Published On: May 16, 2018By
How can specialized association LMS ecommerce functionality help member-based organizations propel their online learning sales initiatives? Independent learning tech analyst John Leh explains

I genuinely love helping associations select learning management systems (LMS).  Here’s why:

  • As non-profit entities with a mission, associations aim to improve the world in countless ways by advancing ideas, people and professions.  Lifelong learning and collaboration are at the heart of their organizational decisions.
  • Once the only place to go for continuing education, associations now face serious competition from for-profit learning providers. This new landscape affects the status and influence of every association in its respective profession. Since organizational survival is at stake, association LMS projects are usually strategically driven by senior executives with a long-term perspective.
  • Association LMS projects generally focus on solutions that generate income and profit by leveraging useful learning content, certifications and test prep to attract and engage both new and existing members.  This is vastly different than a cost-savings mindset.
  • Audience engagement and learner experience are paramount.  The purchasing process and online learning environment should mirror popular digital experiences (e.g. Netflix and Amazon).  In other words, they should be mobile, social, global, gamified, effective and highly accessible at the learner’s convenience.

Of course, these sophisticated needs also translate into a super complex set of extended enterprise LMS requirements.  It’s easy for decision-makers to become overwhelmed and choose a solution that doesn’t rise to the challenge.

But for me, confusion is where the fun begins.  I enjoy untangling complexity and following its trail to a viable solution, each and every time.

Association Learning eCommerce:  Why So Complex?

In my experience, the toughest association LMS requirements involve ecommerce capabilities.

At first blush, ecommerce seems easy, since most LMS vendors claim that it’s built into their system.  But like all things in the learning systems universe, there is much more below the surface than meets the eye.

Associations may have individual members, organizational/corporate members or both.  Each of these scenarios demands a very different set of ecommerce requirements.  And as it turns out, different kinds of LMS vendors specialize in each of these scenarios.

Not confused enough yet?  Let me add another layer.  Every association has some kind of association management system (AMS) in place.

This is the technology backbone that manages member records and the organization’s business activities.  AMSs are confusing enough on their own, because there are so many different brands with a dizzying array of capabilities that often overlap with association LMS functionality.

One critical area of overlap is catalog and ecommerce functionality that many AMS platforms include.  For example, an AMS usually supports online purchasing of various “products” such as memberships, event registrations, workbooks and journals.  However, this typically doesn’t extend to full support for learning programs.

Depending upon your organization’s existing AMS infrastructure and learning requirements, the ideal solution may be one of four AMS-LMS integration strategies:

1) Deploy a second ecommerce store via the LMS to feature learning products

2) Deploy learning product selling capability via the AMS storefront, and upon purchase provide single sign-on access to content via LMS

3) Deploy the learning product catalog in both AMS and LMS, enabling purchases from either system

4) Deploy the learning product catalog in both AMS and LMS, and when a purchase occurs in the LMS the workflow “hands off” ecommerce functions to the AMS at checkout

Each of these strategies involves increasing levels of complexity, cost and risk.  If you’re making this kind of AMS-LMS ecommerce decision for your association, you’ll want to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each, so you’ll avoid potential missteps and years of dissatisfaction.

This is not easy stuff.  Associations can’t afford to rely on generic LMS providers for solutions to these unique challenges.  That’s why a new specialized “association LMS” category has emerged in recent years.

I find it easier to think about ecommerce features independent of the LMS or AMS.  Here are the 3 key steps:

  • First, focus on understanding what you need to accomplish as an organization.
  • Next, clarify what your AMS can do to help you accomplish this objective.
  • Once you know what’s missing in your current infrastructure, it will lead you to one of the four AMS-LMS integration scenarios above.

Association LMS eCommerce: B2C versus B2B

Perhaps it goes without saying, but transactional features alone are not enough to ensure success.  You also need to consider the interests and motivations of your audience – existing and potential members who are buying learning content.

Are you selling to individuals in business-to-consumer mode (B2C)?  Are you selling to corporate partners or other organizations in business-to-business mode (B2B)?  Or perhaps you need to support both models.  Below are key LMS features you’ll want to consider for each audience type:

1) B2C Features for Association LMS eCommerce:

Associations often sell courses, test prep, training plans and workshops to individual members.  The workflow is similar to Amazon or iTunes.  Many LMS vendors offer these B2C features, but only association LMSs can offer some or all of these capabilities in seamless conjunction with an AMS:

