There’s a fundamental rule in marketing—it takes seven touches before someone is ready to hear your message. With the increase in the volume of marketing messages, some suggest that number should be increased. This idea seems to have been taken to heart by some companies, which appear to stalk us after a visit to a website or, even more frightening, if we have a phone conversation in the presence of a device like Alexa or Google Home, or with anyone using Facebook messenger on their smartphone.

However, while this “remarketing” or “retargeting” approach is often abused, it is not fundamentally bad. The reason millions of dollars are spent on this approach is because it’s been proven to work. And it can work—in an adapted way—to get learners to pay attention to L&D products and services.

What is retargeting?

Retargeting is the approach of following up with someone after they’ve taken some action that suggests a basic level of interest in a product or service. Ever get a coupon at the grocery store for money off your next purchase of something you bought during that trip, or a previous one? You’ve just been retargeted! Ever get a call or something in the mail that references, explicitly or not, a previous purchase? Do you watch Netflix or shop on Amazon? You’re constantly being retargeted.

As a society we’ve transitioned into a more digital sphere, but the basic dynamics of marketing and changing behavior are the same.

The focus is on behavior change

Like L&D teams, marketers are focused on behavior change. We educate so that we can train people to act in certain ways or make informed decisions. We then reinforce that behavior so it becomes a habit. We reward positive choices and continue communicating with people so that they don’t lose this new habit.

Marketers aim to educate consumers on how to define their struggles by giving them a structure and a vocabulary that helps them break an issue into its constituent parts. With the problem more precisely defined, the consumers are more likely to choose successful solutions.

However, this can’t be achieved in one website ad, video, or blog post. Retargeting is used to reach out repeatedly until a final decision is made, and then to stay in touch to be sure the consumer continues to be happy with the selected solution.

This might mean writing a blog post that aligns with how someone phrases a question in Google; digital ads on websites and social media that encourage a return to the website to read another blog; and prompts on the website to download an eBook that goes deeper into the subject.

Similarly, the L&D team might send periodic emails and continue to offer information to further refine learners’ ability to define problems and select appropriate solutions, to promote registration in new eLearning, or to reinforce something from a completed course.

The limitation in this L&D example, though, is the single modality of just sending emails. It doesn’t have to be that way; thinking like a marketer can reveal new possibilities.

Competing for attention

A report from found that our ability to focus our attention has not decreased over the years, but we have become more selective in giving our attention. An additional report from 2017 suggests that people are exposed to up to 10,000 brand messages a day, and that consumers switch screens 21 times an hour! This doesn’t even account for the number of emails, instant messages, team meetings, and other realities that compete for attention during working hours.

Without an engaging, relevant, impactful, and timely message, a single exposure will never be enough. Likewise, presenting the same message in the same way, over and over, will fail to engage our attention.

The idea that it takes at least seven touches in different modalities for someone to respond to a message makes sense; in fact, it seems optimistic.

Why digital marketing is so successful

Digital marketing, which has made Google and Amazon two of the most successful companies in the world, allows for leveraging technology to segment and target, at scale, a message to an individual at the time they are interested.

For example, Google ads appear on the search results page when someone is looking for a product or solution. Their attention is already focused, so they are more receptive to that message. Compare this to an ad in the sports section of a local newspaper, where someone just wants to know if their team won or if their child’s picture is in print. When the attention is elsewhere, we gloss over the ads.

Online, once a shopper has expressed interest in say a pair of boots, those boots will “magically” appear on many websites, social media platforms—watch as this continues to expand into cable TV, home voice assistants, and more.

These ads attract attention because the targeted consumer has already expressed interest in the product. The retargeting is trying to change behavior and get the consumer to take another step; whether revisiting the website, completing a purchase, or liking on social media. Each ad might be a little bit different, to help marketers determine which media and content result in the desired behavior.

It is important to remember someone’s purpose and expectations when determining which modalities to use and how to target messages. Marketers have decades of data demonstrating that certain formats are more effective at improving knowledge transfer and retention or driving behavior change, depending on where people are when they access the information. Much of it has to do with expectations. For example, long-form video works on YouTube, but not on Facebook. Why? The content might be the same, but the engagement is dramatically impacted based on the consumer’s expectations.

The same holds true for learners.

Making retargeting work for eLearning

It’s easy to see the value in presenting the same message multiple times, and in multiple ways, to promote eLearning products and services. But many practitioners report that when a new course is launched, they might be able to get the communications department to send out a single notice—and that’s it. Then they wonder why enrollment is so low.

As eLearning professionals dig around in the marketer’s toolkit, retargeting is a tool they should examine closely. Like any successful digital marketing campaign, L&D teams need to reach learners with multiple touches in multiple modalities.

In addition, testing and tracking what resonates with each person is important. Digital technology facilitates that. Focus on benefits, not features. Have a great story that appeals to learners’ emotions, not just factual details.

To apply retargeting to an eLearning program, think about how to grab potential learners’ attention. Use multiple platforms that target them in different areas of their work life, not just the LMS or email.

Explore the use of marketing tools in eLearning

Lone Armadillo Marketing is testing the use of tools similar to Google AdWords within the corporate intranet to promote eLearning and, specifically, to use personalized, targeted messages to increase completions or promote select courses.

Help shape this tool and learn more about building marketing campaigns and incorporating retargeting into your eLearning design and promotion. Lynne McNamee, president of Lone Armadillo, is presenting “Increasing Completions: Leveraging Marketing Tools for Learning Aims” at Learning Solutions 2019 Conference and Expo, March 26–28 in Orlando, Florida.