Presenting the SLT Learner Engagement Funnel
I cringe. Most of the times I cringe when I see claims on learner engagement, or learning engagement (which is in my opinion something very different but often used as a synonym).
I cringe when I see companies abusing learner engagement to sell us the latest learning tool, or the latest ‘revolutionary’ elearning library filled with traditional page turners. The worst example I ever experienced was a world renown commercial content provider who demonstrated a growing level of engagement (and thus a better ROI of the investment in their license model) based on only the number of emails they send out periodically. Send emails. Not even ‘arrived’ emails, let along people actually reading them.
In other situations I have seen companies claim an improved learner engagement based on only the number of page views. While slightly better than emails send out (assuming people know what pages they are visiting), by itself this is hardly sufficient to make any true claim about engagement.
In search of the ultimate learning KPI, I’ve shared that for me ‘learning hours‘ is a very valuable metric, but NOT the ultimate learning KPI. In this post I address the ‘engagement’ question. Is measuring the level of engagement of learners the ultimate learning KPI?
By the way, I prefer using the term ‘learner engagement’ rather than ‘learning engagement’. ‘Learner engagement’ is more about the people, while ‘learning engagement’ for me suggests more how people are engaged with the conceptual process of ‘learning’. I do notice however that they are both used almost interchangeably, and I might have made that same mistake…so my apologies in advance! Everywhere you read ‘learning engagement’, i do mean ‘learner engagement’.
What is Learner Engagement?
It’s not easy to accurately define and determine learner engagement.
According Merriam-Webster, Engagement (in this context) is the “emotional involvement or commitment”. So that would suggest that learner engagement is the “emotional involvement or commitment of the learner”.
As this does not help us a lot, we’ll look a bit further.
Employee Engagement actually does have a wikipage telling is it is “a fundamental concept in the effort to understand and describe, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the nature of the relationship between an organization and its employees” under the assumption that more engaged employees lead to better business performance (correlation-causation alert!), and less engaged employees could even actively damage an organization.
Now let’s look at some of the definitions of “learner engagement” that go around.
That in itself is a challenge as there are not a lot of definitions on learner engagement going around. One I could find was from an LMS provider who say: “Learner engagement is the measure of a potentially successful learning experience for everyone concerned“. Kudos for the effort, but I think we can do better!
There’s some research on student engagement that includes definitions. But even some of that research claims that “student engagement has many meanings” (source: Springer). The many books on student engagement (and there are a lot!) also have a large variety of descriptions and titles:
- Engagement by Design: Creating Learning Environments Where Students Thrive
- Hacking Modern Teaching: 10 Ways To Build Student Engagement, Maximize Success, and Inspire Authentic Learning
- Five Paths of Student Engagement: Blazing the Trail to Learning and Success
- The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance
- Fifty Strategies to Boost Cognitive Engagement: Creating a Thinking Culture in the Classroom
- Hacking Engagement Again: 50 Teacher Tools That Will Make Students Love Your Class
They leave me somewhat puzzled as to whether student engagement is the objective? Or the means to an end? Or a necessity for learning? Is it for the student? Or the teacher? I also realize that ‘student engagement’ only begins when the student sits in class. This is different from corporate L&D: corporate learning is a process and service that supports the primary business process. Education IS the primary business process. In education, students attend programs, either directed, but hopefully also self selected, and the focus on student engagement research is when the student already has entered the classroom. In corporate learning, employees are so pressed for time, that a major additional challenge is how to get employees to the (virtual or online) classroom in the first place!
So engagement in the corporate learning context starts earlier and ends later
In corporate L&D, learner engagement is mentioned frequently as a key objective. But rarely this comes with explaining what learner engagement actually is. Maybe I missed something, everything is perfectly clear for all of you and I am the last person in L&D who does not know what learner engagement actually means. If so, please tell me!
