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When we do marketing the audience does learning

If you're wondering why your marketing campaigns aren't as effective as you'd like or why your 'free account' initiative hasn't had as much impact as you'd hoped, this article may provide some insights and ideas for improvement. Before you continue, please keep in mind that the concepts used in this short article are doctoral research theses and the work of many people over the course of their lives, covering learning theories, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. I simplified them as much as I could to create awareness and provide some practical ideas for marketing and product management professionals.

We do marketing activities because we want our target audience to consider, buy, use, etc. our product or services. In other words, we try to influence a specific behavior. However, when a potential customer is exposed to marketing messages, it initiates a learning process in their brain because the learning process is nature’s hard-wired mechanism that helps humans (and not only) to make behavioral choices. This is why marketing efforts that consider the audience learning process have a greater chance of success.

In this article I will discuss a key concept essential to learning that is not often applied in marketing and product development.


About 10 years ago I met with a colleague in a hotel we were staying for a drink and chat. After some drinks he said: - ‘Do you know what puzzles me? Why do the body lotion vendors assume that we know how to use it?’ - ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. - ‘I’ve been in more than 100 hotels in the last years, and every time I found in the room 3 bottles: one shower gel, one shampoo, and one body lotion. I know why and how to use the first two, but I have no idea why and how to use the body lotion and none of all those bottles I’ve checked had instructions on how to use it. Why do the vendors assume that we know how to use it? Is it common knowledge? Would it be that difficult to add a phrase with some instructions? How do I know that what I know is valid for all types of body lotion?’ Initially, I took this conversation lightly, as a joke. But during my next supermarket visit I remembered it and I went and checked all the body lotion recipients I found there. None had instructions on how to use it. It was then when I understood the significance of the link between marketing and learning. During the learning process, the brain seeks answers to various questions that are relevant to the situation at hand. The questions and the number of them depend on the complexity and the importance of the situation but they can be grouped into 3 categories ‘WHAT’, ‘WHY’, and ‘HOW’. In learning design these categories are used to structure the content because if those questions are not answered the learning process is incomplete and there will be no change in behavior.

For instance, in the case of body lotion products, the marketing messaging typically focuses on 'What' and sometimes 'Why' but often neglects to include the 'How'." The messages are usually something like ‘body lotion with Aloe Vera for a nice skin’. The ‘WHAT’ is ‘body lotion with Aloe Vera’ the WHY is ‘for a nice skin’. There is no ‘HOW’. To cover all categories the message should be something like ‘For a nice skin apply our body lotion with Aloe Vera after every shower’. (There should be even more details on the how part, but I do not want to start debates among skin care specialists)

Maybe this way of promoting the product, using only the ‘WHAT’ and the ‘WHY’ is deliberate as they do not target people who do not know the ‘HOW’. It is always the communicator’s choice based on specific objective and context. But from a learning perspective, it's important to ensure that all three categories of questions are addressed in our messaging to our audience and applies to any product or service we provide.

I will provide next an example that is applicable to software application.

Because of my job, I installed, tested, and used dozens of software tools. From simple ones, dedicated to consumers, to enterprise and data center tools. From a learning perspective there is one weakness shared by all and that for sure affects their adoption rate. I selected an enterprise grade wireless controller software to explain it.

You can see in the ‘image 1’ some check boxes out of the hundreds that the network administrator needs to go through and decide if it needs to be checked or not.

image 1

You can see there highlighted ‘Dual neighbor list’ and an empty checkbox. To decide if I should check it or not, I can only rely on my knowledge because there is no other information made available by the tool. Because I do not have the knowledge, I pushed the help button and in ‘image 2’ you can see the information available. It is useless.

image 2

There is no information about what exactly ‘Dual neighbor list’ does and more importantly WHY do I need it. In what context should I select it? Neither the user interface nor the help section of the application provided sufficient information to allow me to decide. And you can find this scenario for most of the features of most of the software tools available. So, if you want to increase the adoption of a software application, the user interface should contain the WHAT, the WHY and the HOW for every button, section, field, etc. you have. If not at least have that in the ‘Help’ section.

The only reason not to do this is if your tool is so unique and so needed that people will pay for courses to learn how to use it instead of using something they can learn about when using it. But in our world today, how many software applications belong to that category? In my example the following text added as mouse over button or in the Help section would have been good enough to answer all the questions 'dual neighbor list is most useful in environments where wireless clients need to roam frequently and quickly between APs, such as in large buildings, airports, shopping centers, and other public places. The feature is designed to improve the roaming experience by reducing the time it takes for a client to switch between APs, resulting in a more stable and seamless connection.' To be forward looking, if the tool had a ChatGPT-like capability, I would have received an answer almost instantly without spending 15 minutes reading documentation to understand its purpose.

I hope the two examples I used were enough to make you aware of the importance of learning concepts for marketing and product development and give you another lens to use when analyzing the result of your marketing campaigns and product adoption. Based on my experience working with marketing and product management professionals there is one more thing that needs to be address in this article. I often come across the concern that providing the WHAT, WHY and HOW about a product/service/features/check boxes/etc. is unnecessary, as the information is already available on various platforms such as websites, manuals and knowledge bases. And it is true. In today’s world I think almost every bit of knowledge is available if you look long enough to discover it. However, the reality is that simply having the information available is not enough. The audience needs to be able to find and understand it easily, otherwise they will not make the effort to seek it out. Our brains are designed to be resource-efficient, meaning they assign more attention and resources to learning something when they perceive it to be important in the context of the moment. However, if more resources are needed to understand something but its perceived importance does not change, the brain may decide to stop trying to learn it, resulting in no change in behavior. That equals wasted marketing and features development efforts. So the scope is to provide the WHAT, WHY and the HOW as fast and easy as possible.

As previously mentioned, the concepts discussed in this article have been simplified. For a more in-depth understanding refer to literature on learning theories, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. If I had to recommend a book to start with it would be ‘The art of changing the brain’ by James Zull as it doesn’t require much prior knowledge. For an analysis of your marketing strategies, materials, sales presentations, and products from a learning perspective that will provide valuable insights on areas to improve, you can contact us.

Written by: Radu Mesa

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