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Online Learning for Trade Associations

Archive for June, 2011

Waiting Lists are Overrated

Posted by Ellen on June 30, 2011

Last post I said making members wait for a year to get into a much-desired educational session doesn’t make sense and risks chasing them into the arms of the competition. But some organizations cling to the notion that waiting lists are a good thing.

“Look at all the interest we have in this program,” the executive director coos. “That’s guaranteed revenue for the next year or two for this one! Why can’t we have a waiting list for everything we do?”

Ikes! It’s NOT guaranteed revenue. The more someone is forced to wait for something — especially if they need it now — the more likely they’ll look to other sources to fill that need.

Besides, unless that precious program generates a bunch of money, its waiting list is probably doing the organization a disservice as well.

Think about it.

Here’s an Example

Let’s say you have a three-day face-to-face program that includes a primary content leader (much respected and a very effective facilitator who’s in great demand) and several supporting experts — panelists, guests, and session leaders. This program has been going on in your organization for many years, although some of the segments have changed with the times.

It gets rave reviews. It’s become a “must” for newbies in your industry. So even though you only offer the program once each year, and you’ve steadily increased the maximum number of participants from 20 to 40 to accommodate the demand, you’re still running a waiting list of 80.

That means anyone signing up TODAY won’t be able to get into the session for at about two years. (40 get in during 2012; 40 get in during 2013; assuming a couple of cancellations, someone signing up today could actually get into the session in 2013).

So what if you offered that program twice a year? You’d gain some efficiency in scale — you could use the same marketing materials, perhaps get some discounts for AV and F&B, particularly if you use the same venue.

Looking at the Numbers

But what do the financials really look like? Sharpen your pencil or fire up your calculator. Here’s the way the numbers unfold.

Let’s say your program costs $30,000 if you do it once each year. That means for 40 participants you need to charge $750 to break even. So you charge $799 to buffer things a bit and hopefully make a bit of revenue. (You tried $825 once but somehow getting into the “8” figure turned people off — you lost your waiting list and got nervous, so you’re now content to make $49/pp).

$49/pp = a whopping $1960 in bottom line revenue. Assuming nothing goes wrong and your estimated costs don’t balloon.

If you offer a second session, your savings might amount to about 20% — $6000. So between the two programs, you’ll have $54,000 in total expenses ($30,000 + $24,000). With 80 participants, you only need $675/pp to break even. So if you still charge $799, you’re now putting $9920 in the bank ($124 x 80).

Not a bad piece of change! Of course, this assumes you’ll have a 20% economy of scale benefit…

So why not just offer the program twice a year? Why not three times a year — move through that waiting list even faster? After all, you’ll get even greater economy of scale, increasing your revenue even more, right?!?

Sounds like a no-brainer. But there are very real reasons why we only offer such a program once each year, regardless of the downfalls of a waiting list:

  • There’s only so much room on the calendar. Especially if our members work in industries that are cyclical, we often have certain times of the year when they just aren’t available to attend face-to-face sessions.


  • Our expert facilitators and content leaders only have so much time to devote to our programs. They might not be available at other times, and changing the session leaders and contributors will change the dynamic of the program — which could affect its quality, perhaps falling short of members’ expectations (the purpose of offering the session more than once gets defeated if people resist those new offerings).


  • The time it takes to organize additional offerings increases staff workload. Time isn’t just money, time is energy. Our staffers are overtasked as it is — adding additional sessions will add more to their workload. Yes, there are economies of scale with their labor, but it’s nevertheless critical that we consider what the impact on their overall responsibilities will be to add these offerings.

All of this isn’t to say that we need to just live with the reality of waiting lists.

Oh, contraire!

It is to say that we need to consider whether it’s time to offer an online equivalent of the popular face-to-face (FTF) program. Why online?

  • You’ll not only be able to meet the immediate needs and desires of those on the waiting list, but an unknown number of other members who’ve either dropped off the list because they got tired of waiting or never signed up because the timing of the sessions didn’t fit their schedule (remember what we said about that in the previous post?!).


  • You’ll leverage the best aspects of the FTF program by finding the balance of providing asynchronous and synchronous online sessions.


  • You’ll create a program once that will require much less expense and maintenance over time — true economies of scale!


  • You’ll provide your FTF content leaders with an opportunity to further showcase their expertise — something they’re not likely to shy away from.


  • You’ll eliminate the “wait till next year or the year after or the year after that” frustration your members are currently experiencing. Young professionals, more than ever, live in an “immediate” mindset: they’ve grown up in a world of fast food, high speed internet, international TV via satellite, and 24/7 access to all of it. If they aren’t already asking why they have to wait a year, they soon will be.

Even if you’re already onboard with the idea of leveraging the Web to deliver online versions of your most popular educational programs, you need to do it correctly.

Offering a series of Webinars that imitate what happens in the FTF sessions won’t cut it. You must design an online experience that incorporates the best of the FTF program and deliver that content in a combination of formats that will do so effectively.

To do otherwise is foolish and fraught with financial peril.

