We suck at teaching internet marketing. Why?!!!

Ian Lurie

How the hell do I teach my team internet marketing? Why do we all suck at it?

I spend a lot of time on this puzzle. My company’s survival depends on it. I have to find ways to teach, and to teach teachers, while working it around everyone’s busy schedule. And I have to find ways to teach clients, too, or their investment in us burns up the moment we’re gone.

I’ve studied the success/failure of:

  • Montessori;
  • The Khan Academy;
  • Bridge programs;
  • Campus learning centers (I worked in one, decades ago);
  • People who taught (or failed to teach) me;
  • The near-collapse of American education;
  • My attempts to teach my own kids (often comical).

Here’s my random collection of theories. I have a favor to ask: Read this. Then tell me what you think:

In-person training fails

Training in person sucks. I love doing it, but the truth is, it’s of limited value. Here’s why:

  1. Students learn at their own pace. Get 3 people in a room, and you’ll have a fast, medium and more deliberate learner. How do you make that work? You can’t. You teach at the slowest pace. Fail.
  2. People need repeatable teaching. The best training comes in a form folks can pause, play back and repeat, at their own pace.
  3. Questioners get embarrassed. Ask two questions in a row and you’ll catch yourself saying “Sorry if this is a stupid question…” That may seem polite, but it’s really our hard-wired reflex to Never Make Waves. It stops us dead in our tracks.
  4. People can’t learn 8 hours at a time. I find that my stamina as a trainer or a student ends at about 2 hours, no matter how fantastic the class or teacher. My brain is just full. After that, it’s frantic note-taking so I know what to re-learn later, or me sticking to my script and trying to keep everyone entertained and learning.
  5. Pupils don’t retain knowledge after just one go. They need repetition.
  6. The time people really need help is when they try to apply learning the first time. Which is exactly when they do not get it.

Yes, ‘real life’ training has advantages, but they’re all related to accountability, not educational value. You pile your employees into a break room for a 4-hour lecture on customer service because you know they’re physically present. As a manager, you can check off that budget line item with pride: Training Complete.

That is a godawful justification.

Just-in-time training rocks

On the other hand, teaching via recorded material—writing, video or audio—works well.

  1. Students can learn in private. If I want to learn linear algebra, I can use Khan Academy. That way, no one knows how much math I’ve forgotten, or the fact that, if you put me in competition with a chimpanzee, I’m mathematically impaired.
  2. Everyone advances at their own pace. Absorbed a lesson? Great! Move on to the next one. Still having trouble? Read or play it again, Sam.
  3. You get to pick ideal learning time.
  4. It scales like crazy. I can deliver training via text or video to thousands of people, even if I’m asleep. Nice! I get to sleep!

Do the homework at work

This is the core of Khan Academy’s program for classrooms: Students listen to the ‘lectures’ at home. Then they go to school and do the exercises with a teacher present to help them out.

The UCSD writing center worked in a similar way when I worked there. Writers would come in. We’d facilitate as they worked on their writing. Then, they’d go home to complete that work. No lectures at all, actually.

It makes even more sense in on-the-job, internet marketing training: The stuff you’re learning is the stuff you’re doing, every day. Don’t do ‘homework’ or ‘exercises’ during slow times. Instead, study the lecture-style stuff during quiet time. Then apply it again and again while others are around to help out.

Learning = advancement

This is going to sound harsh. But with self-paced training, the people who don’t want to learn slack off. If they have training and support, then “I went to the class!” is no longer a free pass. They have to learn.

The enthusiastic students can bolt ahead, and I as an employer can reward that behavior. Internet marketing requires constant learning. I want to encourage that in my team.

Time required

You can’t just throw your staff a bunch of books and say ‘go learn’, though. You have to set time aside, one way or another, for them to do it.

That’s really hard. It’s why I still succumb to the periodic ‘training day’. Work has a nasty way of scheduling itself. If I go to everyone and say “OK, Wednesday from 9-10 AM is learning time,” it’ll fail. Clients will call. Stuff will break. Etc.

Somehow, though, you have to create time for your employees to learn. And it can’t be in a single, marathon 4-hour session. They have to be able to learn in little bites.

Let me know if you figure that one out, OK?

Trust, but verify

Finally, you have to verify that learning’s going on. I hate standardized tests. They’ve ruined American education, probably forever. But somehow you have to know how folks are doing. That’s the only way you can provide extra help where needed, or reward those who are truly kicking butt.

I haven’t figured this one out, either. By the time the employee is applying what they learned to a client, it’s too late.

Work in progress

This is a work in progress. I’ll post more about it as time passes. If you have ideas, or think something I’ve said is horrible, feel free to comment.

I still love conferences. I’ll always go. But here’s the thing: A well-run conference has lots of short sessions where you pick up one or two great tidbits. Then you can immediately try ’em out on your laptop. Plus, you get to drink until the wee hours. Whole different ball game, really.

Other stuff


Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. What a dilemna, Ian! As an in-house SEO, education is incredibly valuable to me, too. I’m constantly trying to evangelize SEO internally so I can further leverage my colleagues in creating content for our customers (students, in this case).
    I’ve tried numerous learning formats, but what I’ve found is that it’s not the format so much as it is the will to learn that is important! How do you teach the will to learn!?
    So far, I’ve had the best luck using tactics in books such as Seth Godin’s Free Prize Inside and the Heath Brothers’ Made to Stick and Switch. If you can help create that spark of emotional passion for what SEO can accomplish, the will to learn kicks in and the format becomes slightly less important.
    Have you considered approaches like this?

