Learning Styles: The Impact on Marketing Messaging

Learning Styles: The Impact on Marketing Messaging

If you’ve ever worked at an agency, you know the value of client education. Results aren’t persuasive if reports seem like a jumble of acronyms. Trend lines aren’t impressive if they track metrics that appear distant from business goals.

Client education is central to marketing messaging, too, especially for sellers with long sales cycles. Prospects spend a limited amount of time on your site. Most consideration takes place offline. How prospects discuss their options depends on the way you present information.

It’s why learning styles are vital—or so it would seem. Researchers have labeled learning styles a “neuromyth.” The truth is less clear cut, especially for marketers.

Mastering the nuances of learning styles empowers you to:

  • Choose information formats that potential buyers love.
  • Craft marketing materials that resonate with multiple stakeholders.
  • Focus offline conversations on high-value points of differentiation.

How we got here: VARK and an endless list of “learning styles”

In 1992, two researchers in New Zealand, Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills, published what became a foundational paper on learning styles.

The idea of learning styles was not new, with as many as 170 different styles proposed at one time or another. By 1978, researchers had defined learning styles as “a student’s consistent way of responding and using stimuli.”

For their part, Fleming and Mills offered a simple model, known as VARK, to describe different “sensory preferences” among learners. (You can take the brief questionnaire yourself, too.)

  • Visual. “Preference for graphical and symbolic ways of representing information.”
  • Aural. “Preference for ‘heard’ information.”
  • Read/write. “Preferences for information printed as words.”
  • Kinesthetic. “Preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real).”

The acronym transferred (too) easily into popular discourse. The authors saw their model as a way for students to “reflect on their own sensory preferences and modify their study methods accordingly.” VARK gauged predilections along a sliding scale.

The VARK questionnaire has been subject to criticism. For the question above, who that “someone” is weighs more heavily than any given learning style. Is it your spouse? An elderly grandmother? A stranger? (Image source)

But the educational community interpreted the findings as fixed categories, even after Fleming published a follow-up paper to refute its use as a diagnostic tool.

In recent years, studies have suggested that between 90 and 97% of teachers worldwide believe in an optimal learning style for each student.

That belief, it turns out, isn’t supported by science.

The “neuromyth” of learning styles

A neuromyth is “a commonly held false belief about neuroscience.” The neuromyth of learning styles has two components:

  • Myth 1. Using someone’s preferred learning style increases knowledge retention.
  • Myth 2. Using someone’s preferred learning style is beneficial to their educational development.

Myth 1: Using someone’s preferred learning style increases knowledge retention.

A 2017 letter to the editor in The Guardian included the signatures of dozens of psychologists. In addition to critiquing ambiguous frameworks for “learning styles,” the authors lamented their widespread use:

systematic studies [. . .] have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment.

Such studies have tested whether aligning study habits with one’s self-identified learning style improved academic performance. (It didn’t.) Others have investigated whether “visual” learners would remember pictures better and “verbal” learners remember words better. (They didn’t.)

learning styles theory

The second study, however, unearths a critical point, especially for marketers. The preference for consuming information in a certain way is real. Another study confirms that truth: “As predicted, learning style was associated with subjective aspects of learning but not objective aspects of learning.”

Someone who is a K in the VARK system really likes to learn by doing—even though they may not learn more effectively than if they listened to a lecture. The common use of learning styles, researchers argue, conflates learning preferences with learning ability.

The second myth, that it’s beneficial to cater to learning styles, is a unique burden for educators, not marketers.

Myth 2: Using someone’s preferred learning style is beneficial to their educational development.

A study that tested auditory versus visual learners revealed that visual learners outperformed auditory learners in both formats.

The takeaway, for educators, was that “auditory learners might benefit more from receiving instruction that specifically targets and strengthens their visual word skills.” The risk, otherwise, is that “by promoting a dominant learning styles mentality, we are actually limiting students with self-fulfilling prophecies despite the best intentions.”

Educators benefit by pushing students out of their comfort zones. Marketers, in contrast, are charged with reducing friction. That means giving people what they want, at least initially (more on that later).

There are real differences in learning abilities, but those differences aren’t set in stone. What’s more, they’re secondary to the primary driver for selecting a learning style—the concept that’s being taught.

The real work: Matching learning to tasks, not individuals

Ultimately, the ideal learning style is best defined by the task—what you’re trying to learn, not who’s trying to learn it.

