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When It’s Better to Campaign Than Train

Are ‘Courses’ Still Relevant?

In today’s world of wide-ranging connectivity, instant access and large quantities of available content, learners are increasingly called on to take charge of their own learning by distinguishing between important and unimportant information.

In all likelihood formal, structured workplace learning as we used to know it will soon cease to dominate in the way it has done for the past few decades. Learners will seek and accept wisdom from a trusted blog or wiki more than they will from top-down mandatory training. Employers don’t have the option of sidestepping this type of learning in the workplace. Each new generation of workers is driving this change from the bottom up. The good news is that these new channels offer powerful new ways of reaching out to learners.

That doesn’t mean that there's no longer a place for structured courses: the complex and the new still need to be addressed by formal courses that build in scaffolding and support for learners.

There will always be skills and levels of understanding which simply require you to put in the hours to gain proficiency. Would you be happy to be treated by a surgeon who had learnt everything he or she knew by browsing on YouTube from his or her bedroom? You may be braver than us, but we want to know ours doctors have been trained, mentored, tested, evaluated, and accredited before they perform surgery.

Campaigning vs Training

However, there are many things that don’t need a full eLearning course. And there are still others that have never been well addressed by a course. This isn’t new—it’s always been the case, but perhaps as learning and development professionals we're just starting to realize this.

For example, most people already know quite a lot about health and safety in the office environment. They know how to sit at a monitor and that they shouldn’t run around with a laptop in one hand and a mug of hot tea in the other. Yet they still hunch over laptops and hurt their backs and scald themselves by spilling tea. These people arguably don’t need a 30-minute eLearning course telling them about the possible outcomes of this behavior, but they do need reminders not to do it, or triggers in the environment.

And this may be better accomplished with a learning campaign.

On the other hand, complex issues such as changes in technology or legislation work less well as a campaign. In order to comply with some of these areas, staff need to understand the issues. And, in order to understand, they need a short course that clearly and memorably explains these issues, and tests understanding.

So yes, courses are still relevant, but campaigns are also relevant in the right circumstances.

Isn’t ‘Campaign’ Another Word for Blended?

In some sense, the idea of a learning campaign has been long preceded by what we've traditionally called blended learning. Blending the methods and media of learning is something that self-motivated learners do all the time without prompting. For example, if they wish to learn a new language they might watch a DVD, read a book, take a distance learning course, visit the country, or join an online forum.

Blended learning has taken what proactive learners do and structured or formalized it to encourage all learners to participate in a multifaceted program.

This is where learning design comes in. Deciding how the different elements of the blend interact to form a pathway of learning that is often personalized depending on a learner’s role or development goals.

Blended learning acknowledges that people generally learn more and have better recall when the experience created for them has been multi-disciplinary, multimedia, and multi-sensory. In other words, the more ways we have of engaging with content in order to learn, apply, embed and recall, the better that learning will be.

Discover more with this ebook: "Why Blended Learning Works (And Can Work for You!)"

3 Factors Affecting Blended Learning

As effective as blended learning is at the time of delivery, effectiveness and impact on performance can be limited by a number of factors:

  1. The time lag between learning and doing
    There may be some period of time between the end of a blended course and the demand for the knowledge or skills ‘on-the-job’. This may result in de-skilling or memory fadei
  2. The duration of the learning experience
    Essentially a blended course is still a course. It has a finite running time and will date. This means that as time elapses the learning could become increasingly less relevant to the organization’s current strategy or goals.
  3. The location of the learning experience
    Even in a blended solution, the vast majority of online content has been traditionally delivered via an LMS. Whilst this is an effective tracking solution, it generally means that for the majority of the time the content is ‘locked away’ in the LMS and therefore not ever-present in learner’s daily working environment.

So What is a Learning Campaign?

So how do we move beyond blending learning events and turn them into a campaign? And why would we do it?