  2. Hi Ian, that’s an interesting question you’re analyzing here.
    You’ve given some theories, but you’ve left out (or implied) the most important information I wanted to know: are you using video to train your employees right now?

  3. I agree with your just-in-time training. We’re doing more and more tiny video tutorials (I love Camtasia!) with the work we do. A 30-second or one minute tutorial on some small step related to a site we built or Adwords or Analytics training is a great way to help a client (or employee) get value out of something you taught them they don’t use often enough to memorize.

  4. Ian – this is a HUGE topic and an incredibly foundational issue at so many levels – especially when it comes to growing a business!
    I believe that training is important as a scheduled activity, available resource and an ad-hoc event. The best training to me is how to find answers (Which means that the knowledge references have to be there. Training is also the simplest to focus on.
    I also think there should be more focus on ‘formation’ over training. Formation starts the day we are born – based on our experience of the people/events/culture around us and our interpretations of their reactions to us (i.e. encouragement vs. criticism). Leaving some to be self-motivated “enthusiastic students” and others to be those “who don’t want to learn [and] slack off.”
    We can’t change the formation of people we hire, but we can add new formation experiences that reward thinking, acting, learning, trying, etc. It’s a cultural thing as well as an effort in providing some structure, guidance and accountability.
    This is a critical subject and a great thread to follow. Thanks for bringing it up – I can’t wait to see what other say. Thanks!

  5. A couple thoughts:
    -Even though I am new to Internet Marketing, there seems to be some facet that operates on an intuitive level. So you can teach the parts, but not necessarily how they synergystically work together.
    -Perpetual learning can’t be forced. Ideally your staff should be seeking you out for growth. I think this is the sort of attitude that is vetted in the hiring interview.
    -Are employees empowered to use their new skills in ways the personally see a payoff.

  6. Fall quarter of my freshman year in college I made the mistake of registering for an 8:30am class. Fortunately the class was videotaped and my “attendance” in the class was 100% since I was able to see every lecture at 8:30 pm in the library. I only attended the class three times in person; second class, mid-term and final and got an A+.
    Ian, I have followed your blog for years and I think this is one of your best posts ever, especially from a “big picture” perspective. Usually I am here looking for a tidbit or two that I can take away, but today you hit on a much broader point. We need to get better at learning as a country, not just in training Internet Marketing employees. Business as usual will not cut it; we need to increase learning efficiency in both the corporate world and educational institutions.
    Since video is so scalable, wouldn’t it make sense for the very best instructors in the country to give the day’s math lessons to all students as homework, then have the teachers help each student with his or her own stumbling blocks in the classroom? Okay, there might be some labor issues but probably a good place to start the discussion. In the class or in the office you could also use peer learning to assist the “teacher.” Thanks for the insightful post and looking forward to hearing more on the subject.

  7. Gotta say this is tricky. Personaly I realized that to train someone it takes A LOT more time than I imagined. Creating expert is a long long process. When I feed them with too much info they were so interested in things that are totaly above their knowledge and they would learn things they dont need and they didn’t know basics. When you don’t push them they don’t have sense for urgency and than it takes too long for them to learn.
    I believe spending some time upfront to organize process of learning and determining the pace (indivitually) is a very good method.
    Awesome thing I learned recently. People learn a lot faster when they get feedback. I really don’t stand people who are to lazy to do a 10 second Google search for some information, but providing them feedback on a little more complex things helps them a lot. Not to much as they have to learn on their own, when you put some effort into learning something you really remember it better, but still giving them feedback makes it a lot faster for them to connect the dots.
    But before all I think you need to prepare people to learn how to learn. Sometimes it’s not just about method of learning but the person who is learning, with good preparation they will understand process of learning. When people don’t know they are lost, if you give them brief overview what they will learn with not too much details they are not affraid they will miss something or similar.

  8. Yes accountability will drive enthusiasm (its what drives us) but at the end of the day you pay people for work thats needs to be done, so you just have to make achieving grades in TESTS part of your company KPIs. Really its the only way to ensure competency.

  9. Two points here:
    Have you been trained in teaching or training people?
    Cos I don’t hear anything here about a really key concept, that is that everyone learns in a different way (“learning styles”). Therefore a combination of the various methods you talk about, if practicable in a working environment, would probably be the most successful approach.
    You could do with researching some stuff on adult education – because some of the points you make just don’t make sense (they might from your personal experience, but I think you would benefit from some insights from the teaching profession).
    Kathy – an Internet Marketer who is also a trained teacher and trainer.

  10. Wonderfully Assembled Words:
    “People need repeatable teaching. The best training comes in a form folks can pause, play back and repeat, at their own pace.”
    We have an educational company and provide just that.
    Please don’t sue me if I use these words!

  11. I’m using a loose 80/20 rule for hours (to start). I pretend that every work week is only 32 hours, and assign tasks to take up 32 hours. Rest is for training. Invariably something will come up that needs attention, but they’re averaging 4 to 5 hours of training per week.

  12. Not sure if it is relevant here but I have found that the most effective training always seems to repeat the same message in different ways.
    For example, if the lesson is, “The sun rises in the east.”, other than just being told the fact, you will be asked to repeat it to your partner, and say it out loud, and draw it on paper and maybe even act it out in front of the class. After that, it’s indelibly etched into your memory.

  13. Great post Ian. Teaching is easy, having it stick is the hard part! One thing that I have found that helps in my organization is “triggered teaching”. When someone comes through the door with a question, they get more than an answer, they get the principle behind and the why. If it’s a good topic or a question I’ve heard more than once, it goes on the white board for a video. I like to have brown bags on topics as well – both internally and with clients – no pressure learning!

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