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Marketing to Individual Learners: Bonanza or Booby Trap?

Why beat your head against the training department, when you can market your offerings direct to an organization's learning community.

That's right, upload your stuff on the Web, crank in some collaboration and e-commerce functionality and stand back as an army of rabid, self-directed learners crashes your server and fattens your wallet with a frenzy of learning activity.

If you believe the industry buzz, that's what things are coming to. And as a self-directed enthusiast and pioneer, nothing would please me more.

However, before you bet the ranch on a self-directed learning venture, here are a few things you need to know.

A. For every one self-directed learner there are four workers who will never spend a dime on a learning related activity.

Some time ago, a leading market research firm surveyed a cross section of managers and professionals concerning their purchase of business information and education services.

Survey participants were randomly selected and represented a mix of industries, job functions and responsibility levels. They were asked to account for all self-directed learning activities, whether they paid personally or whether they passed the expense through to their company.

The result was both a surprise and a disappointment. Almost 80% of the survey population couldn't remember purchasing any self-directed learning offerings during the past 12 months -- not just seminars and multimedia courses, but even including business books, newsletters and magazines!

B. There is a tremendous amount of self-directed learning going on, but it doesn't necessarily represent a profitable business opportunity.

Most business individuals prefer to learn on the job, by trial and error -- and through ad hoc interactions with their peers. Brace yourself. Our research suggests that these "unconscious" learners are every bit as knowledgeable and successful as folks who sign up for every seminar or course that passes their desktop.

Perhaps you can invent a learning system that caters to people who want to learn on the fly in a collaborative way. Perhaps you can even get them to pay you for it. Otherwise, there is a vast "learning market" out there that's just not available to you.

C. Corporations seem to be more interested in developing their people than their people are interested in developing themselves.

In our experience, self-directed learners are more interested in purchasing what they want than what they need. Who's most likely to purchase an introductory course on business finance? The CFO! Who's most likely to sign up for an assertiveness workshop? The pushy person who dominates your department staff meetings! Perhaps self-directed learners are looking for entertainment more than they are seeking personal growth.

Corporations are always offering courses to equip employees for expanded job responsibilities down the road. Self-directed learners seem more oriented toward emergency learning Band-Aid's to help them through an immediate scrape.

When we ask individuals why they haven't taken advantage of a self-directed learning opportunity, they say: "I don't have the time", "I don't need to know that", "my boss would never approve of that", "my company would never pay for that." Yet, when we talk to the boss, or the company person responsible for training, this point of view is not substantiated.

So what does all of this mean?

RECOMMENDATION: While more and more learning will be delivered in an individualized format, this does not necessarily mean that individuals will be making the decision to purchase it. Know where your bread is buttered.

RECOMMENDATION: Be sure any offerings you market to self-directed learners promise an immediate response to urgent job and career concerns.

RECOMMENDATION: If you want self-directed learners to actually complete and benefit from your offerings, emulate the ad hoc, collaborative learning environment they prefer -- and top it off with a modicum of entertainment value.

RECOMMENDATION: Don't burn any bridges with your training director friends just yet!

We'll be saying more about what it takes to be successful with self-directed learners in future E-Visories.

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