As a learning leader responding to a request from a department leader for a new training initiative or developing training for the department leaders, understanding what drives the people in your organization is the key to driving engagement and effectiveness.

As Klein and Eseryel note, “Engagement begins with passion and responsibility... Passion and responsibility provide the motivation for action and reflection, which, in turn, develops competence.” The researchers note the value of personas in optimizing the corporate learning environment.

This article examines the connection between personas and motivation and provides insights on how to create and use personas to improve the effectiveness of your organization’s training strategy.

What is a persona?

A persona is a fictionalized representation of a group of individuals that reflects what motivates them, where they go for information, what a “day in the life” looks like, and their fears, struggles, and goals. While demographic information such as age, title, location, or years of experience are often included to “bring the persona to life” and may help nuance your use of the persona, these are not the factors that guide how a person makes decisions and thus are not the heart of persona development.

Rather, the goal of developing a persona is understanding how someone who is representative of your learners behaves and makes decisions. Using this new understanding is foundational to delivering an engaging learning program.

Why this matters

For example, understanding whether particular people trust academics more than (or less than) someone who has performed the job for 20 years tells you where they are likely to go for information and offers insights into the most effective way to present information in a training course. Similarly, an understanding of your learners would influence how an initiative might be perceived and thus how you would present it to engender enthusiasm, not resistance.

How many personas?

During the processes of both developing and promoting content, learning leaders might consider using personas for each step. In addition to developing more engaging learning programs, leveraging personas allows learning leaders to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of managers who request training content and enables those leaders to better address the needs that drive those requests.

In the marketing world, three to five personas are generally recommended; for the learning world, that number might increase or decrease.

Personas and motivation

Of all aspects of a persona, identifying a person’s motivators is the most important, especially when addressing engagement with learning programs.

Unless we consider and speak to what motivates someone, they might participate in training and succeed in knowledge transfer and perhaps even behavior change, but their participation will be reluctant and possibly resentful. These negative emotions could limit their retention and ability or willingness to consistently employ the taught behaviors.

Every marketing campaign over the last 10+ years should be considered research on the population at large that validates the effectiveness of leveraging personas at scale to tap into individuals’ motivators. This experience, which is statistically validated and continually retested, provides daily examples—from binge watching “Game of Thrones” to memorized baseball statistics to FOMO (fear of missing out) on products, services, and entertainment.

What motivates your learners?

Motivations, as noted, are the key to increased engagement. What drives a person? Fear? Desire for power?

Tony Robbins’ Six Human Needs provides an easy place to start considering what might be motivating your learners. These are:

  1. Certainty—Confidence in knowing how to do the job well and safely; a consistency in how to approach situations and to use technology and tools, with clear expectations of job performance and success
  2. Significance—Knowing how to advance in the company and in their career, with up-front knowledge of how contributions are recognized and learning and performance are acknowledged and celebrated
  3. Variety—Wanting to explore widely but not deeply; this manifests as suggestions of related or complementary training or as offering multiple modalities and breaking down complex topics down into microlearning units
  4. Connection—Feeling part of a team; knowing that team and learning cohort connections continue beyond training and into daily duties
  5. Growth—Wanting to learn new things, be challenged; having the context to know the implications of training or actions
  6. Contribution—Knowing that what they do matters and understanding how it contributes to the larger organization or impacts clients or customers

These may seem like a big reach for an L&D department, but they don’t have to be. Zeroing in on what motivates each learner can trigger their “passion and responsibility” and increase their engagement.

Consider motivation during course development and delivery

While it is not necessary to create unique content to address each learner, it is possible to consider motivation during course development and delivery. Consider these suggestions:

Build content with a modular mindset

Consider creating a different introduction and conclusion for each of the “needs” or motivations identified. Just this simple step can have an influence by aligning expectations to what matters to the learner and not only what matters to the company (or L&D department).

While building modular content, consider how easy it will be to transform content built in one modality into another. Consider whether you can easily convert text into a video or generate an infographic from the key points and images in your eLearning module. With advance planning and a systematic approach, modular and multimodal content creation are manageable at scale. (Hint: “Save as", cloning, and inventory codes are key.)

Promote courses aligned to the various personas

Having created different versions of an eLearning course as noted above, title the course and promote it aligned to those motivations. Word choices matter: Words like “Improve,” “Grow,” Stretch,” “Impact,” etc. might resonate with different personas and get learners engaged before they even start.

