aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Why ANY Revenue Increase is a Good Thing

Posted by Ellen on March 12, 2010

It probably wasn’t the intention of ASAE and The Center to suggest otherwise, but that’s what I got out of one of their recent reports.

I didn’t attend the Great Ideas conference, so I’m pouring over the handouts, blogs, and other summaries about the event in general and the sessions in particular.

Because I wasn’t there, I might be missing some connections by perusing the materials without hearing the accompanying speakers. As always, I’ll just call it as I see it and welcome comments and corrections.

So where did the title of this post come from? What’s gotten me all riled up on such a beautiful day?

Monica Dignam’s presentation at the Great Ideas Conference, “The Economy — An Update on How Associations are Doing,” drew on studies conducted by ASAE and The Center and compared how well CEOs and executive directors across the ASAE membership predicted the actions they and members would take in light of the economic downturn last year and what they actually ended up doing.

The brief report that accompanied the presentation, “Associations and CEOs: A Report on Two Studies During a Down Economy,” did include a surprising bit of data.

Of course the section about education — online learning in particular — grabbed my attention.

According to the executive summary of the report,

“Executive optimism appear to persist despite unmet expectations in the case of online programs. In the Spring, a large majority (60.9 percent) of respondents believed their organizations would receive more revenue from online education
programs in the coming year. In fact, only a third (33.3 percent) reported such an increase.”

First of all, a 33% increase is still an increase — by a third, remember. That’s nothing to go into mourning about. Most organizations would say that if they shifted their learning by a third to a methodology that provides quality education at a time when learners can’t travel as often or for as long, then this is a number to celebrate, not wring their hands over.

The summary goes on:

“Yet a majority of association executives still anticipate significant new
revenues from this type of activity. This may speak to an anticipation that online
tools will provide new revenue streams, but such hope is out of line with the
mood of association members, who (according to a pair of ASAE & The Center
economic surveys conducted in 2008-09) still strongly prefer face-to-face learning,
even despite tighter travel budgets.”

Of course people prefer face-to-face learning. Someone else brings the snacks, after all. And networking is usually more fun in person.

There are a few flaws with concluding that anticipating new revenues from alearning is “out of line”:

The first flaw is assuming cause and effect: even people who prefer face-to-face learning don’t always have the means to attend such events. I might prefer to earn a million dollars a year, but that doesn’t mean I will or that I’d turn down a half-a-million if it was offered instead.

The second flaw is that the conclusion is based on a false choice: association members don’t have to (always) choose online learning OR face-to-face events. They can choose both or neither. Just because respondents prefer face-to-face doesn’t mean they won’t avail themselves of online learning if it meets their needs.

Even if we assume these association leaders were disappointed with a 33% increase in revenue from online learning instead of 60.9% (a huge assumption), we don’t have other information around this data to form the full picture. Did organizations make huge upfront investments in white-label social networking sites (maybe included here in online learning? who knows?) only to discover their earn-back time will take much longer than a few months or a year?

Faulty conclusions aside, what the report does give us is a comparison between the anticipated impact of travel restrictions and budget-tightening, and what actually happened within a relatively short window of time.

What we don’t have — at least not here — is how many individuals attended face to face and online educational events in 2008 or 2007 or 2006.

How do we know how far we’ve come if we don’t know where we started? How will we know when we’ve fully recovered?

Maybe a 33% increase in online revenue is ten times higher than each of the last four years. Rather than being a hand-wringing piece of information, this would be evidence of an astounding accomplishment.

My advice? Don’t read too much into the data — at least not as reported here about elearning.

You’d do well  to keep focusing instead on a workable alearning strategy that will expand your association’s educational reach.

6 Responses to “Why ANY Revenue Increase is a Good Thing”

  1. Hi Ellen,

    Thank you for posting about this. As one of the ASAE & The Center staffers who worked on the white paper, I wanted to clarify one point. The report isn’t stating that associations enjoyed a 33 percent increase in e-learning revenues, or that there was a 33 percent increase in associations launching e-learning programs; what we’re reporting is that a third of the associations surveyed reported an increase in e-learning revenues of any amount. (We didn’t ask how much their revenue grew, just *if* it grew.) That percentage is about the same as the reported increase for 2008 (31.2 percent). The reason the white paper argues for a kind of tempered optimism is that while majority of associations (59.2 percent) appear to be expecting jumps in e-learning revenue, a minority are actually experiencing them.

    I hope that clarifies matters a bit. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions. Thank you!

    Mark Athitakis
    ASAE & The Center

    • Ellen said

      Mark — Thanks for clarifying the correct reading of the data in the report on this item. There’s a long open stretch between 33% reporting an increase and repondents reporting a 33% increase — I clearly misread and misinterpreted that portion of the executive summary.

      While I now understand why the report’s conclusions suggest a tempered approach, I still say it would be helpful to know what sorts of increases they are experiencing, and some information around the factors that contributed to 33% instead of 60.9%. I realize that wasn’t part of the study, but perhaps another survey (if not by ASAE and The Center, then by another group) could probe that unexplored area.

      If I may — it seems to me that if 33% of responding associations say they are experiencing revenue increases (regardless of how much) year after year, this is still a good thing. It would be better if we knew that different or new organizations were experiencing these increases, as it would suggest that online learning was, overall, growing more widespread over time.

      Although tempering expectations is a reasonable recommendation, I stand by my assertion that preference for face-to-face learning isn’t enough to assume online learning won’t continue to increase (33% each year suggests that it is, indeed, continuing to grow). The more options learners have, the more likely it is that they’ll engage in some way.

      And that’s what it’s really all about, right?

      Thanks again, Mark!

  2. Mark Athitakis said

    Ellen—As it happens, ASAE & The Center is finishing work on a study about learning in associations called “The Decision to Learn.” It’ll be available by the Annual Meeting in LA in August. I don’t have many details on it, but I do know that the survey addresses e-learning, so it may help some of the very good questions you raise in your comment. Surveys are tricky—you want to get important questions answered but you can’t ask so many that people get fed up and stop filling the thing out!


    • Ellen said

      Mark — This is great news! So glad to hear that ASAE and The Center will be focusing on learning in this upcoming report!

      With education a key part of the mission of many associations, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s already looking forward to seeing the outcome of this survey.

      Thanks for letting us know about it!

  3. […] Why ANY Revenue Increase is a Good Thing (aLearning Blog) […]

  4. […] ASAE’s “Associations and CEOs: A Report on Two Studies During a Down Economy.” ["Why ANY Revenue Increase is a Good Thing"]? It got some followup (and needed correction on an interpretation of the data) from ASAE and […]

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