Published On: May 14, 2020By
Transform your in-person training with an association learning platform. See what features you should look for...

Prior to 2020, many associations relied heavily on in-person tradeshows, seminars and on-site training because they were historically popular offerings for both the association and the member. The social networking opportunities as well as the ability to earn mass CEUs in a short time-frame were valuable member benefits and often a key differentiator to compete against the fully online, for-profit providers of continuing education. Over the last decade, many associations slowly started to transform their offerings, so some (but rarely all) of their education, certification and test prep became available online via an association LMS. Meanwhile, many for-profit continuing education providers were born in the digital age. They are fully digital and now they have a leg-up in the brand new continuing education market.

The Realities of 2020

Many associations are discovering they are now behind their for-profit competitors.  The realities of 2020 have accelerated their transformation at every stage of the learning systems life cycle from business case, requirements definition, RFP, contracting, deployment, content development, improvement – everything.

In the face of uncertainty and the lack of a key medium, associations are rewriting their short and long term content playbook and beginning the transformation to regain their leadership position.

Clearly, some associations are better prepared than others to make this transition. Associations that have modernized on an association LMS and began their transition before the crisis are in a better place to rapidly expand on those efforts. Those associations that have invested minimally on online education naturally have more work to do.

Most organizations that have not purchased a new association LMS in the last couple of years are rightfully wondering if their current LMS is the best solution for the accelerated transition and future.

Many Types of LMS

In 2020 there are many different types of LMS solutions and hundreds of competing vendors. It’s easy for researchers and buyers to get lost and overwhelmed. Unfortunately for associations, most LMS vendors think they are just fine to support associations because members are just like employees.

However, as all associations that use a corporate LMS know, it’s technically “possible” but solidly in round peg square hole territory.  The corporate metaphor, lingo, workflow, notifications, functionality, integrations and association expertise are all problematic.

The good news is an independent segment of the market has evolved that focuses exclusively on associations and continuing education providers. These providers know and get associations, continuing education, online learning, association technology, events and more .  They spend 100% of their R&D solving, automating and improving the tools needed to succeed in online learning — and not compliance, performance management, succession,  recruiting — and it shows.

Top Association LMS Features

Whenever an organization buys an association LMS they stop looking at all other LMSs or keeping up with the market. It’s natural. After the euphoria of the new LMS choice, the realities of implementation, roll-out, content and customer reaction take over and years slip by quickly. Additionally, many associations and continuing education providers bought what was available when they were shopping previously – a corporate LMS.  So it is easy to not know what you are missing as you limp by.

I’m here to help.  As an LMS selection consultant with a specialty in association and continuing education learning systems, I get to see all the cool new stuff. Here are some of the most popular association LMS features and capabilities you can find in 2020.  How many do you have?

1. Learner Experience

As with any modern digital business environment, success begins and ends with user experience design. It’s fruitless to try selling content to voluntary learners if your interface looks, feels, and works like an Excel spreadsheet (or worse).  Learners want to be presented and find content easily, scientifically and immediately. Customer-facing functions need to have the same seamless visual appeal and mobile capacity of the mainstream content providers such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon.

2. eCommerce

Many corporate LMSs have the concept of shopping carts and pricing, but good association and continuing education LMSs are built to support selling to individuals (B2C), organizations (B2B) and support reseller networks (B2B2B) simultaneously.

Discounts, coupons, contests, promotional pricing, audience pricing, shopping cart and payment gateways are a common base set of features with pre-roll video, free lessons, microsites, page layout and design, content walls, trial access, email gates, bundles and subscriptions spice up the ability to attract potential learners.

Strong B2B capabilities include the process of buying in bulk (Buy 10 seats in a course for my team) within the LMS and automating the processes for uploading and notifying learners of their new access and also provide member or client administrator-level dashboards, notifications and status reports to manage the learners they purchased content for.

The best solutions are tightly integrated with the AMS, CRM or CMS that automatically sets up new branded organization member areas populated with the purchased content, sync key learner data and automatically processes sales that occur outside the LMS.

3. Social Learning

Now more than ever the ability to collaborate with other learners, experts, and instructors is so important.  Social learning includes threaded discussion or real-time chat activities within a course, class or content item, as well as at the platform, group, role, client, member or any level.

Additional social activities include peer-to-peer communication, group collaboration forums, assignment submissions, break out rooms and feedback and coaching with instructors supported by interactive evaluation and grading tools.

Many features mirror modern social media and facilitate “following” learners, content feeds, identifying experts and mentors, subscribing to user content channels, liking, sharing or commenting on content.

