Years ago, the information that training, documentation, and marketing professionals created for their respective audiences contained very distinct and recognizable characteristics. Personnel with differing skill sets and talents in each of these departments developed the content with various intentions.
However, today’s global and digital information landscape requires training, documentation, and marketing practitioners to rethink and repackage information for their demanding and wired audiences. In a world that is saturated with digital content, your customers want information that informs, educates, and solves their problems at the critical moment of need. If you’re a training, documentation, or marketing professional, and you want your messages to resonate with your audience, you must now view your role through the Learning Lens. Think of yourself as an engaging educator – not just a content creator.
Blending the disciplines and delivering learning content
Thanks to the speed, ubiquity, and accessibility of information distribution on the Web, customers expect a company’s online communications to have value and relevance to their lives. In addition, the nature of information retrieval on the Web is pushing all manner of online experiences to become less prescriptive, less rigid, and less controlled. As a result, training, documentation, and marketing efforts are harder to distinguish from each other and bear more resemblance to self-paced learning.
Let’s look at each of these three areas more closely:
Traditional training has been a scheduled event at a particular location, led by an instructor in a designated classroom. This kind of training can be time consuming and costly while lacking the continuous learning and reinforcement that employees need to advance and maintain skills over time. In order to meet the learning objectives of today’s mobile and distributed workforce, training professionals are converting classroom curricula into self-paced eLearning courses and making content more accessible and applicable.
Installation guides, user manuals, and other types of printed documentation are increasingly replaced with information sought online on Google, YouTube, LinkedIn, and countless other discussion boards, blogs, and portals where customers and experts exchange information and advice. Documentation is no longer confined to printed pages that are shrink-wrapped with the product. The concept of documentation has expanded to include just-in-time self-help resources of all kinds such as knowledge bases, chat forums, video tutorials, eLearning courses, interactive games, and live Webinars. Customers expect product learning experiences to occur wherever and whenever the need arises – in the least amount of time required and in the most convenient way possible.
Traditional advertising and promotional messages are increasingly ignored by prospects and often viewed as annoying interruptions to their busy day. As a result, marketing practitioners are investing more time and money in the development of non-promotional content – such as white papers, case studies, how-to videos, best-practice articles, and other such tools that deliver value. Prospects are alerted to these information assets through social media channels, and they consume these resources when and where they need them. This new marketing approach is referred to as “inbound” or “content marketing;” it's about informing without interruption and educating without pretense.
New proficiencies needed
In order to form meaningful and productive relationships with customers and employees, content producers in an organization should produce materials intended to inform and educate rather than simply promote or saturate. Content providers need to address the learning needs of their customers and meet those needs quickly before they are abandoned for better sources. As a result, the success of an organization is increasingly dependent upon the effectiveness of the content it produces. And this effectiveness is directly related to the learning qualities invested in the content.
Developing content that is oriented toward on-demand learning requires professionals working in training, marketing, and documentation to develop new proficiencies. In the past, documentation experts might have specialized in technical writing, trainers might have focused on face-to-face presentation skills, and marketers may have directed their efforts toward successful copywriting. Today, however, all three professionals need to develop skills related to Web technology, multimedia formats, instructional design, information delivery, content management, and learning strategies such as blended learning, unstructured learning, and social learning.
Are you developing learning content?
There are three aspects to consider when evaluating whether your content offerings fall into the category of successful learning content: 1) the content type, 2) the content delivery, and 3) your content development attitude.
The types of content that you develop are a first indicator of your learning orientation. Are your content offerings driven by what you want to say or by what content customers want to know? Do you develop glossy brochures with feel-good stock photos or do you create interesting case studies that elucidate practical business solutions? Do you offer take-it-or-leave-it, day-long instruction by PowerPoint or do you develop training modules accessable in small packets on an ongoing basis? Determining the content type is not about whether the end product is a video or a slideshow but whether it’s a lecture format, a Q&A session, a cue card, or a demonstration.
The volume, depth, and organization of the information included is what characterizes learning content types. The organizational structure determines how users progress through the content, how they find the desired pieces in the larger whole, and whether users can progress from general to more detailed information. Examples of learning content include a job aid that is structured to match an employee’s workflow, a dialog that is staged between a manager and a vendor, or a searchable database that allows the user to query and pull the desired information nuggets.
You can design nearly any content type with learning attributes, but some content types lend themselves more readily to learning characteristics. Such types include white papers, case studies, blogs, Webinars, eBooks, eLearning modules, tutorials, product demos, and knowledge bases.
Providing a rich variety of learning content types allows your customers to choose the formats that work best for them. If you are creating only one category of content that happens to be glossy brochures or one-way broadcasts, you might be stuck in the old world of content development. You may be spending time and money producing neglected dinosaurs rather than challenging yourself to think of content types that provide the right hooks for customers to grab onto and pull into their lives.
The content type is associated with, but is not the same as, the content delivery. Your content type might be a product demonstration, while the delivery could be a video, a live demo, or an illustrated book.
The delivery of your content types should be oriented toward the where, when, and how of the learner’s context. A learning approach implies that you are thinking about how to make your content available in a way that allows for maximum impact with minimum intrusion. Are you expecting employees to watch a 30-minute video in the cafeteria to learn about a procedure change or are you also issuing several short videos they can access on their mobile phone just before initiating the modified process? Are you expecting customers to read an entire 30-page manual before using your software or are you also posting short, online tutorials from which they can select those that match their current needs?
The key to learning-focused delivery is understanding where your content customers are when they need the information, what problems they want to solve, and how to give them the most open and efficient access to the segments they need.
Content development attitude
Your content development attitude is all about the posture you take toward your content customers and the intentions you build into your work. Are you wrapped up in the messages you want to embed in your customer’s mind or are you working to understand their context, their desire for saving time, solving problems, and overcoming obstacles? Are you expecting customers to come to you for enlightenment or are you packaging information in ways that allow them to control how and when you enter their life?
Adopting a learning attitude means that you strive to promote the learning of your content customers by learning all you can about them. Instead of pushing your proclamations into what you imagine to be a grateful world, you orient yourself to be humbly at the service of a world that calls on you when it needs you. This creates a shift in the power dynamic – instead of lording over your customers you seek to empower them.
This attitude manifests itself in a content development process that starts with asking questions about the content customer: What are they doing when they need the information? What level of granularity is appropriate? What are their physical circumstances? What event in their day triggers the information need? What level of detail do they require? What format will engage them? What distractions are competing for their attention? How will they know your content is there for them? Before you commence any content project, generate as many questions as you can about your learners, then seek the answers. Your exploration of your audience will lead you toward the right content solutions.
In addition, your entire content development process needs to include checkpoints for customer testing and feedback. A learning attitude means that you continually circle back to your content customers for feedback, ratings, input, and improvement. You might even build user-input mechanisms directly into the context of your published content. It means that you assume your users are the experts, and you continually consult with them about what they want.
Today’s digital landscape requires that marketing, training, and documentation professionals adopt the skills and best practices of learning-oriented experts.
Content-producing departments need to produce learning content in order to generate output that is valuable and relevant to their content customers.
Producing learning content requires analysis of your content types, content delivery, and content development attitude.
Some content types – such as white papers, case studies, tutorials, demonstrations, eLearning modules, and electronic job aids – lend themselves more readily to a learning orientation.
Content delivery needs to be designed for portability, flexibility, and accessibility in order to meet the needs of today’s learners.
Adopting a learning attitude will lead you toward content solutions that empower your learners.