So how do you do this?!? Tune in next time for some pointers…

Posted in aLearning Strategies, Financing eLearning, Justifying aLearning | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Just Wait Till Next Year

Posted by Ellen on June 27, 2011

Looking for the latest aLearning post? Sorry… you’ll have to wait a year. Maybe two. There’s a waiting list and you’re now at the bottom of it.

What?!?!? Of course I’m kidding. You’re obviously reading the latest post…

… so here’s another one:

Let’s say you’ve discovered a new organization that’s a great fit for you. You get your credit card ready and click the option that says Become A Member, but when the screen comes up it says, “Sorry. We’re booked up. We now have a waiting list and it will take at least a year before we have room to include you. Please fill out this form to add your name to that list.”

What?!?!? They don’t want your money?!? They don’t want you to join?!? You don’t need them in a year, you need them now! You want those benefits! You NEED those benefits of membership!

You’d never do that to your members, would you? You’d never make them wait to join — you’d never make them wait to become active participants in your learning programs, would you?

Of course you would. You already do! You do it any time you have a waiting list for a program. Anytime you have limited seating for a much-desired educational program means you’re telling your members they aren’t as important as your way of doing things is.

Don’t pretend that’s not what’s going on. You might THINK you’re not guilty of this, but you are.

Let’s say you’ve run out of milk and when you get to the grocery store, their dairy racks aren’t only empty, they’re strung with signs that say, “You’ll be able to get the milk you need in a year. We appreciate your patience.”

Patience my butt!

So what do you do? You go to the next grocery and get your milk there, right?

Of course you do. Anybody would.

Our members are the same way. They want what they want when they want it. They need what they need when they need it.

They’re on THEIR schedule.

Yet our learning offerings are on OUR schedule, not theirs.

Why are you making your members wait? Why are you insisting they follow your schedule, rather than provide training and education on theirs?

Too many options, you say? Posh and potato mashers, I say!

That’s what 24/7/365 online learning is all about. Providing training so your organization’s members can access it on their time. Not yours.

Don’t make them wait. Look at every program you have with a waiting list. Every concurrent educational session at your national conference that’s had standing room only crowds.

Now start figuring out how to offer those online so more members can experience them — soon.

Next year could be too late.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Trends, Learning in General | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Measuring Level Four

Posted by Ellen on June 24, 2011

Sounds like something from a sci-fi flick, doesn’t it?!? But of course I’m referring to Donald Kirkpatrick’s four-level model for measuring learning outcomes. The first level, you’ll remember, is “reaction.” We do a good job of measuring that by using “smile sheets” — those feedback forms that we issue right after learning as occurred (for more on Smile Sheets, see the article “Smile Sheets To Smile About” in the April 2010 issue of ASAE’s Associations Now magazine).

And whenever we “test” our learners on what they absorbed from a session, we’re measuring whether they learned (level Two on Kirkpatrick’s scale).

Levels Three (Behavior/Transfer) and Four (Impact/Results) are admittedly more difficult. They’re a challenge for corporations — and they have access to employee records, performance reviews, business outcome data, and all of that. How could we possibly begin to tackle these evaluative levels — and why would we want to try?

Let’s start with why. The answer is because.

Because we want our members to see evidence for themselves of the effectiveness of the training we’re delivering to them. The more we can demonstrate to them that they are benefitting (and their employers are likewise benefitting) from the educational sessions we provide, the more likely they are to renew their membership, register for more events, and tell others about the advantages they’re experiencing.

Because we want our association leaders to bear witness to the results of the programs we offer. Yes, they’ll see the attendance data, the revenue, and all of that, but showing them how members are contributing to their workplaces in ways they hadn’t before the training they took with us, the more powerful the rest of the numbers will be. This builds credibility for your department and should make it easier to gain their support for future program investments.

You can get insight into Level Three (behavior/transfer) by following up six to eighteen months after the event with an evaluation written specifically for this purpose (see “Nothing To Smile Sheet About”  and Chapter 17 of aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning for more on how to construct these evaluations).

But how do we get to Level Four? Much the same way we got to Level Three — by sending the session participants an evaluation that’s been carefully designed to solicit the sorts of responses that are experiencing the positive business impact we intended as a learning outcome.

Here’s how you might do that (adapt this to your own purposes, of course):

1. Get the learning objectives in front of you. If they were written well, they should provide the desired outcomes. For example, “The learner will be able to write effective broadcast e-mails that result in increased numbers of click-thrus.”

2. If your learning objectives weren’t written this clearly, brainstorm the possible business outcomes when the learning objectives are correctly applied.

3. Write questions that solicit specific business outcomes as a result of the session. Using our earlier example of broadcast e-mails, one question could be, “As a result of taking this training, have you experienced an increase in the number of click-thrus for your broadcast e-mails?”

4. Write follow-up questions that probe for details. For example, “What percentage of an increase in click-thrus have you experienced?”

5. Allow for exceptions — you can learn from these, too. For example, “If you haven’t experienced an increase in the number of broadcast e-mail click-thrus, describe the factors that could be affecting this result.” You might learn that they stopped sending broadcast e-mails or that someone else is now sending them and the learner doesn’t have the data. It could be that they always had a high rate of click-thrus so an increase that doesn’t seem significant is still a positive outcome.