No matter your preference for aural learning, you wouldn’t listen to a podcast to learn how to shoot a basketball. Even if you’re a committed R in VARK, you wouldn’t read about how to trill double “r’s” in Spanish.

Learning styles should try to “match the unit of content to the best way to create meaning for most students,” or, in a marketer’s case, the most prospects. You can sell clothes with images; you’d struggle to sell an online game without video.

duolingo homepage
Language learning apps like Duolingo have aural components because they’re necessary for language learning. In education, the topic of learning is more influential for choosing a learning style than individual preference.

There’s a final element to consider: the gap between teaching and learning. In school settings, most learning takes place outside the classroom—homework, test prep, etc. That limits the impact of any learning style devised by a classroom teacher.

The same is true in marketing, especially for companies with long sales cycles. Your website content—however tailored—may represent only a fraction of the total time a prospect considers your product. During that brief time, you must frame your messaging to guide offline learning and discussion.

It’s one of several applications of learning styles to marketing.

When it comes to marketing, what are learning styles good for?

Educators won’t help students by obsessing over individual learning styles. Their time is better spent considering the right style to present a topic and how to motivate students who may not enjoy a particular format.

That’s not the case for marketers, who benefit by catering to individual styles as well as the topic at hand. A major critique of learning styles—that they let us linger in our comfort zones—is an essential tactic when “teaching” potential clients.

There are three ways to apply learning styles to marketing messaging.

1. Reduce the cognitive load on potential customers

As a marketer, your job isn’t to maximize information retention among potential customers. It’s to make information—regardless of how much is retained—persuasive in the decision-making process.

Education helps, but we make emotional decisions more than we care to admit. That’s true even among B2B customers who are supposedly more rational than their B2C counterparts.

Research on learning styles has consistently proven one point: We have preferences for how we learn. We spend more time with things we like—even if we don’t retain information better. If your target audience doesn’t like the way you present information, they won’t learn from it—not because they can’t but because they’d rather not.

The implications are far-ranging but start with first impressions. A prospect’s first impression of your ads, whitepapers, product page, etc., should appeal to consumers’ preferred learning styles and reduce the cognitive load.

Unbounce’s homepage serves two audiences: advanced practitioners who can learn about the product by testing it out, and newbies who benefit from a visually engaging walk-through of the product. Providing both options makes for a compelling first impression:

unbounce homepage serving two learning styles
  • What type of information does your buyer persona consume on a day-to-day basis? If they’re C-Suite members looking at one-page summaries all day, you’d better accommodate that preference. If they’re in-the-weeds practitioners who stare at spreadsheets, they may engage with detailed comparisons displayed in tables.
  • Which questions does your style of information delivery answer? Which are left unanswered? Catering to your audience may mean that, initially, you can deliver only a fraction of the total information you’d like to deliver. Catalog the information you’ll need to convey at a later stage.
  • If you sell a complicated product, what is the shortest path to engagement? The most persuasive element—say, a spec sheet that compares your product to competitors—may not be the best starting point, even if it’s critical information and the ideal way to format it. Build interest and motivation with a preferred format first.

It can get even more complex when you serve multiple buyers.

2. Speak to multiple stakeholders simultaneously

Most learning takes place outside the classroom. If your professor lectures, you study notes; if you take an online course, you rewatch videos or download slide decks.

Similarly, for B2B sellers, most consideration takes place away from your site, in meeting rooms with decision-makers you’ll never meet. How you present information on your website frames the conversation that takes place beyond it.

So, for example, if you highlight video demos of your product, you may compete on the quality of that demo. Does a video demo differentiate your product, or does it focus attention on your utilitarian UI—an aspect where a shiny but ineffective competitor product excels? Your choices are the context for the next conversation.

Screaming Frog is a powerful tool—with a simple interface. Their sales page speaks directly to practitioners. While it has a video demo, it spends far more screen real estate on a text-heavy list of features that differentiate it from similar tools. This page sells to SEOs, not CMOs or agency owners:

screaming frog sales page serving practitioners

Depending on what you sell, you may know exactly what happens—an individual practitioner fills out a form, downloads a product guide, and shares it with their manager, who then takes it to the C-Suite.

Have you embedded critical information in multiple formats to accommodate the range of learning preferences? The practitioner may read the guide. The manager may read the executive summary. The executive may view a single graph or comparison chart.

