, that within a week thousands had signed up to volunteer with Age UK. And it made fully grown adults buy stuffed toys of a dragon because they loved him so much. But most importantly for the marketing team behind these tactics, it increased brand awareness.

When it comes to marketing with a much smaller budget than the likes of John Lewis; brand awareness is equally as important. Take marketing your latest eLearning course as an example, you may not realise it, but learners ‘buying’ your course takes a huge amount of trust. Despite the fact that they often aren’t parting with their hard-earned cash at all. In a world where everyone comments on how busy they are, attempting to persuade learners to embark on another task isn’t a challenge for the faint hearted. Make your learners care about your learning brand, the purpose behind the training, and the impact it’ll have on their lives, and your job will become much easier.


Using storytelling in learning campaigns to explain

I consider myself quite ‘tech-savvy’. However if you ask me to explain how algorithms work in social media – you’d have me stumped. Well, that was the case until recently, when I watched Netflix’s documentary-drama, The Social Dilemma. The fact that this release isn’t a straight-laced documentary, nor is it a drama, is the reason it told such a good story. The production team used actors to depict an algorithm controlling somebody’s social media usage. It made the explanation of how an algorithm works relatable, realistic – and most of all, it aided understanding. Alongside this it humanised the algorithm as three people, all making decisions about which alert to send to an individual’s phone next.

Despite years of reading about social media and how algorithms control who sees what, I never really understood it. I knew it was the tech behind the communication platforms, but that was about it. But in 90 minutes, this documentary-drama made it all make sense. A light bulb went off in my mind, “ohhhhh, that’s what all of those articles meant”.

This is perhaps the most common use of storytelling in learning. Many of the best learning development companies use storytelling throughout their courses, modules and learning programmes to aid learning. But how do we use it to market our learning? By using storytelling throughout our learning campaigns, we can depict to our learners how our content will improve their lives, without leaving too much to the imagination. 


How storytelling in learning campaigns can help drive engagement

L&D professionals often say their biggest challenge is engagement. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the biggest challenge for L&D is awareness. Because if people don’t realise something exists, how can they engage with it? And because L&D is framing this problem wrong (focusing on engagement rather than awareness), practitioners find themselves focusing on the content: What are we teaching? Is it relevant? How can we make it more ‘fun’? But making changes based on any of these questions is not going to make the impact we want – because they overlook generating awareness of the learning offering.

Until you make your learner aware, care and understand why the learning is important to them (not the business!) you’ll struggle to truly overcome the age-old engagement problem. Instead, create a learning campaign that tells a story to inspire your learners and creates excitement about the possibilities they will have post-learning and you’ll be on your way to combating poor learner engagement, once and for all. 

Stop passing the buck: Learner engagement is L&D’s responsibility

According to a poll I ran on LinkedIn, 78% of people do not think learner engagement is L&D’s responsibility. And that blows my mind. 

Learner engagement is always a hot topic in our industry. Everybody is quick to share their top tips, tricks and hacks of boosting it – but the conversation rumbles on year after year. And perhaps this poll is a clear indication of why: If L&D aren’t willing to take responsibility for learner engagement; who will? And if nobody takes responsibility for it, will it ever improve?

I’ll be honest with you, the LinkedIn poll came from a place of desperation. I often hear phrases like “line-managers don’t give people time to learn” and “the senior leadership team doesn’t prioritise learning – so there’s no learning culture here”. And it’s these phrases that stop L&D taking responsibility for the crisis at hand. So I put this poll up in the hope I’d just encountered a bunch of L&D cynics, and that industry-wide perception was different. But regrettably, that wasn’t the case. 


The importance of learning culture  

The term ‘learning culture’ is used a lot in the L&D industry. Just like ‘learner engagement’, everybody has a bag full of tricks to create a sparkling learning culture – but almost no organisation seems to have one. Learning culture is defined as

“…a collection of organisational conventions, values, practices and processes. These conventions encourage employees and organisations to develop knowledge and competence.” – Tala A. Nabong,

This can be roughly translated as ‘organisations giving their people the time, space and permission to learn’. And yes, that needs to come from the top. The senior leaders in your organisation must embrace learning, and understand that learning can drive business growth. Your organisational culture has a huge impact on learner engagement. In fact, Sirsendu Das, a learning solutions architect, provided a great example of culture’s impact on learner engagement:

Consider the Army for a second. Nobody enrols to become a soldier without full awareness of how they must act. Training is never considered optional, or a ‘nice to have’. There are no gimmicks or engagement tactics to get junior soldiers interested in training. Instead, it’s an integral part of the culture in the Army; and the culture itself takes care of learner engagement. 

Of course, the stakes are likely to be much higher for a soldier than they are for our learners. But the principle remains the same. Our people need to be highly skilled and proficient at their jobs in order to make the most impact, and the only way to become highly skilled and proficient is learning. This acceptance of learning should be embraced company-wide and baked into your culture. And the single best way to ensure this is by your senior managers setting an example.