Basic Features

  • Deep-linking directly to content from anywhere outside the LMS
  • Browse the content catalog before logging in or creating an account
  • Sell any type of learning content uniquely or in a bundle with a training plan
  • Product reviews and ratings
  • Coupons, promotions, tokens and discounts
  • Add to cart, checkout and integration with payment gateways for credit card authorization
  • PayPal and/or Stripe payment gateway integration
  • Immediate access to purchased content
  • Email receipts, notifications
  • Fiscal reporting, sales analysis, reconciliation reporting
  • Integration with CRM

Advanced Features

  • Embed code to advertise products on external sites
  • Sell monthly subscriptions for some or all content
  • User-specific content recommendations
  • Dynamic grouping of users, based on actions recorded in LMS or CRM
  • Sell physical products, manage shipping rules, fulfillment and inventory
  • Recurring and automated billing
  • Language localizations and multi-currency support
  • Manage unlimited tax rules, including global VAT
  • PCI-compliant LMS (versus only payment gateway)
  • Support for mobile app purchases

2) B2B Features for Association LMS eCommerce

Selling content in bulk to organizational members is a different ballgame.  For example, let’s say a financial consulting firm wants to buy 100 seats of the AFP CFP certification.  Do they buy the 100 seats from the association business development representative externally, or can they buy it online?

In either scenario, how do they point members to the LMS so they can access the content?  This learner provisioning piece alone causes administrative nightmares if an LMS provider hasn’t developed an appropriate workflow to support it.

To further complicate matters, the actual ecommerce transaction can happen in the AMS and be passed to the LMS via API integration as discussed previously.  Here are B2B ecommerce features you should look for in an association LMS:

Basic Features

  • Client domains and branding
  • Bulk content purchase, with the ability to upload learners and assign content to those individuals
  • Credit account – organizations are invoiced after content is consumed
  • Prepaid debit account – organizations prepay for content and account depletes as content is consumed
  • Tokens (registration codes, enrollment keys, vouchers) purchased in bulk and distributed to each learner for one-time use, timed use, per-course access or per-organization access to LMS and content
  • Bulk purchase discounts
  • Purchase order support

Advanced Features

  • CRM, ERP or AMS integration to create accounts, users and content assignments when organizations purchase in a third-party system
  • Content licensing and sublicensing management
  • Central content library that can be shared with organizational clients but managed centrally
  • The purchasing organization can provide content updates to shared content
  • Tight integration with existing corporate order fulfillment, ecommerce, taxation and data warehouse ecosystem
  • Delegated client-level administration and reporting
  • Third-party content sponsorship, ads and promotions
  • Bill-me-later capabilities ala Amazon, electronic invoicing, paper invoicing


Association learning technology is on fire, and the need to sell online learning is fanning those flames.  Specialized association LMS ecommerce solutions have emerged to fill the “for-profit” gap in the non-profit world.  Now member-base organizations that sell content with a for-profit business model are outpacing associations that remain tied to a generic or employee-focused LMS.

Yet, with increased opportunity comes increased risk.  Many future-minded associations are struggling to define precisely what they need to increase learning and certification program revenues, and they’re unsure about how to find the right LMS specialist.

If you’re among those who haven’t yet made the move, I have two recommendations:

1)  Fully develop your business model, map out your LMS use case scenarios and document your requirements before you engage LMS vendors.  This way, you can be more confident that you are focusing on the best-qualified solutions to drive your online learning business.

2)  Or, if you’d prefer to rely on an experienced association LMS selection consultant to help you save time, money and risk, I’m always at your service.

Thanks for reading!



How to Drive Online Learning at Scale: Corporate Market Strategies for Associations

Selling online learning content to individuals is challenging enough. But selling that same content in bulk through corporate customers or partners can be even more demanding.  The business models are fundamentally different.  Plus, business-to-business relationships require specialized content management functionality.

What does it take to succeed?

Join John Leh, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, as he hosts a live virtual panel with experts who have developed and managed profitable B2B online education programs:

  • William Hold, Chief Development Officer, The National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research
  • Linda Bowers, CTO, WBT Systems

In this dynamic one-hour roundtable, you’ll learn how to:

  • Build a viable business model for bulk sales
  • Develop effective pricing and marketing strategies
  • Compare tradeoffs of selling through sales reps versus online channels
  • Delegate content administration, reporting and user provisioning
  • Integrate core learning systems with CRM platforms and other operational applications
  • Achieve internal buy-in, drive project momentum and maintain organizational alignment

All live webinar attendees will receive 1 credit toward a Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential application or renewal.


Need Proven LMS Selection Guidance?

Looking for a learning platform that truly fits your organization’s needs?  We’re here to help!  Submit the form below to schedule a free preliminary consultation at your convenience.

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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