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Sexing Up Online Training with a Smack of Marketing

By Cheryl Tinsley, ABC

Originally Posted

In the past few years, online training vehicles have sprouted like martini bars in South Beach. The pitch from the vendors sounds great: "Work at your own pace!" "No more travel time to seminars and meetings!" "Customize training and deliver it via intranets or LANs for less down time and greater ROI." "Train in the comfort of your own office - or better still, in your own house…naked!" This was the mantra of trainers and training vendors. As a communicator and trainer, I was intrigued. I bit, I bought, I even customized. Great thing, except for one teensy problem: How do you get those horses to drink? Pull up a barstool and we’ll talk this through. Mama Taught Me to Never Be Rude, but Who Sees Me Walk Out of an Online Class? The fact is, online training isn’t getting used, or completed, as often as traditional training. According to Online Learning Magazine, March 2002 issue, "Learners drop out of online courses far more often than they leave classroom ones." Jane Meister, president of consulting firm Corporate University Xchange Inc. in New York City says its recent study of 4,100 online learners showed course completion rates of only 30 percent. The classroom completion rate is 85 percent, according to the study. Sadly, this is actually an improvement from a year ago, when 85 percent of online learners failed to complete courses. Oh, if I could just get a 30 percent completion rate for my courses! It’s just too easy to drop out of an online course compared to walking out of a classroom. I mean, people are looking at you when you leave a classroom! Other potential users may sniff the training offerings, but not necessarily bite. Some never even get near the scent. There is a host of possible reasons, but that sounds like a trainers’ article and I have my communicator’s hat on now. Here’s a thought: if we can get them in close enough, online users may bite, chew AND swallow if they see a value. THAT sounds like marketing to me! Tie Your Vehicle to Business Goals? Where Have We Heard that Before? Trainers (including moi) should take a lesson from PR pros…and from Field of Dreams. According to Tom Kelly of CISCO Systems in San Jose, CA in Training, "In the training industry, if you build it – nobody cares. You have to have a marketing plan for every large scale initiative." Kelly goes on to say that marketing means more than creating snappy slogans and passing out trinkets. He recommends an approach in which professional marketing people articulate the plan, drive home the reasons people should care, participate, and use the system. "Marketing is more about making the business impact clear than about publicizing the bells and whistles of your offering." Now doesn’t that sound familiar? Tying vehicles to the bottom line has been drilled into communicators for years. I’m beginning to see where I must head. Another issue here is measuring effectiveness. Should it be judged on course completion alone or is that method in the same category as measuring the effectiveness of a communication vehicle by its circulation? Online Learning Magazine suggests in its 2001 State of the Industry survey that measuring tools are becoming more in-depth. The voice of experience may prove out. "The longer organizations have been using e-learning, the more likely they are to measure results beyond course completion. Most companies are trying to tie training back to business goals." Make it a Game, or Make it Sexy Ok, so we tie training to business goals, market the daylights out of it with a real plan, and users will spring into action right? Hmmmm. There are additional challenges that have to be addressed. One problem is isolation. According to Author J.C. Herz in Training Magazine, "Learning online, as it’s practiced today, is an isolating and lonely experience. There’s no humanity in it." So maybe people stay in an ineffective classroom course for social reasons. (This is a pud course, but the guy next to me is kinda cute, plus lunch is included.) Some online trainers try putting games and simulations into their courses to make them more appealing. This may help in getting learners to start the course, but it may not keep them there. One possibility to curb isolation is to combine chat rooms and bulletin boards with the traditional online course. This may work for companies with generous budgets, but for smaller organizations (like mine), it smacks of overkill. So, Where Do We Go from Here? To market we will go, to market we will go... It’s time to step back and employ those solid communication skills I paid so much to learn. I’ll beef up my marketing plan to tie those courses to business goals, and see what happens. To address the isolation issue, I’m planning to try face-to-face discussion groups, and offering "experts" who have completed the course as resources to learners. This approach may make online training less lonely and overwhelming for users. I’ll come back to the bar with a follow-up report in a few months. Here’s to a rise in usage and completion of online courses at my place. Love, kisses, and lots of online training.

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