Online Learning’s New Role in the Association Membership Model

How can you best serve your members and professional community? You can make the biggest impact by helping them do their jobs better and preparing them for the future. Lifelong learning is a necessity for them and should be the primary focus for your association. Is it time to build online learning into your association membership model?

In a Tagoras webinar on learning business trends and predictions, Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele talked about the convergence of learning and membership. They’re seeing a shift to learning as the membership value proposition. Learning isn’t just an event or transaction. Learning is an ongoing process and an integral part of the membership experience. 

Learning’s new role in the association membership model

Over the last decade, many associations have added new tiers to their membership models as a way of providing members more choice and value for their money. Since members join associations for different reasons, they end up taking advantage of different benefits. Why should they pay for benefits they’ll never use at this particular point in their life and career? 

Associations are now offering membership tiers that fit different needs and budgets, for example, a basic, inexpensive “starter” membership. This membership tier is usually created with the young professional audience in mind but would also appeal to anyone who’s not ready or able to pay regular membership dues. Virtual benefits—such as newsletters and website access¬—are delivered to members at no additional cost to the association. Ideally, this type of membership becomes a stepping-stone to higher membership tiers. 

Besides the starter and traditional membership tiers, many associations offer “premier” tiers that include additional membership benefits not available (for free) to regular members. For example, a membership tier may include free access to online learning programs, credits toward registration for in-person events, or consultation hours. 

Some forward-thinking associations have completely revamped the meaning of membership. For them, membership must involve learning, so access to online learning is included in every member’s benefits. For these associations, membership becomes truly transformative. 

association membership model

The benefits of adding online learning to your association membership model

Read that last sentence again: “membership becomes truly transformative.” You’re in the professional development business so you know the transformative power of learning. If your association helps members develop new knowledge, skills, confidence, curiosity, and earning power, your retention rate will reach record levels. You’re helping members build a learning habit that will serve them well their entire life.

By making online learning part of your association membership model, you can become the preferred education provider in your industry. This approach will help you grow market share and protect it from competitors. After all, you can provide something many of these new competitors—online platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Coursera and Udemy—can’t. You help members connect and build relationships with each other.

You also become a partner to employers in your industry. As the industry leader in talent development, you can help employers strengthen their organizations, develop the skills of their employees, and retain the best talent.

Examples of learning-inspired association membership models

Many associations already include some education in their membership benefits, for example, free webinars (recorded and/or live) or recorded conference sessions. The Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association offers three membership tiers

•    The free Basic tier includes webinars, trade show floor access, and a few other online benefits. 
•    The Premium tier includes four introductory online classes as well as many other benefits.  
•    Elite tier members get unlimited access to self-paced online courses, exclusive video content, personalized consulting and counseling on training.

The Credit Union Executives Society (CUES) also offers three membership tiers with increasing levels of access to online education. Their education is designed for two audiences: credit union staff and credit union boards. All members get access to a “blend of curated content and pre-set learning pathways,” interactive director education courses, and live and recorded webinars. The Unlimited tier includes “elite access virtual classroom” aimed at credit union staff. The highest Unlimited+ tier includes the “center for credit union board excellence,” board director competency training and learning plans “consisting of videos, articles, white papers, and more.”

The association that inspired this blog post is the South Carolina Association of CPAs (SCACPA). They have one membership tier but it includes 40 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE). Why? SCACPA’s membership page says, “We realize you have unlimited options in price and vendor, but SCACPA wants to be your trusted and preferred choice in CPE.”

association membership model

Association membership model considerations

SCACPA says, “More than 1,700 members were involved in creating this plan.” Get the feedback and participation of your members, beyond the board, in building your new membership model. Hold focus groups of members and customers of different career stages and company sizes to learn what they need. Do the same with employers. Survey members to find out where they get education and why, and to get a sense of their price sensitivity. Don’t forget competitor research.

Analyze member engagement data to learn how members are using existing benefits and participating in existing education, both online and in-person. Look at customer data too.

All departmental stakeholders must be involved in membership model decisions, for example, membership, education, marketing, and finance. Your decisions will have an impact on their departmental budgets and revenue goals. Analyze the financial impact of new model options. Any decision should be revenue-positive. Associations are non-profits, but you’re learning businesses too. 

What will you include in the new tiers? Some associations include all online learning programs. Some take a token approach, for example, each individual or organization member gets X number of educational credits they can apply toward registration for online or in-person programs. It’s easy to put a dollar on that value for marketing purposes. SCACPA told their members: “SCACPA members said at a rate of 85% that the No. 1 benefit of joining is our CPE offerings. Your new 40-hour CPE Bank is designed to be a breakeven cost once you’ve taken 15 hours.”

Consider the capabilities of your association management system for handling new membership tiers. Keep your IT and AMS team in the loop from the beginning. Don’t move forward until your technology can support the new model. If it can’t, it might be worth investigating upgrades or a new system.

Offering online learning as part of your membership model isn’t just a strategy to increase membership or revenue. It’s a demonstration of your association’s mission to foster professional growth and move your industry or profession forward. 

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