Published On: November 6, 2019By
How can associations improve member education? Independent learning tech analyst John Leh answers your questions

We’ve all heard about today’s rapidly changing workforce dynamics and the critical shortage of qualified labor. Almost daily, new statistics highlight the need for effective skills training and professional development. In this environment, you’d think associations would be bursting at the seams with participants in member education programs.

Not surprisingly, a 2018 survey of more than 1000 association members confirmed that career development is now the primary reason why most people join associations. Yet that same study also revealed several disturbing trends:

  • 82% of respondents had participated in professional development activities during the prior 2 years. However, only 53% relied on their association for those educational experiences.
  • Even worse, that 53% represents a decline of 7% over the year prior, with employers stepping in to deliver a larger share of professional development. And among younger members, the one-year decline was even steeper – 11%.

So, at a time when member education programs should be thriving, many have been losing ground. How can associations reverse this trend? What will it take to engage more new and existing members in professional development?

Let’s tackle this topic in today’s “Ask Me Anything” column…


“Ask Me Anything” About Creating More Successful Member Education Programs

1) What can associations learn about member education from other sources of professional development?

Associations may have altruistic motives, but it’s time to embrace a for-profit mentality. Why? Because commercial continuing education providers are already here, and they’re competing to win.

What sets successful providers apart? They’re digging deep with robust CRM data, marketing automation platforms and ecommerce strategies that target profitable learner segments, drive new revenue streams and maximize the lifetime value of every relationship.

2) Is a modern martech stack really necessary?

Commercial players need these tools because associations are a formidable presence in the professional development space. Most associations are naturally positioned to succeed with reinvented member education programs because they’re already widely known and respected in their industry.

With the right kind of packaging and outreach, associations can easily engage more members in educational programs. With smart marketing strategies and tools, attracting non-members is relatively easy, as well. That’s a powerful advantage.

3) What kind of return-on-investment should we expect?

Reinventing member education requires a deep, sustained commitment. But successful organizations will tell you that the payoff is more than worth the effort.

Before developing a plan, explore broader possibilities. Reach out to your members, your staff and your existing partners. Actively solicit their creative ideas. Investigate what is working elsewhere – and why. Talk with consultants who’ve helped other organizations retool their learning programs.

Whatever you do, don’t wait to make a move. The cost of inaction will be high and sales will be low!

4) How should we clarify member education needs?

Developing programs in a vacuum is a sure-fire way to miss the mark. Successful organizations engage members at every stage in the continuing education journey. They seek ongoing feedback to understand what works and what doesn’t. This includes:

  • Skills that members want to develop
  • Content they find most useful
  • Types of support they prefer

Keep in mind that preferences are likely to shift over the span of a member’s career. For example, early-stage professionals often want to develop knowledge and skills through certification programs. But experienced practitioners usually want to refresh or expand their skills.

Also remember that partners have a vested interest in how you shape member education. If your association works with corporations, universities or other allies to extend your program reach, these constituents can offer a unique market perspective. It’s worthwhile to capture ongoing input from them all.

After your initial intake round, prioritize the most promising ideas. Next, develop the most valuable concepts and test them on a limited basis. Then evaluate the outcomes and create a roadmap for incremental expansion.

5) We don’t have education partners yet. Should we consider it?

Partnerships are a smart way to extend your reach and add lasting value. There are many creative ways to partner. I often see associations with complementary programs teaming up to offer a broader selection of content through ecommerce sites.

I also see U.S. associations partnering with smaller, similar associations around the globe. In other words, these networks leverage the primary association’s brand, certifications and content to better serve their local members.

Also, the corporate sector is ripe for partnerships, especially with associations that are willing and able to focus on industry-specific job readiness, reskilling and upskilling.

Having business, content or reseller partners is a great way to expand reach but it does come with some administrative and managerial overhead.

6) Are credentialing programs becoming a viable alternative to higher education? What does this mean for associations?

Absolutely. In many industries, credentialing programs help professionals gain the skills and competencies they need for employment without a formal academic degree.

Employers are increasingly concerned that graduates lack skills that are critical for success in today’s world of work. Associations are equipped to bridge this skills gap, but they’re somewhat late to the game.

Nevertheless, member-based organizations can draw upon several core advantages:

  • A strong history of continuing education leadership
  • Subject matter expertise
  • Deep content reserves
  • Built-in social networking
  • Existing marketing engines
  • Brand recognition

Together, these assets can generate significant traction for a credentialing program.

7) How can our education programs appeal to younger members on a limited budget?

Young professionals can buy continuing education content from a variety of sources. But associations are uniquely compelling because community-driven social learning is part of the association experience.

Members can interact with like-minded professionals to gain deeper understanding of their industry and career specialty. By offering live and virtual community-driven learning forums, associations can add value in meaningful ways that lower-priced standalone continuing education can’t touch.

In fact, many associations find that this kind of social learning experience is an effective membership gateway when offered to non-members on a standalone basis for free, or for a fee. This outreach strategy is commonly used to expand globally in a cost-effective manner.

8) How else are associations rethinking educational experiences?

