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Marketing should be education, education should be marketing


Do you want passionate users? Educate them. Do you want passionate learners? Sell them. If ever there were two groups who ought to trade places--and especially research -- it's teachers and marketers. Our mantra here is, "Where there is passion, there is a user kicking ass..." and by "kicking ass" we mean "being really good at something." In the post-30-second-spot world, the marketing department should become the learning department. Meanwhile back in schools, teachers should become...marketers.

The tragedy is this: the amount of money spent in the US each year on marketing research is orders of magnitude more than the amount spent on learning theory research. Big business probably spends more in a week on brain research than the US Department of Education spends in a year.
[I don't have the real data, but I've been trying to piece it together enough to make wild-ass estimates like this.]

The good news is this: in the he-who-does-the-best-job-of-getting-his-customers-past-the-suck-threshold-wins world that's beginning to emerge, companies may need teachers more than marketers. And in my perfect world, marketers and teachers exchange research and techniques, and by applying marketing to teaching and teaching to marketing, everyone benefits.


What Marketers Could Do For Teachers

Marketers know what turns the brain on (currently, not last week). Teachers need that more than ever today.

Marketers have access to fMRIs. Teachers rarely do.

Marketers are dangerously close to finding the Buy Button in the Brain. Think what teachers could do with that research... after all, that Buy Button could be modified into a Learn Button with very little effort.

Marketers know how to motivate someone almost instantly. Teachers could sure use that.

Marketers know how to manipulate someone's thoughts and feelings about a topic. Teachers could use that to 'manipulate' a learner into thinking, say, "math IS cool."

Marketers know how to get--and keep--attention. I know some teachers who'd give a kidney for that research.

Marketers spend piles of money on improving retention and recall. Teachers--and students need all the help they can get.

[Yes, I'm aware how horrifying this notion sound -- that we take teachers and make them as evil as marketers? Take a breath. You know that's not what I'm advocating, so keep reading.]

What Teachers Could Do For Marketers
(Marketers who want passionate users, that is)

Teachers know the importance of honesty and integrity. The good teachers care. Some--perhaps many--marketers could use a lot more of that, especially now that the internet has made it far harder for marketers to get away with deceptions. Those damn users talk! They email, they youtube their bad experiences, they blog it.

Teachers know how to help people think on a deeper level, to get beyond the surface level of understanding. In old-school advertising, only the most superficial attributes were used ("This product will make your neighbors envious!") Clearly, those days are dwindling.

[And don't even get me started on how bad most product manuals are--where the difference between pre-sales and post-sales material is huge, and completely backwards. "Yes, once they've actually paid us and become a customer, who cares how the manual reads or what it looks like?"]

Teachers help people think about thinking. In fear-based (or any emotion-based) marketing campaign (especially politics!), thinking was inhibited. But people can't learn and improve without thinking, so any marketing approach based on helping users get better needs to use emotions to enhance thinking, not prevent it.

Teachers know how to help people through the rough spots... where the learner is still firmly in the suck zone. Marketers need that more than ever, since so many of the most sophisticated products can't be mastered in 5 minutes.

Should we be worried about the hot new research known as neuromarketing? Yes. But it's going to happen regardless of what we do. Why not start demanding that marketers be transparent about the research and their applications? Big Marketing is not about to stop using techniques to manipulate us into wanting things, and about the only defense we have is to know that this is happening.

If we're to be smart consumers (and voters), we must stay one step ahead of those who are trying to manipulate us without our knowledge. And for that, we must know as much as possible about how our brains work, and how we're being tricked, spun, and seduced. We should all be comfortable thinking, "Oh, that's obviously my amygdala talking."

But rather than rail against the research and bemoan the fact that the marketers (and politicians) have these "secrets of persuasion", we can put these tools to good use--one of the main goals of this blog. To help ourselves, our students, and our users learn!

Of course, there should be full disclosure everywhere in which these techniques are used. We should demand it from marketers, and expect it from teachers. In the Head First books, for example, the beginning of each book describes exactly what we're trying to do to your brain (i.e. how we try to trick your legacy brain into thinking the code is as important as a tiger).