Leaders must set an example to ensure learner engagement. 

But what if they aren’t leading by example? What if they aren’t embracing learning opportunities – or worst still, what if they’re bad mouthing them? In this situation learning professionals often shrug their shoulders and give up trying. But that shouldn’t be the case. 

If your leaders aren’t engaged with learning and development, it almost certainly comes from a place of misunderstanding. All business leaders want one thing: for their business to be prosperous and achieve the best it possibly can. As learning professionals we know the impact learning can have on the bottom line, but do your senior managers realise this potential? Do they understand that by implementing a learning programme about smart working practices that you’ll boost company productivity? Do they know that by reducing the number of health and safety incidents in the workplace you’ll decrease spend? Perhaps not. And it’s your responsibility to educate them on all these topics and more.


Learners need time, space and security to learn 

Once your senior managers begin to embrace learning, you’ll see a shift in perceptions trickle down your organisation. But often line-managers are a blocker; and therefore are in the firing line of L&D’s blame game. 

Learning something new can make your employees feel vulnerable. Often they’re worried about the fear of failure, or the time they’ll have to dedicate to learning. And the only way to overcome this is by line-managers offering both time and psychological safety for people to complete the learning at hand. 

But line-managers unsurprisingly prioritise the day job and the operational aspects of an organisation. They want their teams to work smarter and be more efficient. And they do not see how corporate learning can help with this. Instead, they see it as a waste of time.  This is for one reason: line-managers don’t understand what they (or their employees) will get from the learning you are offering them. And they’re worried about how their managers will react if employees take time out to learn, and aren’t high on output or productivity. They’d rather their people focus on operational training and learning on the job. It’s this fear cycle that inhibits learning on the job, and it’s L&D’s responsibility to shift perceptions and educate line-managers on the ‘what’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM).


Developing self-directed learners

There are often arguments in the world of L&D about the learner’s responsibility when it comes to learning. And it’s frequently used in defence of both senior leaders and line-managers. If employees were passionate about learning; the organisation would facilitate it. But they don’t ask – so they don’t get. And this is where the phrase “self-directed learners” seems to crop up. 

Self-directed learning is defined as learners who “take charge of their own learning process (diagnosing learning needs, identify learning goals, select learning strategies, and evaluate learning performances and outcomes)”

 I’m sure we all agree this is a huge responsibility to place on a learner’s shoulders – especially when they’re keeping up with their day job alongside it. So what happens when we do this? Your employees don’t prioritise learning – and your business misses out on the myriad of benefits that come with corporate learning.

The truth is, we can’t expect too much of our employees when it comes to learning. They don’t care, and that’s absolutely OK.

Of course we want motivated and driven employees in our organisation. But their primary goal as an employee is to complete their day job to the best of their ability. And this sometimes means that seeking out learning opportunities falls to the bottom of their priority list. So, unless you encourage learning, it won’t happen. 

But as well as facilitating learning, L&D must also market their learning effectively. Marketing learning is often harder than marketing a product or service. Instead of asking people to sacrifice money, you’re asking them to sacrifice something much more precious – their time. And considering 1 in 8 workers in the UK work more than 48 hours a weekwhich is between 8 and 11 hours longer than most people are contracted to work – it’s safe to say your target audience, aka your learners, are super busy. 

Because of their hectic schedules and desperately trying to maintain a work-life balance, your learners will not take responsibility for learning if they do not understand what’s in it for them. What will they get from embarking on the upcoming learning programme or training day? What is the opportunity cost of spending time learning vs. doing their day job? There is only one team responsible for answering that question – and yep, you guessed it – it’s the L&D team.


No matter which way you cut it… the buck lies with L&D

No matter the excuses you make, or how many times you blame others, there is only one team that is judged on the effectiveness of learning. And there is only department solely responsible for learner engagement – and that’s L&D. Of course, for true learner engagement, and for the development of a learning culture, you must have buy-in from everybody mentioned above. But the only way to ensure that is by L&D standing up and taking responsibility once and for all.

Don Taylor, Chair at Learning Technologies Conference, joined the debate on LinkedIn – and summarised the matter so succinctly: “Why is it L&D’s responsibility? Because we are the professionals. If we are (for example) brought late into the implementation of a new platform, and told to train people on it, we should only do so after certain criteria are met: sufficient budget, top-level support, guaranteed time from managers, whatever is needed. As I say, we are the professionals. We know what it takes to produce an engaging learning programme, and should fight for it.”

You wouldn’t blame the finance team for poor marketing. Nor would you blame a customer for receiving a bad haircut. So why do L&D blame other divisions of our organisation, or the learners themselves, for poor learner engagement? Leadership and line managers are our peers and colleagues, and the learners are our customers. 


Instead of passing the buck, it’s time L&D stood up and held themselves accountable. 

As Teemu Lilja summarised so nicely in his comment on LinkedIn: “Shared responsibility usually ends up in no responsibility.” 

