A Case for Finding the Intersections: Inbound Marketing & Instructional Design

Photo by Kaique Rocha.

As a passionate marketer who worked at an excellent marketing software company, I helped co-found a team which educated people on modern marketing techniques. I was up to my ears in all things marketing.

My Twitter feed was filled with marketers sharing marketing insights. My favorite websites were marketing-related content created by marketers. And every conference I attended was about — you guessed it — marketing.

That was how I stayed up-to-date on current marketing trends and recognized emerging ones.

I was having the time of my life. Seriously.

And then I read “The Medici Effect” by Frans Johansson.

In the book, Johansson introduces the groundbreaking concept of intersectional innovation. The notion is profound yet simple;

All new ideas are just an amalgamation of older ideas. And breakthrough innovations occur when we bring concepts from one field into new, unfamiliar territory.

Let’s consider some examples of this concept from history.

Starting with the watch industry; for a long time, watch improvements were incremental innovations focused on needing less winding, being more reliable, and keeping time for longer than their competitors. That was normal, fine, excellent even — until the digital watch came out. Watch manufacturers didn’t invent digital, but when they united clocks and the power of digital, it transformed the watch world forever.

Same with cameras which used traditional film. Film cameras were how people captured their moments. However, the number of photos people took remained relatively low due to the price of film. However, when digital cameras were released, the number of photos the world took grew 10x.

Or what about Charles Darwin, the geologist. He noticed different beak sizes among birds throughout the Galapagos Islands leading to his capacity to recognize and propose the theory of evolution, changing the understanding of biology forever.

You get the point.

Intersectional innovation changed the way I think. I finished the book around the same time we were starting the HubSpot Academy team. Up until that point, my all of my marketing frameworks had come from the marketing world.

That’s when I realized —

If inbound marketing is about attracting customers with valuable, educational content.
Then what would happen if we introduced instructional design frameworks into our educational content as well as inbound marketing?

For those who are unfamiliar with instructional design, Wikipedia describes it as “the practice of creating experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing.”

Instructional designers understand how people learn. They’re experts on the different stages of knowledge mastery and know precisely how to help someone become an expert on any topic. They develop stories, analogies, examples, articles, videos, classes, courses, quizzes, demos, games, gamified experiences, and more to create, independently or together, an engaging and memorable learning experience.

And so we purposefully pursued the intersection to apply instructional design best practices to become the best inbound marketing teachers out there.

For our content, we’d utilize frameworks like the ADDIE Model and Blooms Taxonomy for developing certification assessments. We’d think beyond typical content for learning, and marketing, could be.

When we found the intersection, we became innovation machines.

As we explored the ways we could unify the two, we uncovered three game-changing innovations:

  1. Innovation on our teaching process. We applied instructional design frameworks to content to deliver a stronger learning experience. We first built webinars infused with statistics, examples, stories, based on a teaching framework. We selected successful webinars and blog posts and expanded on their breadth and depth-wise 10-fold, and then turned them into series of videos.
  2. Innovation on our products. We looked at what other educators and industries do. We repackaged educational content on similar topics, wove in a narrative, and then created comprehensive online classes, online courses, in-person courses, and certification programs. A few team members even invented a game.
  3. Innovation on our delivery model. We were able to break down our mental barriers as to what marketing content should be and built them up again, but with a bigger size box. You might even say we intersected backward. After we were marketers, who became instructional designers. We were instructional designers, who became marketers. Just like other inbound marketers, we opened our educational content to the world which resulted in crazy growth.

One number we’d often share around growth is related to the certifications program. In 2012 we didn’t have a certifications program. In 2014, we awarded ~11,000 certifications to business professionals everywhere, and in 2016, we awarded ~73,000. Imagine how many people had to sign up, and what the funnel must look like, to get to that number of certifications awarded.

You might be wondering how this improvement in our processes and enhancement of our approach changed our team’s goals. Well quite a bit as it increased the number of targets, or goals we set. There were goals around instructional design elements like learner comprehension, information retention, and application. As well as some product management related targets like retention and NPS, and some marketing goals like bringing inbound and these courses to more people.

This intersection worked for us because we were passionate, curious, and open to exploring it.

As Frans Johansson says in the book, “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.”

It’s tough to know where merging two unrelated worlds might take you, but I’m interested in continuing to find out.

What about you? Do you leverage instructional design frameworks in your marketing content? How has it impacted your work or your results? And what intersections do you see in emerging in marketing or even the world around us?