Public education in the US is in a pretty sad state, but I'm reminded of an old anti-war bumper sticker that went something like:
"It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Money They Need and the Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber" "

I don't have anything clever, but I like the idea:

"It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Brain Research the Marketers Have, and the Marketers Have to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy an fMRI."

Posted by Kathy on February 11, 2007 | Permalink


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Kathy Sierra wrote an interesting post, Marketing should be education, education should be marketing, that suggests what educators really need is more fMRI data. That summary is a bit simplistic, actually - Sierra makes the point that marketers, usin... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 12, 2007 6:25:54 AM

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by: Roger DooleyKathy Sierra wrote an interesting post, Marketing should be education, education should be marketing, that suggests what educators really need is more fMRI data.... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 13, 2007 6:18:09 AM


A million times yes! I'm a teacher, and I've been trying hard lately to find ways of turning my kids brains on and selling them on what I'm doing. (I recently gave a talk at a local education conference called Video Games & Positive Reinforcement where I spoke about learning from video games in how they motivate and drive game players.)

As much as our children, though, we need to be able to market good educational practices to our school families and our politicians. So many antiquated policies sit around because we've failed to sell the powers-that-be on recent developments in education practice. If educators want student-driven environments, balanced calendars, and a myriad of other "best practices," we need to put our marketing hats on and sell these concepts to families and politicians that directly influence our schools.

Thanks for this post, Kathy. It was great!

Posted by: Robert Smelser | Feb 11, 2007 8:20:22 PM


This is a divine revelation, Kathy!! :-)

Hopefully sooner or later what you described here will be a reality for everyone...


Posted by: Hendy Irawan | Feb 11, 2007 10:42:12 PM

Interesting post, with some good suggestions on how marketing might help with delivery, but I wasn't entirely sold.

It seems to me most marketing is about circumventing critical thought and appealing directly to our emotional and/or primative psyche - just about the exact opposite of the 'learning to learn' emphasis of contemporary teaching. I suppose there's room for hooking new learners into the process at the start of their learning journey, but I'm inclined to think that teachers would get more out of swapping ideas with the entertainment industry than the marketers.

Posted by: botheredbybees | Feb 11, 2007 10:47:03 PM

Robert: You go!

Hendy: I'm an optimist, what can I say : ) But like that line from the movie Contact, "small steps... small steps..."

botheredbybees: The entertainment industry would absolutely be my second choice. I agree with part of this statement: "It seems to me most marketing is about circumventing critical thought and appealing directly to our emotional and/or primative psyche..." but not this part - "just about the exact opposite of the 'learning to learn'" I wouldn't say it's the opposite -- "learning to learn" and using emotions to appeal to our more primitive brains are not mutually exclusive, if applied/integrated well. If emotions are the quickest and most effective way to get our brain to pay attention and remember something, we can use that (with caveats) to enhance learning. But that's where your suggestion about using entertainment comes in...

Fear, though, that *definitely* shuts down rational thought -- not a good thing for learning, agreed! But there are other feelings we can put to good use including pleasure, excitement, thrill, seduction, fun, disgust ("I won't make THAT mistake again!"), etc.

Thanks for bringing this up... we should have another discussion about this (maybe another post)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 11, 2007 11:01:28 PM

There is something that is backwards about this post, but I can't quite nail it down. What teachers ought to be able to teach marketers is easy. Sell what people want. Sell things that make people great. Kathy, isn't that what you have been saying here fairly constantly?

I'm thinking about my kids and learning. For them, there isn't any need to motivate them to learn. They are born learners. They learned to do amazingly complicated things without anyone teaching them. They learned to hold their heads up, to crawl, to walk, to run, to throw, to speak, to get what they want from me and the other people around them - all without any teacher at all. All of those skills are harder than long division, but they learned them with only minimal assistance and instruction.

What kicks ass more than just following your own passions and natural curiosity?

Many (most?) teachers know how to motivate students using this natural passion and curiosity, and teachers who are given the latitude and the resources to let kids do that also kick ass.

Most schools aren't set up for this. There are too many students, too little time, too many external requirements and too many pointless tests. It is the ultimate case of not trusting the users, both teachers and students.

Now we live in a culture where most of us went to schools that didn't actually care about us being passionate about learning. In fact, if being passionate rocked the boat, which it usually did, then being passionate about learning was discouraged. It's not the teachers who need to learn from marketers, teaching is not that different from marketing as you point out. It's the culture that needs to value learning that isn't immediately channeled into buying of goods. Passionate buying is accepted social behavior. Passionate learning, frequently isn't.