The notion of the campaign has its media origins in marketing and advertising. Here are two definitions of ‘campaign’ that are both relevant and helpful:

  1. Specific activities designed to promote a product, service, or business. A marketing campaign is a co-ordinated series of steps that can include promotion of a product through different media (TV, radio, print, online) using a variety of different types of advertisements. The campaign doesn’t have to rely solely on advertising, and can also include demonstrations, word of mouth and other interactive techniques.
  2. Marketing campaigns can be designed with different ends in mind, including building a brand image, introducing a new product, increasing sales of a product already on the market or even reducing the impact of negative news.

What separates campaigns from blended learning is two-fold: how they are processed in the learner’s brain and how long they're sustained for.

Principally, creating a campaign involves creating an immersive, ever-present experience that utilizes physical as well as virtual space. There's no separation between the physical location of the learning materials and the learner’s working environment. They are one and the same.

In terms of engagement, this means that learners are constantly engaging in some way, shape or form with the learning content. It has a persuasive, subliminal effect (well acknowledge by advertisers and marketers) as well as the very conscious benefit of being a constant source of performance support.

Secondly, a campaign can run for an indefinite periodii, and can change and evolve over time so that it never dates or becomes irrelevant. In other words, there's also no temporal distinction between the time of learning and the time of need. Combined with the social aspect of learning, this creates a powerful and flexible way to keep your knowledge and skills fresh.

Can a Learning Campaign Be Used for Any Type of Learning?

Probably not. A learning campaign is unlikely to be a cost-effective solution for any digital learning that is aimed at a periodic, specific or limited audience, for example induction or specialist skills training.

Campaigns are better suited to company-wide initiatives that are relevant to the majority, if not all, of your employees. They work particularly well for compliance or regulatory training where the focus is on real behavioral change rather than a point in time, ‘tick-box’ completion record.

Examples include the following:

  • Health, safety and security
  • Company (re)brand, vision and values
  • Changes in policy or legislation that affect most or all of your workforce
  • Product launches that everyone needs an awareness of
  • Environmental and sustainability drives
  • The installation of new communications platforms or systems.

So Should You Use a Campaign or Should You Choose a Course?

Campaigns can be effective both at the awareness level of training and at the behavioral level, where the sustained reinforcement of messages and best practice starts to engender new behavioral patterns, or changes to ‘automatic’ behavior.

In his book Persuasive Technologyiii, BJ Fogg identifies what he considers to be the three key elements of behavior change, which will have an influence on whether you decide to create a campaign or a course:

1. Ability: In order to perform a target behavior, a person must have the ability to do it. So when thinking about designing a ‘persuasive experience’ or campaign, you need to ensure that people have the fundamental ability to do what it is you're asking them to do. If not, a training course is a better route.

2. Motivation: Fogg describes motivation as "Sensation, Anticipation, and Social Cohesion. Each of these has two sides: pleasure/pain, hope/fear, acceptance/rejection." What motivates a person to adopt a behavior change? Can this motivation be harnessed and strengthened? This factor does sit well within the realm of campaign design. A campaign can inspire and motivate through aspiration or fear of consequence.

3. Triggers: Triggers are the everyday things that prompt the behavior. Fogg writes "Sometimes a Trigger can be external, like an alarm sounding. Other times, the Trigger can come from our daily routine: Walking through the kitchen may trigger us to open the fridge." Campaigns function extremely well on the level of ‘trigger’—walking past that poster at work that reminds you to change your password, for example.

So, if we're thinking about courses versus campaigns, then courses align to ability. If you can’t do something, you probably won’t learn via a campaign (could you have learnt to ride a bike from a poster campaign?). But campaigns align well to motivation and triggers. So if you are deciding which is most appropriate, then you need to decide whether people don’t know how to do something (a course) or they do know but are struggling to do it (a campaign).

But just because you’ve decided to embark on a campaign doesn’t mean you don’t have to design it. In their book Nudgeiv, Thaler and Sunstein introduce the idea of ‘soft paternalism’ and how this can be built into environmental design in order to influence behavior. The way they describe this is: "It tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves." In other words, it's a way of influencing people to do what is in their best interests, but in a way that makes them feel like they have decided it for themselves.