It is our job as learning professionals to educate everybody on the impact learning can have on the wider organisation. And yes – that may mean spending some time ‘managing up’, and educating senior leaders. It may mean spending time discussing the ‘what’s in it for me?’ with line-managers. It may even mean you have to run learning campaigns and create a hype around your learning, to get learners engaged. But whatever needs to be done – it’s the L&D team’s responsibility to do it – and boost learner engagement once and for all.

The importance of branding in learning

When most people think of branding, they think of a colour scheme, dictated font and rules they must follow to be ‘compliant’ (or the marketing team will come down on them like a tonne of bricks). However, branding has true business impact. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry with organisations worldwide buying into the concept. And branding in learning is no different. 


So, what is branding?

The Chartered Institute of Marketing describes a brand as: The set of physical attributes of a product or service, together with the beliefs and expectations surrounding it – a unique combination which the name or logo of the product or service should evoke in the mind of the audience. 

Simply put: it’s your identity. It’s what makes your target audience remember and relate to you and understand your offering. So, why is branding so important?


Branding to build trust 

A brand creates an easily recognisable ‘face’ to a company, regardless of whether it has a tangible product or not. And overtime, customers begin to trust whatever product, blog, article, video (and so on) that a brand shares, because it comes from a persona that they have an established relationship with.

We all know how important trust is in L&D. Learners need to trust in the quality of the content. They need to trust that it will have a true impact on their future. And most of all, that it’s worth their time. Generating this trust without having an established brand would be a huge challenge – and one I wouldn’t want to take on. 

If you’re working in an L&D function where your learners are employees: a strong brand will show you learners that you mean business. It’ll prove that your organisation is taking learning (and learner development) seriously. And this will automatically build trust. 

If you’re working in a learning department where your learners are external, and perhaps need to pay for your content; trust (and therefore branding) is even more important, as your learners are in the market and shopping around for the best learning provider. The professionalism of a strong, beautifully designed brand will go some way to making you the provider of choice.


Brand to develop camaraderie

Camaraderie in learning isn’t a new concept. It’s why primary schools encourage teamwork and why mentorships exist. Learning independently isn’t easy. And as The Beatles classic says – we get by with a little help from our friends.

A strong brand for your learning function is a great way to develop camaraderie among learners. Because of this camaraderie, they’ll then become advocates for your learning, fuelling the marketing engine to spread your message further. Why do you think so many university graduates don their branded hoodie years after leaving? It’s because they are proud to represent the university, what it stood for and what it taught them. A strong brand can ultimately help your learners learn and your organisation grow. 

Again, this is equally as important for internal L&D as it is for external. It creates a different identity for your learners to engage with, away from your corporate brand. You’re no longer an employer, you’re a teacher. And peers that are equally as invested in the learning opportunities become their classmates, regardless of the team they sit in within the organisation.


Branding to convey a message

Last but not least, your L&D brand conveys a message. As we’ve already discussed, your brand should encompass your beliefs and accurately portray them to anybody who comes into contact with your brand. 

An organisation that does a fabulous job of conveying their message through their brand is WeWork, the co-working space. In all of their communications WeWork are consistent with their core brand message – they are striving to help people make a life, not a living. 

Any L&D brand should portray a strong message. One that sits in line with their purpose for learning and what learners will get from the programme. This strong message, conveyed through branding, will not only build a relationship between existing learners and an organisation – but will also entice potential learners to come onboard. 


How to develop a brand

Developing a brand is a complex task and usually requires involvement from quite a few stakeholders in your organisation. However, if you’re really scratching your head about where to start, here are the 5 steps I recommend you take:


1. Research your learners
Learn who your learners are, beyond being a learner. Understand their emotional drivers, and what will really get them to buy into your ethos.


2. Undertake a SWOT analysis
One of the most overlooked stages of developing a brand identity is understanding how you already meet learners needs (and where you miss the mark).


3. Outline your mission and value proposition
This stage involves identifying who you want to be, and what makes you unique. Who are you as an organisation? How do you stand out from your competitors?


4. Get creative
Now you’ve identified who your learners are, who you are and what makes you unique, it’s time to create the visible part of your brand. Design your logo, your colours, typography and tone-of-voice – and make sure they fall in line with everything you’ve identified in steps 1-3.


5. Unleash the brand (and let it evolve!)
Integrate your newly formed identity across all of your communication platforms. Of course this includes rebranding learning platforms, brochures etc. But it also involves ensuring your tone-of-voice is accurate across all platforms – including email and social media (if you use it!)

Over time you’ll learn ways to enhance your brand, allowing you to more accurately meet learner needs. Don’t push against this natural evolution. All of the best brands evolve over time – don’t become so wedded to your initial brand that you can’t change with the times. Each and every learning campaign you run will teach you something new and give you new ideas for your brand – go with the flow and watch your engagement skyrocket.