Down to the right connections

Marketing is all about communication. The profession’s soft skills are acquired mainly by doing the job and working with other people, so careful thought needs to go into developing initiatives that facilitate ongoing, collective change – pers

Face-to-face teaching still exists, but institutes have embraced new technology to facilitate most coursework – from forums to podcasts that can be downloaded at any time. By Richenda Wilson

Marketing is all about communication. The profession’s soft skills are acquired mainly by doing the job and working with other people, so careful thought needs to go into developing initiatives that facilitate ongoing, collective change – person to person, not man to machine.

This is the view of Helen Wright, head of people at UK agency iris. “What is the benefit of cutting off people from each other while they interact with a screen?” asks Wright. “E-learning may help those in charge of training and development and prove its worth to the board in the form of log-ons and site stats, but I question its real value. At iris, we believe that behavioural change is in the doing, uniting people to help facilitate knowledge share and changing human capital into organisational value.”

Practical mentoring

At iris, management training takes the form of one-to-one business coaching where each trainee has a mentor. Individuals can look at the theory, then put it into practice. Some mentors come from within the agency, though iris uses outside facilitators too. “They have to work in the industry so they speak the lingo and understand the challenges we face,” says Wright.

However, Wright is not against courses that use new technology as part of the mix. Staff have been on courses run by the ISP (Institute of Sales Promotion), the CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) and the MCCA (Marketing Communications Consultants Association).

ISP director of education Chris Bestley says that the institute’s three main courses – the Diploma in Promotional Marketing, the Certificate in Promotional Marketing and the Motivation Diploma – are all available through distance learning.

Diploma students are given a package containing tasks that have to be completed in five months along with resources such as study notes, case studies and websites. Seminars and tutorials are fortnightly and optional. Tutors are also available to answer questions by e-mail or phone.

For the first time this year, the ISP has delivered its course materials online rather than in hard copy. It has built a platform and resource centre for students as well as a facility for online testing. “The material is available at all times,” says Bestley. “There is no excuse for saying ‘I left it at home’.”

Material can also be updated during the course, adds Bestley. “For example, we knew the Gambling Act was going to come into force in 2007, but we now know it’s going to be September, which makes a significant difference to the timing and planning of promotions.”

The ISP courses have just one deadline at the end of the five months. “We always felt that a series of deadlines was more painful than one,” says Bestley.

This did mean, however, that a third of students never finished the course. So about five years ago, the ISP introduced fortnightly online tests to encourage people to keep up with their coursework. “It didn’t count towards their final marks, because we couldn’t trust the technology to be foolproof in delivery – some firewalls would bounce the e-mails back. We just did it to give people a poke,” says Bestley, adding that the drop-out rate has now fallen to 10%.

The CIM also uses “blended” learning – a mixture of face-to-face and online. “On its own, e-learning wouldn’t work,” says CIM head of training Neil Scurlock. “Learning is an inherently social process and the courses are all about skills development.”

Keeping on track

The CIM imposes deadlines throughout the course so students will stay on track and can take an active part in the face-to-face workshops. Trainees are arranged into “cohorts” with whom they attend seminars. An online course director also manages the online discussion groups, guides students, tracks their interaction with the online elements of the course and encourages them if they are falling behind.

The institute has introduced podcasting to provide weekly news clippings updates that students can download. It is also considering the introduction of key point podcast summaries of face-to-face sessions.

Again, says Scurlock, there can be problems with access and firewalls, so you have to build systems with a common denominator in terms of technology. He finds students are “hungry for new technologies”.

Cambridge Marketing Colleges, which delivers courses for the CIM, introduced podcasting of its evening lectures in April. MP3 files are available the next day on the website so students can download them to their iPod or phone.

Closer to home

College principal Charles Nixon says: “We have hundreds of distance-learning students from 47 countries. They can now listen to what is being said, and make a far better connection with the tutor. It is closing the distance between the college and Australia, Italy or Armenia.”

Cambridge Marketing Colleges sends out electronic workbooks that students can read and annotate online. Coursework can also be provided on CD-Rom or DVD. In 1997, it pioneered online discussion forums and now has its own marketing blog, with comment from tutors and notes on future trends. The college also uses RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds to give students access to marketing news from many sources.

“But technology isn’t the only means of learning,” stresses Nixon. “Many students attend the weekly or weekend lectures. And all students have an expert tutor, whom they can e-mail or call. They also discuss their coursework with their line manager and their peers.”

Even traditional learning environments have left students to their own devices some of the time, so a mixture of face-to-face and solo working is nothing new.

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