By Linda Stephens

Marketing is a word not frequently tossed around in conversations among technical trainers and other IT professionals. For many people, marketing is a smoke-and-mirrors circus starring performers who put on a good show but don’t really serve a purpose.

In fact, marketing is both an art and a science used to increase sales of both products and services. The skills used by marketers to pump up sales of products such as table salt can also be used to help technical trainers “sell” their in-house training programs. In both cases, a comprehensive marketing plan is essential to success.

Advertising is probably the most familiar part of marketing, but ads are only one small part of an overall marketing plan. Package design, brand recognition, physical placement in a store or other outlet, and public image are just a few of the many tools of the marketer’s trade. A marketer has to use each tool for maximum impact to successfully market a product in a highly competitive environment.

Promoting our classes
Our decision to actively market our training offerings was a logical step in our program development. We knew our internal PC-applications training program was good.

We have good content that is well organized and highly relevant. We have excellent instructors who are caring, skilled professionals who take pride in their work. In other words, we have a great product. But like any great product, great training sessions can easily get lost among the competition. If we wanted to be truly successful, we had to build a positive image and position our program for success.

When we began to apply marketing principles to our internal training program, we increased enrollment, generated positive attitudes toward training, technology, and systems. We also were able to enhance learning and encourage real changes in behavior as a result of training. Our successful marketing was based on key principles, summed up in two phrases: “Attitude Is Contagious” and “Perception Is Reality.”

Examine the situation
Before we put the key principles into action, though, we had to answer some specific questions about our product, our market, and our competition. Then we set goals for what we wanted to achieve through our marketing efforts.

  • What is our product?What exactly are we marketing?
    In our case, we provide training, support, and project development assistance, so we had to narrow our focus. We decided to target and promote basic PC skills and applications training.
  • What is our market? What are their characteristics?
    Our market was made up of employees who had previously used only mainframe applications from terminals. Many of them were older workers nearing retirement who resisted learning new technology. Although some workers were enthusiastic about learning new skills, others were hostile, apathetic, or fearful.
  • What is our competition?
    We had to compete with demands on employee time, negative attitudes, apathy, or outright hostility toward training and technology from both management and rank-and-file. We were asking our students to spend their time and energy on training and embrace new technology instead of fighting it.
  • How will we know if we’re successful?
    To measure the success of our marketing efforts, we measured the success of our training program. We believed that if we did a good job marketing the program, the overall success of the program would increase. We judged our marketing program based on the guidelines by researcher Donald Kirkpatrick, who created the widely accepted standard by which training programs are evaluated in a series of articles published in 1959. We knew our training program would be successful when learners expressed confidence and enthusiasm about training, learned the knowledge and skills being taught, put the skills to use in their work, and created positive results for the company. Our marketing efforts would be effective based on the degree to which they added to that success.

Considering attitude and perception
Once we had identified our product, our market, and our competition, we used the key marketing principles of attitude and perception to achieve our defined goals. What is it about attitude and perception that is so important?

As trainers, we’re well aware of the power of attitude in the classroom. One student with a negative attitude can bring down the whole class, including the instructor. Attitude is contagious. The good news is that a positive, enthusiastic attitude can be just as contagious.

Another property of attitude is that it is pervasive. Marketers know that attitude is apparent and can be spread from every single contact with the target market. Our attitude is reflected in everything we do, everything we say, and everything we publish.

Perception is a more subtle, but perhaps more powerful, concept. Marketing experts know that the perception of value is key to getting consumers to buy a product or service. Notice it is the perception of value, not necessarily the true value, that marketers are interested in. Perception is reality.

We can make you think it’s better
Let’s use salt as an example. How many people purchase the generic salt at the grocery store? How many more people buy the brand-name salt, the one with the fancy and familiar label picturing the cute little girl holding the umbrella?

Is brand-name salt “saltier” than no-name salt? Salt is salt, regardless of the package, but the brand-name salt is perceived as being more valuable. Brand-name salt costs more because people are willing to pay more for it, but the higher price is also part of the reason they’re willing to pay more. Consumers often perceive added value in an item for which the seller unashamedly asks a higher price.

Now consider the reverse. Since people often perceive the value of a product or service based on packaging, a superior product that is poorly packaged could be perceived as being of less value than a product of lower quality, and sales may suffer.

Those fliers and promo e-mails really do count
How does packaging relate to marketing training? We package training when we design schedules, announcements, newsletters, handouts, and certificates. We position training on the shelf when we decide where and when to publish training offerings. We display our attitude in the way we word announcements and correspondence. We price training when we decide what it will cost learners to enroll. If we want learners to see our training as valuable, we have to create the perception of value through a comprehensive marketing plan.

To know what creates the perception of value, look again at that box of brand-name salt. The label is colorful, well designed, and has a distinctive, easily recognized logo and name.

The package design is consistent—the box isn’t blue one month and green the next. The package is sturdy, indicating that its contents are worth caring for. It’s placed proudly on the shelf where it can easily be seen. When you see or hear an advertisement for the salt, it reflects a confident attitude of quality and enthusiasm.

Keep all this in mind when you’re planning training programs, and put yourself in a student’s shoes. How does your presentation look to an outsider? Are you enthusiastic about the program? Are your training materials neat and error-free? If you create a perception of value around your instruction, you will attract more students and raise the training department’s profile within the company.

Linda Stephens is the IT technical trainer for a midsize electric utility in Chattanooga, TN, and a Certified Technical Trainer. She designs and delivers core PC skills, Internet essentials, e-mail, and Microsoft Office 97 training to approximately 250 of the company’s more than 400 employees.

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