The Basecamp homepage offers a way to jump into the product immediately—a learn-by-doing opportunity (the K in VARK). Under “How it works,” however, a narrated video references the challenges of “managing your business.” They’re speaking directly to business owners and managers, who may not have the time to demo several competing products.

basecamp interior page with video on how it works
Basecamp defaults to offering a free trial on its homepage. But a navigation link to how Basecamp works offers a video walk-through. Even as they follow a product-led strategy, they offer a more efficient way to showcase its potential benefits.

If you’re taking a bespoke, account-based approach, you can ask potential clients directly:

  • How does a contact prefer to consume information?
  • What do executives typically review before a buying decision?

The information format may be persuasive because it translates information efficiently. It may also work because decision-makers perceive it as easier to understand. If I love charts but hate text, I’ll not only prefer the chart format but also spend more time with it.

For some, that holistic approach may feel like a luxury. Too often, the budget dictates information formats and forces sub-optimal learning styles on topics and prospects.

3. Audit content for learning styles

Text content is cheap. Images are expensive. Videos have high production costs. These are realities of content production. They’re also liabilities.

For any content on your site:

  • How was the content type selected?
  • Which learning style does it serve?
  • Does that style align with the preferred style of your buyer persona?
  • Does it help that buyer persona make a case to other stakeholders?

There may not be an on-site content format that works for your buyers. Google Analytics 360, for example, offers limited information, placing prominent calls-to-action to talk to their sales team:

google analytics 360
Google Analytics 360 serves primarily enterprise customers. The call-to-action to “Talk to Sales” makes sense (the A in VARK). Large businesses have unique needs that traditional on-site content is unlikely to meet.

Does the flow of content types align with the learning preferences of your buyer? The front-line purchaser may prefer to use a product immediately, while a video or feature comparison is useful for a secondary stakeholder with less technical knowledge.

That’s exactly what HubSpot has done—highlighting their freemium option while burying informational content on interior pages. It’s a reversal of a traditional approach, which suggests that explainer copy or a video best introduces a company or product. (It’s also a hallmark of a product-led strategy.)

hubspot prioritizing learning by doing
HubSpot goes straight for the conversion on its homepage. That choice reflects an understanding of potential buyers’ preferred learning style.

While marketing inverts some assumptions about learning styles, others hold true for personal development.

A final use for learning styles: Prioritizing personal development

With respect to learning styles, personal development upends many of the recommendations above. Your goal is not to accommodate your weak points but to improve them. Learning styles are learning preferences, not impassable barriers.

That’s a challenge and a relief. The era of the T-shaped marketer doesn’t tolerate complacency. Indeed, your weakest area—V, A, R, or K—should be a priority for learning. Becoming comfortable with another learning modality unlocks new resources and the potential for skill development.

Certain ideas are best suited to certain learning styles, but a failure to embrace any style limits that opportunity. “There is good reason to believe,” writes psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, ”that optimal learning for everyone involves the opportunity to engage in as many sensory modalities as possible.”

Without that approach, “emphasizing learning styles and even ‘multiple intelligences’ in the classroom can foster a fixed mindset, not a growth mindset.”

Conclusion

Even as the concept of rigid “learning styles” has been debunked, aspects remain true:

  • We have real preferences for how we learn.
  • Different topics are best taught in different styles.

For marketers, those realities require careful consideration—the goal is persuasion, which may, at times, diverge from education. Unlike a teacher in a classroom, a marketer isn’t tasked with challenging their target audience. The goal is to accommodate them.

When creating or organizing content, marketers must engage prospects quickly, even if that initial engagement fails to deliver information that has the greatest impact on decision-making.

The initial buy-in, in turn, opens the door to present more influential materials and frame offline conversations for multiple stakeholders.

Finally, when it comes to personal development, the idea turns on its head. Your least favorite learning style may offer the greatest opportunity for personal growth.

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  1. This is so fascinating, and something I’ve been wondering about.

    1. Derek Gleason

      Thanks, Nikki. The big takeaway for me was that it all comes back to user research and, at least in the case of B2B, making sure you understand everyone who’s involved in the decision.

      You need marketing materials that align with how people *like* to consume information, even if that comes at the cost of maximizing the amount of information conveyed.

      I may be able to prove that my product is better in a 1,000-word essay, but if the decision-maker loves charts, I need to find a way to tell (at least) a fraction of that story graphically.

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Learning Styles: The Impact on Marketing Messaging