Content Marketing fundamentally involves an attempt to inform—that is, educate—a specific audience. Effective content marketing thus requires the ability to educate effectively. The key phrase here is "effective education." Anyone who's seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off knows what ineffective education looks like. Teaching is a kind of marketing--and vice versa. Whether in classrooms or on company websites, nobody learns much from droning abstractions. Students can be a tough audience--marketing can learn a few things from effective teaching practice.
What can those invested in creating effective content learn from effective practices in education? To begin answering this question, let’s take a brief look at some key ideas in education. As is the case with marketing, education is not a homogenous profession: Different educators draw on different strategies, each with their own merits, relative to context. However, many of the most effective practices in education tend to move away from some long-held assumptions about how people learn.
There is an old-school and a new-school view of education. The old-school view sees learning as nothing more than a matter of memorizing something that somebody else knows. It sounds simplistic, if we put it that way. But who among us has attended high school or college and not been subjected to this view of learning? A teacher, a professor, stands before the class, chalk or transparencies in hand. There are things you need to learn, items you need to know. Before the class period is over, these things will be transferred from the teacher’s lecture notes, the professor’s transparencies, to your notebook. From there, these things will be transferred to your brain. When these transfers are successful, you will be said to have learned what the teacher, the professor, has to teach you.
It is a meager model of learning. It is also the most common one. It is a model that operates on some surface assumptions and a slightly deeper one. Its surface assumptions are, first, that the teacher knows what there is to know about a subject and you do not. Second, there is the assumption that the way that you learn what the teacher knows is to listen to the teacher and commit to memory what he or she has to say. Last, on the teacher’s side, there is the assumption that by providing abstract definitions the teacher can impart to the student what needs to be known.
The slightly deeper assumption has to do with what can be called the “dogmatic view” of thought: The assumption that what is to be learned comes in discrete packets or identities. There are particular somethings that need to be known—facts or concepts that must be acquired like products sold in a market. These somethings may be related to one another or they may not. In either case, they are independent enough from one another to be isolated each to a sentence, a paragraph, or a blog posting. These somethings are then represented by the sentences spoken by the teacher or professor, and then arrive in your ear or on your paper. If the learning is successful, you will be able to recreate this information without alteration. Effective education, in this view, consists of the delivery and receipt of particular learned somethings, with no misunderstanding that could “damage” these somethings along the way. The identities of learned things will retain their integrity. And if students do their job, they will be able to repeat or manipulate these somethings when test time comes around.
There is another view of learning that does not start with the assumption that what is to be learned has the character of a singular thing or even a group of distinct things. It starts instead from the assumption that what there is to be learned has the character of a dynamic, multifaceted experience rather than a singular concept. If what is to be learned does not have the character of a singular thing, then the learning itself is not a project of transferring knowledge of a single thing from the knower to the one who seeks to know. It is instead a form of learning that involves immersion in an experience.
In sum, we have, on one hand, a traditional “dogmatic view of education” premised on the transfer of discrete learned “somethings” from teacher to student. On the other hand, we have an “experiential view of education” that sees learning as a process in which we develop understanding and skills through immersion in a particular field of practice.
To understand the difference between these two models, consider how learning to swim works as a form of experiential education based in immersion. Swimmers do not learn discrete, individual facts about the water, then learn another set of facts about bodily movements, and then apply them to the case at hand. The water and their bodies are swarms of movements and sensations in time. In order to navigate their bodies through the water they will need to acquire a skill: To adapt the movement and capacities of their bodies to the movement of the water in such a way as to stay on its surface. This skill involves no memorization of individual facts. It involves an immersion, a finding one’s way through things, coming through one’s body to understand what one is capable of in the water. There is no one way to do this, and different ways may lead to different kinds of success, different experiences, different possibilities for how to engage the world.
Learning how to swim results from experience in a particular space. One does not learn “swimming” as a singular concept—for there is no single way to swim. Swimmers immerse themselves in the water. They get a feel for the water, for how it moves and what possibilities of movement it offers them. They get a feel for their bodies in the water. And they conjugate one against the other: Immersion means a swimmer and the water no longer function as two separate bodies with distinct identities; rather, the two become a new kind of identity—a pairing body/water joined in particular space.
There is instead a field of body/water, which generates new possibilities of identity. As processes of learning, immersive experiences are experiments (“experience” and “experiment” in fact share the same Latin root) that provide us opportunities to pair ourselves with environment in ways that open up new possibilities of living.
There is a reason why “experience” has emerged as a key concept in both marketing and education: As environments for learning, immersive experiences actively engage us on multiple levels. Business do not simply deliver discrete products; they provide brand experiences. Education does not simply involve the transfer of discrete “packets” of information; education involves experiential immersion in a field.
Of course, the distinction between experience-based learning and what I have called traditional “dogmatic” learning is a relative one: After all, all of learning (all of everything, for that matter) involves some form of experience. Even a boring lecture premised on a dogmatic view of learning must first be experienced as an experience in order to be described as “boring.” Since all education involves some kind of experience, the distinction between traditional dogmatic forms of education and experiential education lies in the degree of immersion: The more immersive the experience, the more transformative.
Blogs that lecture audiences about specific products may provide some explanation, but as experiences they provide limited immersion and engagement. Content that tells a story offers audiences a more fully immersive experience: Stories do not simply introduce discrete, singular, concepts; rather, stories engage audiences in the narrative unfolding of emotions, ideas, sensations, and images as active events in time and space. Stories do not simply inform; they transform.