A recent report issued by the Nonprofit TechnologyEnterprise Network (N-TEN) and LearnSomething suggests that more than half of all associations are now using some form of e-learning and that the number is growing. In my work with associations, however, it is clear that many membership organizations feel they are not fully realizing the benefits that online learning promises—particularly generation of non-dues revenue. I’ve written on this topic in other places. What follows is a repeat of some earlier writings with some new thinking peppered in where appropriate:
Know Your Market
Successful association e-learning initiatives start with a clear understanding of whether target stakeholders want e-learning, why they want e-learning, and what form of e-learning will best serve their needs. I am amazed at how many organizations do not conduct a focused, disciplined needs assessment before spending significant amounts of money on e-learning content and infrastructure. Fight the temptation to make assumptions, and to the greatest extent possible, conduct surveys, focus groups, and interviews with key stakeholders before starting to make e-learning content or technology decisions.
Don’t Devalue the Learning
Many associations start with the assumption that they should charge less for e-learning than for their traditional classroom-based training. This positions them poorly for achieving positive returns on their investment in e-learning and can ultimately create downward price pressure on their classroom offerings. If the online and classroom content are substantially the same, the price charged for them should also be the same. (See also Pricing E-learning). If it really makes sense to charge less for the online learning, be absolutely certain that the difference in value propositions for the online and offline options is crystal clear to the potential purchaser.
Go for Critical Mass
I have seen focused, single offering online learning programs do quite well in areas where there is a perennial compliance, licensing, or certification need. As a rule, however, just like a restaurant with only one item on its menu will not be very successful, an association e-learning initiative with limited offerings is not likely to meet with success over the long haul. Beware the “let’s just put a toe in the water” approach. If necessary, look to partners and vendors of off-the-shelf content to help your organization flesh out its initial range of offerings. There are a wide range of content vendors that may be willing to license content to you for re-sale. These include large companies like Skilsoft, ElementK, and MindLeaders as well as many smaller players.
Remember also that with tools like Articulate Presenter, you can convert existing seminar content into online offerings quite rapidly.
Choose a Business Model, Not a Technology
I had originally titled this section “Choose a Partner, Not a Technology.” I think that is an important thought, but it is subsumed within the overall question of developing a viable, sustainable business model. It is easy to get swept up in the exciting range of development tools and platform options that are now available for e-learning. As the market matures and consolidates, however, the differences between the available technologies continue to decrease. And remember that if you are going to actually make money through e-learning products, you will most likely need to operate a relatively high volume business. Often times, the array of bells and whistles introduces operational “friction” that interferes with high volume sales.
As far as partners go: to the extent that you look to vendors for support, focus on finding one that really understands association and nonprofit business needs and that can play the role of a true business partner. Yes, it really does make a big difference!
Prepare to Sell
The sheer convenience of e-learning often helps to drive initial adoption by stakeholders, but substantial ongoing adoption will require a focused sales and marketing effort. Make sure everyone on your staff can speak knowledgeably about your e-learning offerings and seize every chance you can—at meetings, conferences, and classroom-based training events—to convey your value proposition for e-learning to stakeholders. Most importantly, make sure you are focusing your efforts to where you can really make the most sales—which often means finding other organizations that may be able to by in bulk from you—and develop a compelling message for those areas.
Basically, everything above points to the need to develop a solid, well-articulated (but brief!) e-learning business plan—something that, like a needs assessment, I see too few organizations undertake in a truly systematic, effective way. As with any other new initiative you might launch, spell out clearly where you want to go, how you will get there, and what measurements will enable you see that you have achieved your goals. With those pieces in place, your chances of success will be high.