Very clever campaign design can guide people towards the way of behaving that you want them to adopt. It’s control but subtle control, and with good intention. An example that you may well have seen cited before is the painting of a fly inside a urinal aimed at reducing poor aim and hence spillage. It worked because people naturally aimed at the fly without being told do it.

Learning Campaigns: How Do You Start?

A strong concept and brand is the cornerstone of all successful marketing campaigns. Making the brand instantly recognizable regardless of the media format is vital to a cohesive campaign. But campaigns brands don't invent themselves, and campaigns for learning need specialist Learning & Development and Marketing input.

To ensure the success of your campaign, it's vital to bring Internal Communications (brand identity and marketing) and L&D departments closer together so that the messaging and activities received by staff are co-ordinated, congruent and avoid dissonance. Both departments have the same agenda of positively influencing behavior to meet the organization’s mission and objectives, and should be working as one to deliver an integrated campaign that combines learning with communication.


Broadly speaking, a concept is an overarching creative idea that creates the main ‘hook’ to get learners engaged. The concept is what gives the campaign its physical, recognizable presence. The concept creates the characteristics of a campaign and can be applied across a whole range of media assets.

Let’s say you're creating a campaign about health and safety in the workplace. The concept might be an incident timeline which tracks a series of accidents, incidents or ‘near misses’ within a fictitious organization.

The learner’s role could be to investigate each of these incidents in order to find out what events and poor practice lead to them and to diagnose how they could have been avoided.
In order to investigate each incident, they could perform a series of investigative tasks which are seeded throughout the campaign to create curiosity and intrigue. The campaign may culminate in an assessment—this possibly being the only truly ‘formal’ event of the entire experience.


Visual appeal and tone of voice are crucial to creating the campaign brand. This may or may not reflect your organization’s brand. In fact, to some degree it may be more effective if the color palette and visual style are different from company-branded material to enable these to stand out in your working environment.

Font and logo could be subtle ways of keeping the company identity alive but, strictly speaking, each campaign should be individually eye-catching and instantly recognizable.


Alongside your company logo you could also consider creating a campaign logo. Again , this is something that will make all the materials associated with the campaign easy to spot and associate with the subject matter.


Clever, well-thought-out straplines are sometimes the single most effective way to grab a learner’s attention.

The strap line needs to harness in one short statement or phrase the core message of the whole campaign and be memorable enough that it will instantly evoke recall of this message. Recognize these?

  • Just do it
  • Probably the best beer in the world
  • Every little helps
  • Because you’re worth it
  • It does exactly what it says on the tin

What Else Do You Need?

Physical assets

Utilizing and adorning the physical working environment is highly effective in taking the message to the learners. The extent to which you can exploit this will depend on that environment and what influence you have in determining what can be placed where.

The physical aspect of your campaign can comprise items such as these:

  • Wall posters
  • Large transparent adhesive posters for windows or glass doors
  • Adhesive posters for inside lifts or for external lift doors
  • Pop-up banners or stands
  • Office stationary like pens, post-it notes, key fobs, USB sticks (loaded with content) and lanyards
  • Staff room accessories such as mugs, coaster mats or coffee cup holders.

Connections can be made between the physical assets and any media assets you develop through the use of QR codes, which can be used to link to web pages, videos, animations, podcasts, blog posts—anything that can be hosted on the web.

Many learners have their own smartphones and QR code scanner apps are freely available via app stores. So QR codes enable learners to connect with short chunks of content regardless of where they are in the office—even if they are taking a rest break. The learning is all around them, everywhere and made easily accessible to their BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) smartphones.

Online assets

Online assets can include just about anything that can be distributed and used online, including each of the following:

Assets can be used as part of structured activities (such a treasure hunts in which learners have to crack clues to get the link to the next asset), or they can be provided for learners to use as and when they need to. Diagnostic tests are useful in this latter capacity to help learners to identify resources that they most need.

