January/February 2003 // Corporate University
Promoting Learning with Personalized Newsletters
by D. Verne Morland
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: D. Verne Morland "Promoting Learning with Personalized Newsletters" The Technology Source, January/February 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Effective learning is essential to business success. That statement is so widely accepted as to be a tautology in today's world, yet effective learning requires more than good courses. It requires a concerted effort to keep employees informed about the learning opportunities available to them, as well as the proper tools to help them match their requirements with the right learning solutions.

Successful corporate universities devote serious resources to marketing and promoting their offerings. Since those offerings can be extensive and the number of employees large, getting the right message to the right person at the right time is a challenge. In meeting this challenge, corporate universities and other institutions must incorporate a more effective approach to communication. Traditionally, marketing sought to gain consumer mind share by brute force (i.e., by saturating an audience with a series of consistent messages). Contemporary, technology-assisted marketing seeks to be more selective, to influence narrower audiences with tailored, more focused messages. The logical result of this trend is one-to-one marketing (Peppers & Rogers, 1997): for each unique customer, one unique message.

NCR Corporation, a global technology solutions and services company headquartered in Dayton, Ohio, has more than 32,000 associates in 80 countries. With five major business units and hundreds of job roles, the organization of NCR reflects a world in which learning requirements and priorities are very different from region to region, unit to unit, and job to job. NCR University, the focal point for company training, offers thousands of courses. The matrix of possible combinations is enormous, and this has required a more customized form of communication with potential course participants.

This paper describes NCR's approach to the one-to-one marketing of its strategic learning programs. The same techniques can be applied in many other commercial and non-commercial contexts with the same positive results: increased course awareness and interest in targeted student populations and, ultimately, increased registrations in the programs designed for them.

A Brief History of NCRU

The Global Learning division of NCR introduced the NCR University Online Campus in September 1997. Like many corporate university Web sites of its day, NCRU provided internal users with convenient, single-point access to an extensive online course catalog, an online registration system, and both NCR and third-party courses—but the interface and content were the same for all users.

In the summer of 1999, we enhanced the NCRU Web interface by offering a simple system for capturing users' job responsibilities and learning interests. Using this data, we created a personalized "MyNCRU" access page to the Web site. This service was well-received, and in the ensuing 3 years, more than 20,000 NCR associates voluntarily signed up.

After becoming familiar with the type of focused communications that they received via their MyNCRU Web pages, many users requested that we augment this "pull" type communications approach (in which users have to visit the Web site to pull new information) with some "push" type announcements of new course offerings and other professional development activities. Many of these requests were simply this: "Can't you send me an e-mail when courses that I would be interested in are released?"

In November of 2000, we added a field on the user registration page that allowed new users to tell us whether they would like to receive a monthly, personalized e-mail newsletter. By mid-2001, more than 2,000 users (about 40% of all new users) had said yes. In July of 2001, we introduced the "MyNCRU Personal Learning News" or PLN.

The MyNCRU Personal Learning News

The content of the Personal Learning News is drawn from an online news and calendar database. The contributors to this database are human resource (HR) and learning staff members from all over the world. At this time, approximately 3 years after its introduction, 200 authors from all business units and infrastructure groups have contributed more than 3,000 news and calendar entries. Each entry is keyed to one or more business units, job categories, and areas of learning interest (e.g., industry certifications). In addition, classroom courses are keyed to the geographic regions in which they will be held.

To build a copy of the PLN, the NCRU server compares the keys associated with the most recent news and calendar entries with the set of keys stored in the user's personal profile. It then generates the e-mail using the items that match, sends the message, and moves on to the next subscriber. The system builds and sends two such personalized messages per second.

The PLN is published in two formats—Web page format (HTML) and plain text. The Web page format is colorful and attractive, with images and advanced formatting to facilitate legibility and functionality. All of the news and calendar items are hyperlinked to pages on NCRU or to course descriptions in our catalog, so that subscribers can get to a course description, a registration page, or even start an online course with a single click. For a clearer illustration of the newsletter layout, readers may view a sample of a complete newsletter on the public Internet.

Since some NCR employees do not yet have a mail reader that supports the Web page format, we also offer a simple, clean, plain text edition of the PLN. In March 2002, 5,081 subscribers (88%) received the Web page format and 706 (12%) received plain text.

Subscribers can influence the content they receive. If they feel that their newsletter is too long, they can reduce their interest list; if it is too short, they can expand their interest list. If the content is a little off-target, they can review their interest profile and revise their selections. Instructions to this effect, together with the current contents of the user's profile, are contained at the bottom of each newsletter; each user's profile update page is always one click away.