Posted by: Ray Baxter | Feb 12, 2007 1:10:25 AM

What's a 'fMRI'?

Posted by: Marius Gedminas | Feb 12, 2007 1:28:26 AM

Your closing quote is interesting! The columnist and humorist, Erma Bombeck said many years ago (and I'm paraphrasing): My faith in mankind will be restored when the government gives my son's school money for a new bus and the air force has to hold a bake sale for a new bomber. I don't know if this was the original quote, but it does relate (if somewhat tenuously) to your post in that it highlights another aspect of our questionable priorities.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Feb 12, 2007 2:22:31 AM

I would echo a previous commentor. Considering what I do about marketing (which can include a used car salesman motivating me to buy junk), I'm not sure I would ever trust a teacher who used marketing principles to sell me on learning. I don't think there is a solution to this, and some kids will learn happily and others just will not. You can't even give them money to genuinely enjoy it. I'd rather not create that passion artificially or superficially. Call me pessimistic on this. :)

My favorite teachers as a kid, and/or the ones who had the most impact on my learning (and life) were not the ones who dressed up in clown suits or had savvy charisma that would have been slick in the marketing world. They were simply teachers who were honest, cared, and made more effort than just going over lessons and learning my name and where I sit.

Posted by: LonerVamp | Feb 12, 2007 7:32:39 AM

The thing about applying principles of persuasion to teaching is not to make learning glossy, but to make it so interesting and engaging that kids (and adults) don't even think about it as "learning". Done right, kids just think "This is COOL!" — and the learning accelerates from there.

Meanwhile, regarding Kathy's line of: "And for that, we must know as much as possible about how our brains work, and how we're being tricked, spun, and seduced." — here are two books that can give you great insights into how our brains work:

· "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell

· "Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini

Posted by: John Windsor | Feb 12, 2007 9:00:09 AM

This reminds me of Sesame Street, where they deliberately used advertising techniques to "sell" us youngsters counting and the alphabet. I understand there were some interesting debates between the "educators" and "pyschologists" at the Children's Television Workshop that seem to be echoed here. But if Sesame Street and Head First come out of this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration, then we need more of it! W00t!

Posted by: goliard | Feb 12, 2007 9:23:00 AM


However do you come up with such stuff? Absolutely awesome and I am one who does not think about such things. Everytime I read a post here, I think..oh yeah, makes total sense. Thanks for enriching my life and making me think outside of my box.

Posted by: thodarumm | Feb 12, 2007 9:23:14 AM

Thank you for this. Everything you say here is true. In the middle of my teaching career, I took a training in accelerated learning at the LIND Institute in San Francisco. The teacher, Charles Schmid, was a student of Georgi Lozanov, and he had been using Lozanov's techniques in teaching foreign languages. My LIND experience completely changed the way I taught high school English for the next 12 years, and the results were consistently positive. Many of the things you do in the Head First books are things I did in my classroom. It just works.

Posted by: lstarn | Feb 12, 2007 10:26:30 AM

Notwithstanding your depiction of marketers as evil and your conflation of promotion/advertising and marketing (which I recognise to be a blatant attempt to have yourself kept behind after marketing school), I agree with your premise. Marketing is not just about "for-profit" business and has much to teach any communicators.

That said, I think there is also a crucial "product development" issue at the heart of failing public education. On this side of the water, at least, it is recognised that for whatever reason (working parents and the rise of the DVD babysitter are both cited) the youngest children are arriving at school with a lack of literacy, numeracy and vocalisation that greatly retards any educational progress. Reversing that is a marketing job not for teachers but for government and media.

Posted by: John Dodds | Feb 12, 2007 10:27:29 AM

fMRI links:


Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a little like an x-ray in that it allows doctors and researchers to examine the inner structures of the body without breaking the skin. It differs from an x-ray in three very imporant ways. The first is that x-rays use high-energy particles/waves which in large doses are known to cause damage to tissue. MRI uses lower energy waves which are not _known_ to cause any damage (but there is still room for debate, like anything).