However, in a true campaign, assets are made available, rather than made mandatory. The assets are ‘pulled’ by the learner in response to either a personal need or a task they are undertaking. As such, the aim is not to track whether learners have completed these snippets of content, but more to make them available to support different modes of learning. For example, a video might be shared amongst a group and discussed so that all learners benefit from the knowledge and experience of others.

What this effectively does is take the ’click next’ out of learning—you don’t need to lock every interaction, every page or every topic to make sure learners have looked at it. Simply provide interesting and intriguing learning materials and let learners use what they need. If box-ticking is required, then make sure you have a robust assessment or the ability to track learner activity and participation (more on this below).

Social learning

Social learning is an excellent way to support a campaign as it creates a viral spread of information among participants. It can be adopted in both an informal way (participants are free to contribute to forums, blogs or wikis as they prefer) or in a more formalized way (participants are set tasks and their responses are shared with the group, assessed and moderated by an expert). Even in a formal setting, the tasks don’t necessarily need to be compulsory, providing you aren't tracking contributions to specific tasks in order to prove engagement or competence.

Learners can, in theory, engage in whatever way best suits their preferences and available time. Some, for example, may prefer to learn by asking questions of peers and experts in less formalized groups.

So long as they learn best practice to the degree that they can satisfy your internal methods of evaluation (for example, pass a rigorous, tracked assessment or gain CPD points), then the focus shouldn't be on how they get the knowledge, but on how well they perform.

Ideas that support social learning as part of a campaign include the following:

  • Post a video then set a series of questions based on what the learner has seen (targeted around key learning outcomes).
  • Create a treasure hunt game where campaign objects and posters contain clues which need to be pieced together to crack a mystery. This could be a collaborative game where learners work in teams or learning sets and compete against each other to crack the mystery first.
  • Create a blog post about a campaign-related issue or subject. These could then be used as the basis for a discussion in a forum.
  • Post a short weekly quiz that is emailed out to each learner to keep them engaged.
  • Schedule a series of webinars hosted by experts in the field.

To encourage participation in less structured social learning, a campaign ‘champion’ blogger, or bloggers, could be engaged to create regular entries that invigorate discussion along different themes. Bloggers could share their own success stories and, if appropriate, war stories. They could also share useful links, videos and resources with their peers.

Collaboration, coaching and mentoring

The campaign assets could also be used as the basis for face-to-face events such as team sessions in which learners discuss a given topic prompted by the presentation of a particular video, animation, scenario or interview.

If this is a practical solution in your working environment (for example where you do have regular team meetings but perhaps don’t have a social learning platform), the creation of support materials and example lesson plans could be developed to educate team leaders in how to integrate the assets into team activities and discussion.

Similarly this approach could be used in 1-2-1 coaching or mentoring sessions in which the coach takes on the role adopted by the team leader described above. Again this would require supporting guidance for coaches in how to get the best out of the campaign materials.

Do Campaigns Work?

Evidence from advertising

As a relatively new phenomenon in the realm of learning, there is, as yet, little evaluation data or research to empirically prove the efficacy of learning campaigns. However, given their success in other realms of human psychology and behavioral change, it seems reasonable to look at established uses of campaigns in order to seek an answer to this.

One thing is certain: global organizations are prepared to spend incredible amounts of money on advertising and marketing campaigns—such is their belief in their effectiveness. Here are some highlights:

  • Nike: Has an annual advertising budget nearing $2.5 billionv
  • McDonalds: Spent a total of $787.5 million on advertising in 2012vi
  • Virgin Media: Boosted its annual spend on advertising to £170m in 2010vii

This doesn’t prove that campaigns work, but given that campaigns are all about influencing behavior and, getting people to develop new habits (switch to preferred brand) or long-term commitments (buy that brand for life), they're clearly worth investing in.

The science bit

Some of the key thinkers who have influenced the evolution of contemporary thinking in the spheres of marketing and advertising are worth looking at here in order to understand what it is about a campaign that can actually change how people behave.

