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Marketers’ timeless obsession is “getting the right message to the right person, at the right time, through the right channel.” As a consumer who is bombarded by marketing messages on nearly every visible surface during every waking hour, you know intuitively that some messages resonate strongly and most are just background noise. Research backs this up: referrals consistently generate the highest conversion rates, while direct mail, email, phone, and display ads can be hundreds or thousands of times less effective (see Marketo, Marketingcharts, MarketingSherpa for details). When Carla (the happy customer) recommends a widget to Sam (the shopper), Sam is much more likely to make a purchase than if the same brand shows up in Sam’s mailbox or browser.

Why do referrals perform so strongly? Two main reasons:

  • The message is timely and relevant. Sam and Carla know enough about each other for Carla to understand what Sam’s needs are, why her experience with the widget would be meaningful to Sam, and when to bring it up so that Sam will listen and take action. This is the classic “why me, why now” message that sales and marketing experts like Jeb Blount and Mark Roberge reinforce. Perhaps even more importantly, Carla knows what Sam doesn’t need right now and doesn’t waste both of their time pushing irrelevant widgets.
  • The source is trusted and credible. Again this relies on a minimum strength of relationship between Sam and Carla such that Sam is more likely to act on Carla’s advice than another person’s. Right now, we won’t explore the psychological dynamic and value exchange going on between these two, but it’s fascinating stuff that Daniel Pink, Robert Cialdini, and the Heath brothers (among others) have written about in detail.

What does this have to do with leadership training? Let’s assume that the organization’s objective is to accelerate the leadership capabilities of their mid- and senior-level staff. This starts with the necessary and insufficient step of achieving high participation in training activities. So here’s how to map the two marketing principles above to your leadership training challenge.

Segment your leaders based on prior experience

Some training content is about compliance; this is mandatory for everyone. For the rest, each of your staff will have either high or low experience along these dimensions:

  • leadership skills: providing direction, inspiration, coaching/mentoring, etc. to a build a great team
  • management skills: prioritization and “load balancing” to enable a group of resources to complete their work on time, at high quality, and efficiently
  • navigating your company’s HR systems: understanding the processes and tools for talent planning, recruiting, performance management, compensation, etc.

By segmenting your leaders based on these attributes, you will find a better match between audience and content, which makes the message more relevant. Then, by scheduling the training events based on the events in the leaders’ lives (e.g., around hiring, performance review or promotion cycles, etc.) the message will be more timely.

Send the message from a respected, successful leader

Personal trainers who are less fit than their clients won’t stay in business for long. Yet many organizations tolerate leadership training to be run by employees who are not successful leaders, not effective training facilitators, or both. Ensure that the people in your organization who send the call to action for leadership training, and the people who deliver the training events, can “walk the talk.” These might be the senior leaders within your organization’s business lines, or from external non-competitive organizations. This ensures the message comes from a credible, trusted source.

The best marketers and the best leadership trainers have a common motivation: they are passionate about their widgets and believe their customers will be better off with the widget than without. So try thinking like a marketer to improve the outcomes of your company’s leadership training experience.

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