The second important difference is that most x-ray imaging is two-dimensional wheras MRI is three-dimensional. X-ray imaging uses the pinpoint camera method to create an image. Basically the machine emits a stream of high energy photons at a target with a film behind it. Certain substances in the target (bones, metal) will absorb or deflect more of the photons than other substances (soft tissue, water). The film on the other side of the target will change chemically in the areas where more photons got through so that a developing process, similiar to that of normal film, will reveal the shapes of things inside the target which blocked or deflected particles. The result is a two-dimensional image. It's a little like shining an EXTREMELY BRIGHT LIGHT through a subject and using the shadows to examine the subject's innards.

On the other hand, an MRI works a little more like a cross between a microwave and the mechisms used to determine the locations of earthquakes. The MRI machine emits magnetic waves tuned to the properties of certain atoms and then "listens" for the "echos" of the atoms it's scanning. Since this is happening electro-magnetically, it's not really listening, but more like watching. However, since the waves are only "resonating" and not bouncing off of things, they are able to permeate the entire target under scrutiny. The MRI machine can tune its emiters and detectors to any particular "slice" of the subject and resolve a two-dimensional image of that slice revealing how each portion of the slice resonated with the fields the machine created. The MRI machine can scan through it subject gathering successive two-dimensional slice images and gather them into a "stack" of which can then be combined into a three-dimensional model of the scanned subject.

The third important difference is that the fields used in an MRI can be tuned to different substances to change the tissues or chemicals which will resonate in an image. The machine can "smell" different kinds of atoms and molecules by combining information from different field type scans. Also, when used in medicine, doctors will sometimes supply a patient with certain substances to enhance the use of MRI.

The combination of low-energy physics, three-dimensional resolution and the ability to detect a wide range of substances has made MRI an increadibly powerful tool for examining the insides of things without taking them apart either macroscopically or microscopically.

The Functional in fMRI refers to techniques correlating MRI data with neural activity. Researches have found patterns in MRI data corresponding to neural activity in the brain and now the race is on to use that information to better understand how we think and feel. It's a relatively new area of research with all the usual controversy you would expect.

Posted by: Robert de Forest | Feb 12, 2007 10:33:58 AM

Isn't part of marketers' persuasive abilities tied to social beliefs/values such as status? Buy "this" and you'll be "that". And another part is quick gratification: You'll be that "now." But how do you sell, Learn this material and you'll eventually graduate. I think Ray Baxter says it well: our culture values buying much more than learning and children are "born learners." There's no need to sell curiosity; there's a need to create conditions so it can be expressed.

Posted by: Charles | Feb 12, 2007 11:09:10 AM

In general I agree, but I wonder if maybe Education should first define what it is trying to accomplish. In the business world, Education needs to be fast and to the appropriate level. But Education in public schools, seems to make no reference to how learning can be speeded up and exactly what is the appropriate level.

Since very few (if any) master everything in a course to perfection, something less than perfection is acceptable. And since we forget over time, just what information from a course is critical to be remembered? How many college courses have you taken where the professor assumes you have mastered everything in the prerequisite course?

The point I am trying to make is that adding Marketing skills to Education without a total reform of the Education system is likely to fail. We should rebuild the Education system from scratch using skills from any discipline that will result in more effective learning. Marketing, sales, neuroscience, biology, psychology, etc.

I just withdrew from a Ph D program because it actually slowed down the rate and depth of my learning. I was amazed that "earning" a Ph D had little to do with mastering a subject and much to do with writing papers that would most likely never be read.

Posted by: Rich | Feb 12, 2007 12:12:28 PM

Thanks for the continuing, thought-provoking comments! I love that y'all actually stop to think about this, and often from different angles than I have.

A few of my responses to some of the comments:

ROBERT: What a helpful explanation of fMRI. I learned a lot.

CHARLES: "But how do you sell, Learn this material and you'll eventually graduate?" I don't think you can sell that -- I agree. The kind of 'selling' I'm talking about is on a far shorter time and topic scale. We need to 'sell' the learner's brain on why they should pay attention and remember what we're talking about in the next 15 minutes. One of the practices we have in our books is that you have to motivate on a particular *topic*, and then keep selling and selling and selling. Not as in, "here's why Java is important", but in a moment-to-moment, "wouldn't it be cool if you do this, where this is something that's potentially interesting, even if only as a "cognitive pleasure" (like solving a puzzle).