Getting the Message Out . . . and In

In addition to getting these personalized messages about learning out, NCR needed to get the message in—to ensure that the messages were being read, understood, and acted upon by the recipients.

When they created their personal MyNCRU profiles, roughly 10% of the 20,000 registered users indicated that they would prefer to receive learning information in a language other than English. Since it would not be possible to have staff review and translate thousands of unique newsletters, NCR decided to use machine translation (MT).

Using the Enterprise Translation System from SYSTRAN Software, the NCRU server can translate the PLN newsletters from English into French, German, Italian, and Spanish. PLN newsletters are typically three to four pages long. These are translated by the system at the rate of two newsletters per minute. A chart illustrating the creation and translation process, as well as sample translated copies of the PLN, are available at the NCR Web site.

Since pure machine translation is still far from perfect, we store the original English versions of all translated newsletters on the NCRU Web site. The preamble to the translated newsletters explains that they are translated by machine and provides a link back to the English originals in the event that subscribers have any questions about or problems with the translation.

User Response

Following the first issue of the PLN, 653 (31%) of the 2,133 charter recipients responded to an 8-question online survey. The overall reaction was very favorable: 89% percent rated the Personal Learning News as "good," "very good," or "excellent," and 94% reported that they found it "somewhat useful" or "very useful." Qualitatively, associates said that they liked the newsletter's "organization," "focused approach," and "functionality"; they also appreciated the fact that it is "personalized," "concise," "customized," "convenient," and that it "comes automatically to me."

The most frequently reported criticism of the newsletter was that it included news and calendar information that was not relevant to the recipient's geographic region. This was corrected in the second edition by keying entries to one of seven regions (including "Global" for Web-based courses). Now when each newsletter is constructed, only entries that match the subscriber's region (or "Global") are selected.

User response to the machine translation of the PLN has been mixed (Morland, 2002). In the pilot survey, when asked to list the three things that they liked most about the newsletter, several respondents said "the translation," "was translated in French," and "there is a German version of the newsletter." When asked to list the three things that they liked least about the newsletter, other respondents said "automatic translation," "translation is sometimes funny," "translation almost incomprehensible," and "the translation is very poor." Based on these divergent views, our current hypothesis on the usefulness of pure machine translation is this: those who speak English fluently will prefer to read English rather than a clumsy and occasionally inaccurate version of their native language; those who do not speak English fluently will prefer to read the machine translation and refer back to the original only when they encounter something that appears to be mistranslated. In the second case, the availability of the rough translation can significantly improve reading speed and comprehension, thereby increasing associate productivity.

In the year following the inaugural issue, the PLN subscriber base grew 167%, to 5,964. This is a compound monthly growth rate (CMGR) of 9.3% (Figure 1). Since the newsletter's inception, NCR has published 48,709 individual copies, of which 3,613 (7%) were machine translated. Only 52 subscribers (less than 1%) have cancelled their subscriptions. In the most recent month for which we have data, 403 subscribers (7%) asked to receive their copies in French, German, Italian, or Spanish. Since the first issue, requests for translations have grown 111%, from 191 to 403—a 7.0% CMGR (Figure 2).

These trends illustrate a clear and quantitatively positive "voice of the customer." But more important than subscription growth, NCR has seen that this new form of "push" communication is stimulating participation in courses and other learning services. For example, in December 2001 NCR introduced an online development planning feature of its learning management system. Immediately following the publication of the December and January PLN messages that announced this new service, user activity on the gateway page for the service spiked by hundreds of visits.

We have not yet quantified the increase that the PLN has brought to course registrations and online completions, but we have indirect evidence that its effect has been positive. User activity on the NCRU Web site increases immediately after each PLN cycle,and we have been copied on internal correspondence in which the PLN was used as the basis for obtaining management approval for course registration requests.


The most effective marketing is that which brings a relevant and motivating message to each potential consumer. NCR's experience has shown that this can best be accomplished not by the mass dissemination of one message to all, but by using technology to generate large numbers of highly targeted, one-to-one communications.

When universities—corporate, public, or private—adopt this more selective, individualized approach as a guiding philosophy, the result will be an entire suite of services that are user-driven, responsive to change, continuously improved, global in scope, yet personal in content. Most important, such a philosophy will have a clear and positive impact on both the quantity and the quality of learning.


Morland, D. V. (2002, November). Nutzlos, bien partique, or muy util? Business users speak out on the value of pure machine translation. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association for Information Management, London. Retrieved December 14, 2002, from http://roi-learning.com/dvm/pubs/articles/tatc-24/

Peppers, D., & Rogers, M. (1997). Enterprise one to one: Tools for competing in the interactive age. New York: Doubleday.

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