In 1962, Everett Rogers devised a theoryviii about the adoption of new technologies called Diffusion of Innovations. His theory describes diffusion as the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. He suggests there are four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea:

  1. the innovation (the new idea to be communicated),
  2. communication channels (in the context of this post, the elements that make up a campaign),
  3. time (the duration over which a campaign is run),
  4. and a social system (the target environment and group—the organization).

Rogers claims that when a new idea is introduced, its success or uptake depends on the culmination of a ‘critical mass’ of adoption: how quickly individuals take on the new idea. According to the theory there are five categories of adopters. These are, in descending order of uptake:

  • innovators
  • early adopters
  • early majority
  • late majority
  • laggards

In any social system (or workplace) you'll find people that can be described by all of these categories. The aim of a campaign within this context is to accelerate diffusion (i.e. rate of adoption) from the first innovative early adopters to the slower-to-respond laggards.

The key to the success of diffusion (i.e. getting the majority to adopt the new idea) is a five-step process which involves degrees of conscious and unconscious decision-making. People are gradually ‘persuaded’ to adopt new ideas or technology through a series of communications, across various channels, over a period of time, among the members of a similar social system. In other words, through a campaign.

Not surprisingly, marketing and advertising professionals have used this decision-making process to inform their own campaigns—the number and type of communication channels, frequency of communication, duration of the campaign, etc. When you look at how each stage of this process is defined, it’s not hard to understand why, especially if you substitute the word ‘innovation’ with the word ‘behavior’. The crossover to learning and development is not a huge leap:

Knowledge: The individual is first exposed to an innovation but lacks information about it.
Persuasion: The individual is interested in the innovation and actively seeks information about it.
Decision: The individual takes the concept of the change and weighs the advantages and disadvantages of using the innovation and decides whether to adopt or reject it.
Implementation: The individual employs the innovation to a varying degree depending on the situation.
Confirmation: In this stage, the individual finalizes his/her decision to continue using the innovation.

So understanding the process your learners are likely to go through when being introduced to a new way of working can inform the stages of your campaign and the investment you make at each stage to accelerate adoption. According to Rogers, the rate of diffusion is influenced by the speed of adoption amongst individuals in the group. This creates momentum leading to a tipping point at which most of the audience will choose to adopt. Once this has happened, continued adoption of the innovation (or practise of the new behavior) is self-sustaining within that group.

Knowledge, Persuasion, Rejection, Confirmation, Decision & Implementation

So what is the secret of influencing your target audience’s behavior? This is a very complex subject and many factors may influence this (including the learning strategies employed in order to achieve different learning outcomes). However, the notion of ‘tipping point’ is an interesting one and relevant here.

Malcolm Gladwellix describes the ‘tipping point’ as ‘the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point’. He suggests this state is created through a form of viral behavior: "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do." In effect, he claims the tipping point is the culmination of small actions by key individuals that gain momentum by spreading from one person to another. The relevance of a campaign cannot be ignored here. How often have we heard of the success of a viral campaign, particularly within the realm of ‘connectivisim’ and social networking? This has become one of the most successful and rapid ways of spreading a message.

‘Gangnam Style’, a huge hit by Korean pop star PSY, is a perfect case in point. The song (and its accompanying dance) went ‘viral’ in August 2012. By December 2012, it had become the first YouTube video to reach one billion viewsx. And if you doubt that viral dissemination can lead to actual behavior change, answer this: how many of us have mastered some of those moves, or know someone who has?

Proactive influencers (early adopters) can make a huge difference to viral spread. Identifying ‘the few’ that can influence the majority is an invaluable boost to any viral campaign. This is why many learning and development experts so often talk about identifying ‘champions’ to accelerate the rate of change or uptake of new ideas within an organization. According to Gladwell, there are three types of influencers:

Connectors: The people in a community (organization) who know large numbers of people and who are skilled in making introductions.
Mavens: ‘Information specialists,’ or people who can connect us with trusted information.
Salesmen: ‘Persuaders,’ or charismatic people with powerful influencing skills.

Selecting your champions, or early adopters, carefully can make all the difference to the success of your campaign. This is why global organizations spend enormous amounts of money on celebrity endorsement.