Instead, we are presented with various means to boost engagement. Companies tell us that transforming all our learning content into a single type like micro-learning, AR/VR, video’s, scenario based learning and user generated content for example, will boost engagement. Often the company that telling us this is the best ever idea, can help you to do so. Now, I for sure cannot counter their claims as I do not have access to the same research data as they have. But for sure I can periodically state that too often these claims are being presented as a general truth, which is definitely false. Yes, the use of video can increase engagement (I actually think it’s an excellent method!), but that does not goes for all situations, it does not goes for all video’s (recorded classroom sessions even massively decrease engagement), and it does not mean that there are no other methods to increase engagement. The same is true for VR, micro-learning….all of this is presented too much as a one-size-fits-all solution for a lack of engagement.
In other cases boosting engagement can be achieved, according to many, by applying common instructional design methods and techniques like setting clear learning goals (should that not be the case anyways?), reward the learner (a well known, yet disputable, method) , be interactive, test learners and many more. All platform providers claim that their platform will improve engagement. And some link it with building a learning culture, or “turn every employee into a learner”.
All of this suggests that we actually have little understanding of what real learner engagement truly is. And this lack of understanding makes it impossibly to measure and track learner engagement, let alone use it as our critical L&D KPI! As a result, the ones that do measure and track engagement mostly never elaborate what it means for them and how they calculate it. I leave it to the reader to consider if this is because of uncertainty on the validity of the approach, or just because they have found the golden egg and want to keep it close!
Its not strange having no clear understanding or definition of a concept like ‘learner engagement’. As we’ve seen earlier engagement is the “emotional involvement or commitment” and there are very few things more complex than human emotions.
So, is this the end of the story?
Steeling with pride from Marketing & Sales
Let’s have a look at our neighbors in Marketing. Engagement in marketing & sales has always been a key topic. But since the emerge of online marketing and sales, it has taken a huge flight. Just look at some of the recent numbers. In some way, marketing & sales have similarities with L&D in what they want to achieve. Fully explaining this would take another blogpost (on my list!), but being pragmatic, I’ll prove my statement with evidence that marketing and learning trends are very very similar. Have a look at the list provided in one of the many reports on marketing, and especially digital marketing here. You will find everything that we are working on in Learning & Development (and some more) is mentioned: AI based recommendations, chatbots, personalization, video, social, storytelling, Interaction, using AR/VR and other immersive techs, predictive analytics, blockchain….it is all there!
So how does marketing tackles the engagement challenge?
This description of engagement is much more pragmatic, because we can actually identify and track interaction much easier than ‘involvement’ or ‘commitment’. There is a big, really big assumption behind this definition, and we know that assumptions can be dangerous. The assumption behind the concept of customer engagement is “the belief that engaging target customers to a high degree is conducive to furthering business objectives” (source: Wiki). Customer engagement therefor is positioned as a key leading indicator (a predictor so to say) for business success. In other words, having a high level of customer engagement can lead to higher sales and profits.
The Sales Funnel
The traditional sales funnel originated from sales process engineering. A discipline aimed to “design better ways of selling, making salespeople’s efforts more productive” (source: Wikipedia) and supposedly dates back from as early as 1898, which demonstrates that it was established well before the internet revolution and can be applied to both offline and online. The sales (or marketing) funnel is a visual representation of the sales process, illustrating a theoretical customer experience leading up to either a purchase (this is the classic version) or a long lasting high level of customer advocacy (as can be seen in more modern sales funnels).
There are many variations and descriptions of the sales funnel. But in general the traditional sales funnel describes 4 stages. First a customer is aware of a product, brand of service. In the second stage the customer has shown an interest and is contemplating actually buying a product or service. The third stage is making the decision to actually buy. While the 4th and final stage of the traditional funnel is the action of buying. If you’re interested in learning more on the above 4 traditional stages, I highly recommend this blog that also includes many useful digital examples that you might want to consider for your learning activation strategy!
In the last years, as companies discovered the value of brand loyalty and the power of consumer’s advocacy (peer to peer sales as in “you should by product 123 from brand xyz! I’ve got one myself 3 weeks ago and it is amazing, really top quality stuff!” is arguably the best form of sales you have), the funnel was extended with an second set of 4 post purchase stages:
- Adoption: How is the customer using the product or service?