So, I agree that we can't use long-term motivation -- I'm talking about the kinds of short-term--VERY short-term--nano-motivations that keep the brain responding to each new thing being learned.

LONERVAMP: " I'm not sure I would ever trust a teacher who used marketing principles to sell me on learning." The point is not to sell you on learning, it's to sell your brain on each individual piece of a topic. And I disagree that some kids like learning and some do not -- as another commenter mentioned, we ALL are born with a built-in, overwhelming desire to learn. But when forced to listen/memorize facts (not necessarily much learning there), both kids and teachers are trying to make learning happen under just about the least brain-friendly circumstances.

I don't advocate using the same implementations as marketers -- but rather applying/incorporating the principles gleaned from such extensive research into how the brain works. But I do believe that it IS acceptable to instill a *false* sense of interest if it serves to help someone learn. That's largely what our books are about -- trying to convince your brain that the topic is more interesting than it actually is, especially during some of the non-inherently-interesting parts you have to get to BEFORE you can start doing the really fun stuff further up the curve.

I think I understand what you're saying and I agree about the clown suit ; ) but no clown suit is needed for cognitive pleasures. Look how many hours kids (and adults) can spend playing games...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 12, 2007 2:26:38 PM

I've had the same notions in my work. I'm in the field of education, particularly in area development which is a marketer's domain. As I see it, both strive to communicate value about an end-product, whether it is an idea or a tangible item, resulting in a situation where a given community prospers.

Posted by: riven | Feb 12, 2007 6:01:07 PM

While emotion is a huge force for directing attention in marketingk, thinking or at least the impression that one is coming to a rational conclusion in purchasing is still huge.

My big concern is your commentary regarding what teachers can teach marketers. It is my impression that there are FEW and not many teachers who teach to think about thinking. Critical thinking is often discussed like motherhood and apple pie but rarely do the wheels touch the ground. Mostly this is because education is not constructed for this outcome. If it was, our experience - in every way and not just marketing interactions - would be very, very different. And better.

I salute your idealism. I hope we all work hard to make it real.

Posted by: Greg | Feb 12, 2007 10:43:18 PM

Love the picture lol. Reminds me of the old retro design on http://www.studentbunk.com

Posted by: Jo | Feb 13, 2007 3:00:34 PM

I've been looking for provocative questions to use in conversations with teachers. I found your blog and have already linked to your entry about creating passion for one's work. Then I found this entry and have been moved by your comments as well as many of those who have commented.

I particularly like Ray Baxter's comments about children and their natural inclination to learn. I expected to find that he was a "wise old teacher" but instead find he is a biologists and software engineer. What a wonderful discovery.

I haven't digested all of your comments, or those of the others, but I am sure that many teachers would be shocked to find that you think they have something to offer to marketing people or to business people in general.

Yes, the most important thing a teacher can do is to teach a child to think, critically think. And we know in this crazy world, critical thinking is not a very common skill. But it is really the responsibility of all of us to teach and model critical thinking. I think you are doing your part.

Posted by: john brandt | Feb 13, 2007 7:53:32 PM

Kathy, I think the picture at the top is misleading. It feels like the point is that marketers aren't honest, and that's a different point. Teachers shouldn't take from that aspect of marketers, the thing they need (as you point out) is to be able to turn on the passion switch.

I'm just pointing this article to a few academic friends of mine, and I think they might be put off by the suggestion that teachers need to learn from marketers, when this is associated with an image that says that marketers aren't honest.

Posted by: Rob Farley | Feb 18, 2007 11:57:41 PM

Wow. This is a great blog post. I was in middle of reading Seth Godin's book a couple of months ago and had the same idea as I was falling asleep and wrote it down somewhere. Cant wait to hear some stories from teachers using marketing strategies.

Posted by: Ethan | Feb 19, 2007 1:53:35 PM

Our tutors and teachers are under paid and over worked.

Posted by: Tim R | Feb 25, 2007 6:21:02 PM


I was just wondering where the first image went. I was thinking it might be wight for a presentation I will be giving. Thanks for the good work.

Posted by: Michael C. Habib | Mar 2, 2007 11:52:42 PM

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