I see many creative content strategies. Here are some notable examples:

Many associations record speakers and sessions at conferences, chapter meetings and other events. You can upload those recordings on an LMS. Then you can add notes, PowerPoint slides and tests, so members who are unable to attend live events can earn continuing education credits at their convenience. It’s an easy and economical way to repurpose valuable content.

If you already produce video or podcasts, you can go a step further with integrated pop-up questions or comment tools that encourage ongoing conversations with instructors and participants. You can also include uploading capabilities, so it’s easy to share related documents, images, videos and completed assignments.

Many professionals aren’t willing or able to travel to live conferences or sit through full-blown online courses. However, they can digest learning content in short bursts. Think about sending members a daily question or case brief via email or mobile app. By thoughtfully “chunking” content, you can reach more members on their terms, and engage them on an ongoing basis.

Many associations outline relevant career paths for their domain, including skills required for each step, from entry-level to senior executive. You can use this framework to guide member education and apply gamification techniques to track individual progress. As participants unlock achievements and earn badges, they’re likely to engage more deeply with your organization as well as its instructional programming.

9) Let’s talk about technology. We have a tight tech budget. Will we be able to find a high-quality learning system?

Associations of every size want to make the most of their investment in learning technology. Fortunately, viable learning platforms are available at all price points.

For example, if your organization is just starting to offer member education, you may need to bootstrap your launch and early growth. Some systems offer a licensing structure that lets you start small at a very reasonable cost. Then as you scale the program over time, you can absorb additional costs incrementally, in a sustainable way.

Bottom-line – technology costs are no longer a deal-breaker for low-budget continuing education providers.

10) When researching member education platforms, how should we narrow the field?

The possibilities are mind-boggling. More than 1000 learning platforms are available today. Some are designed exclusively for associations. Others claim that their solution works well for member education, but they haven’t established a track record in the association market.

If you have the time and budget to research all these options, you can study industry publications, read analyst websites, comb through product reviews, watch hours of pre-recorded demos, attend tradeshows and speaking directly with vendors of interest.

But that can be a lengthy and overwhelming process. Vetting every vendor is impractical. So, how can you be sure that your shortlist includes the best candidates?

That’s why we exist. As independent LMS selection consultants, we continuously evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of all vendors in the association market. It’s our business to stay ahead of the curve. So when any organization requests recommendations, we can quickly and confidently suggest the strongest options.

11) How important is finding the right vendor culture “fit”?

Choosing the right technology solution involves more than picking functionality that works. I agree 100% that culture “fit” is a key factor if you want to forge a long-term relationship. No matter what platform you choose, you’ll need to feel comfortable with the people behind it.

This is especially important for associations because your learning solution partner is really an extension of your mission. If you believe in each other, the relationship is likely to be much more successful in the long haul.

12) What other criteria should we consider in a learning platform?

Beyond a vendor’s culture, it’s vital to evaluate a variety of additional factors, such as:

  • Experience with associations
  • Industry domain knowledge
  • Professional services capabilities
  • Customer support and
  • Licensing structure

Also, keep in mind that you want to choose a vendor that understands your level of learning technology expertise and wants to help expand your know-how as your learning programs grow and evolve. This is especially important for organizations with little or no prior LMS experience.

13) What mistakes do associations make when defining learning system requirements?

When selecting an LMS, it’s essential to start by documenting your requirements effectively. I see three common issues:

  • When organizations don’t have an existing learning platform – or they’re limping along with a substandard system – they lack perspective about what to expect from modern solutions. As a result, they struggle to identify and articulate their needs.
  • Many organizations are deploying specialized content and certification solutions to help drive new revenue streams. But these systems are usually complex and multi-dimensional. The learning curve is steep – especially when it involves integration with marketing automation platforms, ecommerce tools and other sophisticated applications. Requirements often reveal a lack of familiarity with these solutions.
  • The association LMS market has evolved into its own thriving segment of the overall learning technology landscape. Many innovative solutions are available, and their feature sets are broader and deeper than many association professionals realize.

14) How can we avoid LMS implementation surprises?

It’s hard to prepare for implementation when you don’t know what you don’t know. But defining requirements thoroughly upfront definitely reduces surprises. On the other hand, if you rush through the selection process, brace yourself for the unexpected during implementation and deployment. For example:

  • If you’re replacing an LMS, you should specify how to handle historical training completion data, what to do with existing content and other migration details. Otherwise, a lack of documentation opens the door to miscommunication, detours and schedule delays.
  • Another common point of failure is a lack of integration specifics. It’s critical to define which integrations are included, as well as the functional what, when, how and why for each integration. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to deal with these details in the heat of the implementation process. That’s a sure way to expand your project scope, cost and time to completion.

15) What else should we know about improving member education?

You should know that I want you to succeed. I hope the advice I’ve shared here is helpful. If you want more guidance, I invite you to check-out the Association LMS Buyers Companion post we recently published, because it includes links to all sorts of free resources.

And if you have additional questions, I’m always happy to schedule a preliminary phone discussion. Let’s talk.

Thanks for reading!


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, 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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