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Marcom Strategy for Southwest Airline's High Potential Leadership Development Program

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

or... You Don't Have Time to Not Build a Simple & Strategic Marketing Communications Plan for Your Learning Program

You've developed a killer learning program - you know it in your soul. Rock on.

You post the dates for the program and see a few folks trickle into registration. /sigh. If they only knew. This day could be a game changer for them.

Feel familiar? Yep, we've all experienced it.

One of the lessons I learned early in my training career was the importance of planning for the communication and marketing of training programs. I've taken that experience and successfully applied it to talent programs on the whole. This post aims to help you build a marketing communications plan to support that killer training program.

The American Marketing Association defines marketing communications (I like the shortened "marcom") as "coordinated promotional messages and related media used to communicate with a market. Marketing communications messages are delivered through one or more channels such as digital media, print, radio, television, direct mail and personal selling." Yes. These are exactly the things we need to do for our training program, especially the ones you know are going to be game changers.

Please note: this post refers to tactics used to market programs within an organization. I have marketed training programs to external customers, as well. I've engaged similar concepts and planning, but especially with today's savvy tools and the importance of social media, marcom will look different for those situations.

My team and I have had a lot of fun over the years tailoring the marcom tactics we've engaged for one of Southwest's high-potential leadership development programs, MIT Level II, so let's use the communication strategy developed for a revision of that program as a sample. For context, this is a continuation of a series that begins here with a post about the objectives & purpose of the program, continues here in the second post about the leadership model and here in the third article with a deeper dive.

The ideas I'll share with you here are not formulaic. They are more like a brainstorm with a little strategery sprinkled in to plan forward and keep it organized. In the good old days, when we considered "marketing" training materials, we targeted updates on upcoming classes to the company newsletter or posted flyers. Company emails were just becoming a thing, so we marketed classes with old-fashioned word of mouth or tracking and reporting for mandatory training. Please hear me, I'm not dissing mandatory training requirements or the company newsletter. Those should absolutely be tactics in your marcom strategy, especially if the company newsletter has great readership. What I began to learn with the MIT program, was that even with a terrific brand, we needed to layer in targeted communications to a wider array of audiences with varying messages. Future participants needed something different than leaders of participants. Executive sponsors needed different information than our training partners. You've probably figured out what I was learning - don't spam the same message to all audiences.

With that in mind, let's walk through what a brainstorm may look like. First, begin with the marcom efforts already underway or expected. Our list included things like:

  • An update via email for leadership on program announcements

  • A blurb in the company-wide e-newsletter targeted to all employees

  • Annual announcements via email to the executive team on program timelines and participants

Then, we decided to put a spin on updates to the program with new graphics. We worked with the internal media team, who is very talented, to help us create attention-catching collateral that would show a difference in the program and make participants feel special about being a part of the class.

The new scheme for MIT II was "Developing Legendary Leaders," and you can see the fun collateral built to showcase a new program.

That theme lasted for maybe four years, but it did the trick to show that MIT II had received an update and was something new to learn about.

Other elements we incorporated into the strategy in 2009 included:

  • Roadshow (that's what I call an update presentation you need to take "on the road" to share with various constituents) on the changes to the MIT II Program to department heads

  • Memos (yep, we still used email memos back then) drafted about the new program for department heads to share with their teams

  • Article in the monthly company magazine announcing participants and highlighting changes to the new program; You could do one for graduates, as well - make it cool to complete the program

  • Updates for participants on expectations for the upcoming class week

We kept track of each marcom element in a simple Word document timeline format along with a table to capture any collateral pieces, who was designing and pertinent comments. Nothing fancy. Simple wins the day when you're juggling priorities and tactics.

Marcom plan for Southwest's High Potential Leadership Development Program
Snapshot of the actual Word document from 2009 - yep, note the mis-spellings and typos - IRL, Friends

In 2010, as we refined the program, we added in a sponsorship element. The role was designed to be different than a direct leaders' role. So, we added in a marcom tactic to support clarity on that role, such as an introductory session and post-class updates. Have a question about the sponsorship role, do you? Fab! Scroll on down and join the email list. It's earmarked as a future topic.

At the close of a year for the holidays, we wrapped and delivered a small gift, like cookies, to the executive assistants, training partners, media team, etc. Anyone who had supported the MIT program throughout the year received a gift. And while this tactic wasn't new to the program, it was neat touch, so we continued the tradition. Props to whomever made the connection that showing gratitude to those who help you pull off a great program is just a smart thing to do. And just for grins, here's a pic of one of the cards we'd include with the gift.

We were determined that taking care of even the smallest item showed attention to detail in the big investments - like six weeks of intense development for high-potentials.

It may feel like you don't have time to develop a marcom strategy. I would argue that you don't have time not to. I would rather you produce one less talent program and use that time to market the others that you have well, so that your customers are taking advantage of them. Remember, your job is supporting great performance through learning & development, training new skills or supporting top-notch leaders. Employees can't take advantage of what they don't know about, and learning that goes unsupported on the job or isn't reinforced for ultimate stickiness (ie, actually changing behaviors) can often be tallied in the not value-added column. Your work rocks. Let others know about it with a simple, strategic marcom plan.

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