- Retention: Is the customer satisfied with the product or service and will it continue to use it?
- Expansion: Will the customer come back for more? Also referred to as up sell or cross-sell
- Advocacy: Will the customer become an explicit and vocal supporter of your products and services?
The additional stages after the action of buying a product nicely enable marketing and sales to move from a traditional once-off product focused model to a continuous model based more on services or experiences rather than products.
Tracking the sales funnel
Good sales people use the funnel model. Before the digital age they might have had a notebook or just simply had memorized where various customers were in the funnel and how to best get them to the next stage. In the digital age we can measure much, much more.
It’s interesting to realize that the activity involved in making sure consumers can find your company and products (stage 1 and 2 of the funnel) through internet search and other means like AI recommendation and targeted advertising has grown to a substantial industry called ‘search engine optimization’, or SEO. This industry is worth 80 Billion in the US alone…
Another illustration is the enormous growth of using google analytics. Right now, an estimated 29 million websites use google analytics, still good for a 84% market share for traffic analysis tools. This illustrates how companies use data to track and analyze the online behavior of their customers to drive marketing and sales by for example providing personalized experiences.
Arguably the best example of how important it became to be able to capture and track relevant sales data and being able to track the funnel is the enormous success of the company Salesforce. In less than 25 years they have grown to be the market leader in customer relationship management software and despite having had a few challenging quarters, are still valued above 200 billion dollars when I was writing this article (source).
Mapping the Sales Funnel to Learning & Development
So if marketing & sales is ahead of learning in tracking and generating data driven insights, it suggests that we can learn from them and explore how we can use good practices and successful strategies common in marketing & sales for our learning initiatives. As such the sales funnel provides a very structured and mature model. Although it does not fully cover the engagement question in the L&D content. It is a very very useful tool and method better understand the journey of a learners, understand where learners drop off and be able to take action if things do not go as planned.
Before we continue however, there’s an important element we need to get clarified. In L&D we often make the mistake thinking that learning primarily happens through the tools, programs and experiences created by the L&D department (see also my comments on the learning police). This is not what happens in reality. People learn all the time and everywhere. So much knowledge is available free online, so many opportunities exist to practice skills outside our learning infrastructure, that in all honesty we need to be aware that significant learning is taking place outside our view. So when I talk about learner engagement and the learner engagement funnel after this point in the article, I will do this in the realization that it is really about ‘learner engagement with corporate L&D programs, tools, content and experiences’.
It could well be possible that an employee who is a lifelong learner and a role model for the much desired learning culture is doing all of this through its own means, even with personal rather than company investments! The good news is that by using the funnel, you can get better insights into the ‘market share’ of L&D, i.e. how much of total learning in the organization is facilitated by L&D!
The learner engagement funnel part I: The 4 pre-sales stages
So if we would want to map the sales funnel to L&D, we must answer 3 questions for each phase of the funnel:
- What is the L&D definition of the phase?
- What does success looks like?
- How do measure and track success?
If we then take the first 4 stages of the sales funnel (awareness, interest, action and decision), we would get something that is surprisingly similar to marketing and sales. In fact, you only need to replace customer by ‘learner’ and products by learning experiences!
It’s also good to see that most of us already track parts of this learner engagement funnel in the form of registrations and completions. Unfortunately I have seen very few L&D organizations structurally measuring and tracking data around page visits, searches and views, which is a pity as these potentially provide us with a lot of information and insights.
If for example you have an LMS like Cornerstone on Demand, and the ability to use Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics, you can actually do this relatively easy. Each page in the LMS has a specific URL that allows you to track traffic through your LMS in the same way as marketing and sales do with websites:
- Where do people come from?
- Where do they land in the LMS?
- How do they navigate?
- Where do they drop?