Another factor identified by Rogers that can have an impact on the effectiveness of your campaign is the period of time over which the campaign is run. So how long should this be? One recent research finding published in the European Journal of Social Psychologyxi claims that it takes the average person around 66 days to form a new habit.

By using the term ‘habit,’ the research is making a distinction between the stage during which newly acquired understanding (or a new behavior or skill) needs practice and reinforcement in order to master it, and the point at which you ‘do it without thinking’—automatic behavior. The research found that: "On average a plateau in automaticity was reached after 66 days." Following this period it required little effort to maintain.

This suggests that in order to create a campaign that has maximum effectiveness, it should run for a minimum of two months—time enough for it to gain momentum, spread virally and for people to adjust their behavior in accordance with the campaign to develop new, automatic ways of doing important tasks.

How Do You Track a Learning Campaign?

LRS and xAPI

Earlier in this article, I suggested that one of the key reasons that employers are hesitent to adopt less formal initiatives such as campaigns over more traditional courses is that they are uneasy about moving away from the safety of SCORM-based, tracked eLearning. If this chimes with your experience then you may wish to look at what a Learning Record Store (LRS) could bring to your organization.

Used in combination with xAPI, a learner’s digital footprint can be tracked even if it extends over several different systems and sites or spans online and offline activities. Information relating to their learning pathways can be stored in the LRS to track both formal and informal learning and to create a fuller picture of a learner’s activity across a given campaign.

So, information regarding learners’ activity on your social learning platform, across your intranet and on your LMS can all be brought together. Plug-ins and apps have been developed for the xAPI standard that allow the weaving together of activity from face-to-face sessions, mentoring, on-the-job training and performance support.

Using informal or social learning, particularly for mandatory learning, has traditionally made many organizations nervous, principally because a solution that relies heavily on this is difficult to track. Or at least, it is difficult to discern a particular individual’s contribution or activities.

xAPI, in combination with LRS platforms, is set to change all this and make blended solutions much more attractive to employers. So there is a significant implication in the emergence of xAPI—learning solutions will increasing adopt this type of blended campaign approach.

Learning designers will therefore increasingly be expected to develop holistic, blended campaigns rather than courses—not only because a LRS makes these trackable, but because employees coming into the organization will increasingly expect to learn in a variety of formal and informal ways.

An xAPI LRS can track both learning activity and performance data. This provides invaluable data for evaluation purposes. We know every learning activity that has taken place but has performance improved? Being able to track every learning experience will give both commissioning organizations and learning providers with detailed information on what works and what doesn’t in a given setting.


  1. i) See this infographic for the benefits of Performance support vs. Training: http://www.ontuitive.com/blog/moving-training-performance-support
  2. ii) Hyland, Lars (2010): Think ‘Campaign’ not ‘Course’, E-Learning Network 24 Tips for eLearning Professionals http://24tips.elearningnetwork.org/2010/12/campaign/
  3. iii) Fogg, B.J (2003): Persuasive Technology. See his website here: http://www.bjfogg.com/
  4. iv) Sunstein, Cass R. and Thaler, Richard H. (2009): Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
  5. v) Triple Pundit (2011): Old Is New Again: Nike’s Push Towards Sustainable Advertising: http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/05/nike-sustainable-advertising/
  6. vi) McDonalds Annual Report 2012: http://www.aboutmcdonalds.com/content/dam/AboutMcDonalds/Investors/Investor 2013/2012 Annual Report Final.pdf
  7. vii) The Guardian Online: Virgin Media boosts ad spend to £170m: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/may/04/virgin-media-advertising-broadband
  8. viii) Rogers, Everett M. (1962). Diffusion of Innovations
  9. ix) Gladwell, Malcolm (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
  10. x) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangnam_Style: As of May 1, 2013, the music video has been viewed over 1.571 billion times on YouTube and became the first song to reach number one in the UK charts without any other promotion aside from the viral spread of this video.
  11. xi) Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.’ European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract)

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