Repurpose content for multiple modalities

Offering varied modalities may also improve engagement and tap into motivations. This has been proven in the marketing world for years: When, where, and how someone consumes content is frequently personal and contextual. The experience of learning while riding on public transportation or working on a shop floor will be different from the experience of learning while working from home or in a coffee shop. Alternatives to video are valuable for learners who need a break or have low bandwidth.

Consider why the learner might choose to consume content at a particular time: Are they looking for a quick answer? Seeking to upskill? Are they ready to invest a lot of time to master a new area or simply trying not to look ignorant in their meeting with the boss?

How and when content is consumed will impact engagement; these are driven by the “why” someone started consuming it in the first place.

Align content with each of your personas

Creating multimodal content does not replace customizing the content to align with each of your personas. Rather, for each persona, create content in multiple modalities.

Certain personas might prefer to consume certain types of content in a particular modality, especially around certain subjects or level of content depth.

Offering the same intellectual property in different formats makes it easy to align to individual learners’ preferences, which are largely impacted by time availability, distractions, deadlines, and overall context. In addition, with multiple manifestations of the same core content, you offer learners the opportunity for spaced repetition across modalities, which could increase both engagement and retention.

Personas provide insight into the learner’s decision-making process

Developing effective personas entails conducting surveys, gathering anonymous data about the sources of information people consult, or, ideally, interviewing learners to get insights into the differences in how they think, behave, and make decisions. In fact, a major component of personas is understanding how someone makes decisions. This includes where they go for information.

When interviewing learners and developing personas, learning leaders need to explore this question. It’s essential to know whether the most effective channels for promotion of learning resources and actual knowledge sharing are intranets, Teams or Slack, via influencers in the company or a department, or some other channel or channels. Find out what sources of information are considered influential: Job postings? Company newsletters? Social media accounts? Which ones? Internal influencers? Industry titans? Peers? Mentors? Does your audience tend to prefer printed material or online resources?

Then, armed with this information, create realistic personas who get their information in the ways that their living, breathing counterparts do. And use this information to effectively let learners know about training materials that are relevant to them. You can also use what you learn about your audience to develop more effective learning materials in the future.

Tracking and who gets what

Your use of personas, combined with tracking which learners use which versions and formats of content, provides reams of data that your L&D team can use to create more effective training.

Since you’ll have multiple versions of the same core content in a variety of modalities, you can easily track who uses which version. Based on which version someone selects, you’ll determine the baseline for the future recommendations. This is what marketers regularly do.

Based on ad variations, people are directed to the version aligned with what was promoted. Want a ski vacation? Want to go to the beach? Both are about vacations, but connect to what interests the individual.

Similarly, there are several reasons that someone might want to know about how to use the new software the company is adopting. These include:

  • They value being competent in their job and want to minimize surprises
  • They want to be recognized as an expert or resource in their department
  • They are curious and want to explore how this will impact processes throughout the company
  • They want to be part of the group; everyone is going through this transition together, and they don’t want to let anyone down
  • They love learning and relish the chance to master something new
  • They have the opportunity to become a leader and to help with adoption across the organization, including establishing new processes

By creating options, you offer learners a sense of agency, which creates a positive mindset. In this model, learning leaders offer options and capture data about which options most resonate with learners. The data further informs future content development while continuing to inform the personas themselves. This creates a virtuous cycle where additional data enables learning leadership to continuously improve training content, ensuring that the organization’s learning goals are better met and learners will be more engaged with the content and receptive to future offerings.

Marketing shows the necessity of personas

Marketing consistently uses personas in its efforts, including the nearly $250 billion worth of advertising created in North America in 2020. Learning leaders can take a key insight from this data: People, including your employees, are used to having content communicated in a way that makes it relevant to them. Until L&D budgets surpass marketing budgets, adopting what has proven a successful tool in accomplishing awareness (knowledge transfer), consideration or trial (skills development), and loyalty (behavior change), is a logical choice.

This doesn’t suggest going all-in on marketing techniques and tactics; rather it means choosing the ones that apply most directly to your team’s goals for L&D and for the organization.

At the foundation of all those marketing efforts is segmentation and making messages relevant. Personas are the key to that relevancy and to the engagement and effectiveness those messages have.

Spending the time to develop personas for your learning organization will have a positive impact on your current and future learning initiatives—and outcomes.

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