4. Gamification

Capabilities include the ability to author content with learning games like flashcards, matching, clickable graphics or within content where learners compete against one another based on cumulative points, questions answered, time-to-completion or highest grades.

At the platform or content level, gamification should include leaderboards and contests that award content, cash or other prizes. Credly or LinkedIn integration is a good way for learners to store and display their credits and achievements in a universally portable format. Good association LMSs can do all that, but also do it differently for different groups, programs, members or certifications.

5. CE Management

Depending on industry, the management, assignment, category criteria, awarding, duration and reporting of continuing education credits can be quite a headache that is solved by an association LMS. A good association LMS includes the ability to assign credits (CEUs) for course completions, define credit types (such as CLE or CME) and rules (1 hour = 1 CEU), assign multiple credit types to a course, and assign credit dynamically based on a learner’s license type, location, or other demographic data.

More sophisticated capabilities let learners upload completed content certificates from third-party CE providers, centralize CEU management and automate status reporting to accreditation bodies.

6. Adaptive Learning

A new trend to minimize the time to proficiency for the learner is the use of adaptive learning.  A new learner takes a pretest and then a custom learning path of microlearning content is recommended based on the learner’s knowledge level on the different content areas.  Ongoing tests and assessments refine the path and enable the efficacy of spaced repetition to set in.

Good association LMSs support microlearning content tied to competencies, tied to assessment questions as well as the automatic and manual tagging of content.  Adaptive learning is attractive to learners because it minimizes the time and effort to become certifiably competent.  Why be forced to sit through 60 hours of certification preparation content when you only need 40 or 20 based on previous knowledge?

7. Integration

When you are providing your certifications and training online, it takes an ecosystem of complementary solutions.  Every association and continuing education provider has a different ecosystem, so an association LMS needs to integrate and communicate easily with -well- everything.

They do this with pre-built integrations with the leaders of virtual classroom, AMS, CRM, email marketing, customer service, content management, proctoring, lab and finance applications that all share data and automate the business. When pre-built integrations are not available, associations LMSs also support webhooks to communicate with microservice aggregators such as Zapier for integration with thousands of potential applications.

Finally, an open, fully documented API allows for tight and custom integrations built and maintained by IT types at a cost.

8. Test Prep

Many associations focus their training efforts on helping learners pass a final certification exam to be awarded some type of certificate.  Examples include GMAT, LSAT, SAM, CEP or PMP examinations.

In an association LMS, assessment questions are tied to competencies so a pretest creates an adaptive set of questions to practice.

Learners and administrators can see strengths and weaknesses based on competency, track learner confidence in their ability to answer the questions and show learners where they stand in comparison to all learners.

Via the science of spaced repetition, questions are scientifically recycled over time to ensure learned competencies are not forgotten before the examination.  The result for learners and organizations are drastically higher certification pass rates and considerably less time preparing for the examination.

9. Member Friendly License Models

An association LMS licenses their solution based on actual usage or unlimited usage – not on a concept of “named users” (a model typically found with LMS solutions in corporate or academic settings). Usage-based license fees allow you to have unlimited active user accounts (think all members) but only be charged based on actual log-ins, content registrations, purchases or content completions on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis.

10. Virtual Conferences

With live tradeshows on hiatus, it’s important to immediately pivot to virtual conferences and tradeshows.  There are various approaches to solve this problem with specialized tools or existing AMS capabilities, but a good association LMS can solve it too.

Features include setting up an event microsite, the ability to create custom landing and information pages, event catalogs, tracks, integration with virtual classroom tools, registration, testing, proctoring, social interaction and CE awarding.  Finally, the ability to record everything, and make it available on-demand after the event -easily- is also key.

and one bonus feature…

11. Content Creation and Content Management

The best association LMSs offer strong content creation and content management tools. Sure, you can still author in Articulate and bring it into the LMS, but intra-LMS authoring provides many advantages including the ability to upload and manage disparate pieces of digital microlearning content, tag it and assemble them into adaptive training plans and paths or make it available for learner point-in-time searches.

Content management features allow for the sharing of content elements across domains, clients, members and audiences – automatically based on intra or extra content purchases.


What about AI, analytics, globalization, mobile apps, reseller management, role management, certificates, domains, proctoring and marketing automation?  Well yes, there are all enhanced feature sets in an association LMS, but I’m already at 2000 words and will have to cover them in another post.

Associations and continuing education providers have to plan for an all-digital future.  Most have wanted to increase their online presence for years, but time, money, fear and other priorities have slowed the progress.  Now, it’s a race for relevance and survival.  Not only to get fully online fast, but to do it better than the for-profit continuing education providers.  Investing in a foundational association LMS is good place to start.

Thanks for reading!


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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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