Data on this could provide a wealth of insights. For each of the phases, you can specify exactly (a) what targets are we looking for in terms of trends (growing traffic), (b) but also define all (many?) possible reasons why people drop off at certain phases, if that is a bad thing and what you can do about it! I will cover this in more detail in a follow up post, but some examples:
Tracking traffic to your LMS or LXP tells you if people are able to easily find it and (more important) if they believe coming to the LMS/LXP has value for them. When considering learner engagement the ‘traffic’ metric is an important first step. If the numbers go up, it means your tools start playing a more important role in how people learn!
A second example: Being able to identify the top search words provides insights into learning demand. What are people looking for. If people then find something they like, most likely the next interaction will be the training details page. If the employee cannot find anything (because there’s no training available on the topic, or the quality of the training metadata is so bad that relevant training is not surfaced through the search engine) they will leave the LMS or LXP: When you see a high % drops or exists from the search page, it suggests people cannot find what they are looking for!
Tracking the 3rd and 4th stage of the learner engagement funnel provides you with a wealth of information to help understanding if learners find what they are looking for in the content. Unless its about compliance learning, learners typically only complete experiences (content, articles, video’s, communities etc) they find sufficiently interesting to spend time on. So what is going on, if some of your programs see a high % non-completions? And is that a bad thing? It could be that people were disappointed in the learning experience, or that they found what they looked for and are just cherry picking, or that their needs changed over time and the content no longer holds relevance. It could be that the data shows that long programs have a higher % drop outs than short programs. This observation could influence your content strategy towards more to more granular content that can be mixed and matched.
and these are only some examples!
The learner engagement funnel part II: The 4 post-sales stages
DISCLAIMER: Where we have seen that mapping the 4 pre-sales stages from sales to learning is fairly easy but already can give us a lot of valuable insights, doing the same for the 4 post sales stages (Adoption, retention, expansion, advocacy) will prove to be more of a challenge! So please expect me to update this part regularly to share improvements and refinements based on feedback and new ideas… The part below is much more a braindump of idea’s than a clearly structured approach. This is also the part where L&D drifts away from marketing & sales a bit more. Not surprisingly as both have different goals at the end!
Stage 5 Adoption could be interpreted as internalizing the new knowledge or skills presented and practiced during the learning experience. So terms like “knowledge gained” or “skills build”. Have you actually learned something? And retained it? Or did you just click through the pages, or sat through the lectures? In that sense it could be linked to the Kirkpatrick model that most of us are familiar with, specifically level 2: Learning. Arguably this could also be part of Stage 4 Action if and when the learning experience provides ample opportunity to practices by applying principles like spaced learning for example. That is why I do prefer to link the application of knowledge and skills in the context of work as part of this stage. Going back to the world of marketing and sales world; what you do not want is that your customers when they have bought your product (that look extremely well in the shop or on the website), actually do not use it at home.
It’s not the intent of this article to provide a model for learning transfer through knowledge retention or any other form. Nor to argue what model of learning transfer is the best. The idea behind the learning funnel is that whatever you have adopted can fit the funnel. Naturally the decision on what model to use, will impact how you use the funnel and what data you will need to harvest and analyze to fill the funnel.
Stage 6 Retention (will the customer continue to be a customer for your brand?) is a tricky one. I had an original tendency to link this one with knowledge retention or improved business performance…and then going into the learning tranfer model (LTEM) but then got stuck. Improved business performance is the ultimate reason why we would design, build and use an L&D funnel, but it should not be part of the funnel!
In M&S, the revenue and profit are also not part of the funnel. And as said earlier…the link between the funnel and business impact (for L&D) or increased revenue/profit (M&S) is the assumption that with increased engagement these numbers will go up!
So to that extend, I landed (for now!) on putting retention closer to the original meaning in marketing and sales and take somewhat of a meta approach: will the learner come back to learn more?
We do know that previous experience heavily influences our perspective on a product, brand or service. This makes this stage so important. What happens if you have created a bad experience within a program, maybe due to low quality content, bad design or even outdated knowledge. The individual participant might have picked something up, but that one thing will never be sufficient to enable personal growth in the broader sense of the worth. Or for people to become continuous learners, adopt curiosity and growth mindsets.
IF L&D wants to play a pivotal role in this space we need to almost seduce learners to come back for more relevant learning experiences!
Stage 7 of the sales funnel is described as Expansion: Up-selling and cross-selling in the marketing and sales context. For L&D this could be translated by learners expanding the engagement with learning experiences and opportunities beyond what is more or less required for their current or next role. In a sense Stage 7 could be linked to reskilling (learning new skills) where stage 6 retention could be linked to upskilling (becoming better).
At the end of the day, the purpose of an L&D organization is arguably to support and facilitate personal growth through a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills, not just a single topic, skill or program…. Rather than follow the learning transfer model for example, I’d like to keep this
We do know that previous experience heavily influences our perspective on a product, brand or service. This makes this stage so important. What happens if you have created a bad experience within a program, maybe due to low quality content, bad design or even outdated knowledge. The individual participant might have picked something up, but that one thing will never be sufficient to enable personal growth in the broad sense of the worth. For people to become continuous learners, adopt curiosity and growth mindsets, AND for L&D to play a pivotal role in this space we need to almost seduce learners to come back for more relevant learning experiences!
Stage 8: Advocacy is the last and final stage of the funnel and actually easier to pinpoint than the previous ones. Where the lines between Adoption, Retention and Expansion are somewhat blurred, Advocacy truly has a breadth of opportunities: employees sharing the great learning experiences they’ve had, employees actively contributing to knowledge sharing, the volume of user generated content, employees (outside L&D) involved in coaching, or course facilitation. You could even say that being highly successful in advocacy is the one thing that defines a true learning organization!
Engagement is not the ultimate KPI for Learning & Development
I started of this thinking process with the ambition of combining the M&S funnel with learning transfer and impact. That would make engagement a very nice ultimate learning KPI! My original thinking (see the funnel image below) got pretty far. But I spend months struggling making it more concrete and kept changing my mind, a sure sign of something not quite right.
Recently I realized that I was on the wrong track. Engagement is not the ultimate KPI for learning and development. And the learning funnel not the ultimate way to track. Like customer engagement is not the ultimate goal of sales, and the sales funnel not the ultimate KPI for companies.
Does that make the learner engagement funnel useless? No, for sure not….
I believe that measuring the learner engagement and using the Learning funnel holds tremendous real value for L&D. That is why I decided to publish the above story.
Even though a learner engagement funnel is not the ultimate KPI, it’s rather a tool that will help us towards business impact by providing leading indicators. This makes the model still extremely valuable for any L&D organization for the same reasons as the sales funnel is extremely valuable for M&S. This is I think best explained by taking the ‘negative approach’.
Like customer advocacy itself does not guarantee increased sales, the complete lack of customer advocacy has proven to hurt your sales!
In the same way, you could state the following for the learning funnel:
- If people do not visit your L&D platforms or sites, they will not be able to find your programs
- If they cannot find your programs, they will not be able to register
- If they do not register, they will not participate (think ‘watch’ for videos, ‘read’ for articles etc. This goes beyond just courses!)
- If they do not participate, there will not be able learning transfer (through your offerings). Note…if they do participate they still might not experience any learning transfer….
- Without learning transfer L&D will not contribute to building new knowledge and skills
- If people are not building new knowledge and skills through your programs, they are less likely to become lifelong learners thanks to L&D and less likely to actively participate in your programs and become role models…
- If your L&D organization has no or few supporters, it will be more difficult to generate traffic.
Now I shared at the beginning that this article does not present you with a fully polished model that you can start applying today. In that context the second part of the funnel (especially point 6 is a bit shaky) is still not fully developed and will require further analysis and evidence. But I think the rest pretty much holds true (please do let me know if you think i am talking nonsense. I am always happy to learn!) and there is no reason to not start measuring the related KPI’s if you have the data and the tools available.
With this in mind, we can start to track engagement, and start measuring conversion rates to see how well you are being able to build your lifelong learners and L&D advocates! But learning funnel conversation will be the topic of another post. First we explore the next candidate for the ultimate corporate L&D KPI: Business Impact.