Here are some examples of phrases to get you started:

“As a result of taking this training, have you experienced a decrease in…

…the cost of [X,Y,Z]?”

…employee turnover?”

…number of claiims?”

…number of errors in [A,B,C]?”

…number of complaints?”

…complaints about [A,B,C]?”

“As a result of taking this training, have you experienced an increase in…




…frequency of orders?”

…amount per order?”

…repeat business?”

…employee retention?”

…employee satisfaction?”

…customer satisfaction?”

…customer retention?”

“As a result of taking this training, have you experienced a savings in [X,Y,Z]?”

“As a result of taking this training, have you experienced enhanced creativity?”

“As a result of taking this training, have you reduced…




“As a result of taking this training, have you cultivated innovation?”

“As a result of taking this training, have you shortened your time to market with new products or services?”

“What other business outcomes have you experienced as a result of taking this training?”

Most importantly… after each question, ask for specifics:

How many? By how much? By what percentage did this change?

And of course you’ll want to emphasize that your data is strictly for evaluative purposes — you don’t need specific financial or other data, you just want some indication of the effect the training has had. Most members won’t release data that’s confidential to their company anyway, and some might be reluctant to even share that the training has made a business-side impact. That’s okay. Find out what you can from those who are able to share and consider yourself lucky to have that.

If the results are particularly stunning, follow up with individual respondents to see if you can use a quote from them for reports to the education committee, board of directors, or even in marketing materials. Offer to show them the quote and obtain their permission before releasing it. Being able to use specific testimonials is a plus — the real purpose of conducting this evaluation isn’t marketing, however.

When you have enough responses, aggregate the data so you can see the overall picture: how did learners benefit in general from the session? Was one objective particularly valuable? Was there any learning objective that seemed especially challenging? Why?

Thank every respondent, especially if their names are attached to the evaluations you get. Let them know how much you appreciate providing the feedback so you can continue to improve the program. A simple thank you goes a long way!

Has your organization conducted Level Four evaluations? How have you conducted them? What did you learn from the results? We’d love to hear your stories here at aLearning!

Posted in Learning in General, Measuring Results, Online Learning in General | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Off on a Tangent? Good!

Posted by Ellen on June 11, 2011

There are two types of travellers: those who plan a specific route and stick to it, and those who have a general idea of where they want to end up but leave themselves open to side trips. We’ve done both in our “on the road” lifestyle — they each have their benefits and pitfalls.

A specific route can get you someplace faster, with fewer possibilities for things to go wrong — and you don’t want things to get ugly when you’re driving what’s considered a “big rig” — an RV and vehicle that can be 60′ or longer). Keeping to the major highways means you’re likely to fit under the overpasses without peelng your air conditioning unit off your roof, and there are usually places to stop that are made for truckers, where you can park and stretch your legs.

But you’re also missing out on a lot. No stopping for that homemade jam the farmer’s wife is selling by the side of the road. No picnicking beside that picturesque river.

What does this have to do with alearning?

A lot.

There are two types of trainers: those who have a specific agenda and stick to it, and those who have a general idea of where they want to end up but leave themselves open to how they’ll get there.

If you think meandering through a training session sounds like a disaster in the making, you’re probably half-right. But just as travelling with an open agenda can lead to much richer experiences, so does training without a minute-by-minute agenda.

How many times have you been in a session — as observer in your role of education leader, or as a participant — and someone asked the very question you were pondering (or better yet, hadn’t thought of but as soon as you heard it you thought, “Great question!”), a discussion started around that question, and — before any resolution was discovered — the session leader said something like, “This is a great conversation and we should continue it at some point, but we really need to move on to [the next item on our agenda… or lunch… or something]” ??

If it’s a great conversation and it’s engaging several learners, why move on? Isn’t the beginning of understanding happening right then? Obviously those participating have found relevance to their own situations and they’re motivated to explore the topic.

What makes the next item on the agenda more important than that?!? Nothing, that’s what.

The best session leaders are those who follow the lead of the learners — adapting along the way. Of course you don’t want to throw out the map, you don’t want to get everyone lost in the woods, but who says you can’t head down this road instead of that one if you know it will eventually get you to the same destination?

An agenda is a guide — it’s a way of building your session so you cover enabling content when it’s appropriate, for example — but that’s all it is.

Here’s a real-life example: In a intensive face-to-face course that lasted about five days and covered about a dozen related topics in as many sessions, learners later reported that they got the most out of a discussion that arose from one participant’s issue related to one of the topics. The group of 18 learners explored the situation by hearing the challenge, sharing their own experiences, suggested ideas, and turned the agenda inside out in the process. This spontaneous learning ended up being what they remembered best, and later applied most frequently.

All because someone asked a question and the session leader let the group tackle the challenge behind it. Here’s the bonus: because the session included professionals at varying levels in the same field, the veterans in the group provided varying examples from their own experiences while those earlier on in their careers made suggestions and asked questions that often opened up new possibilities. Everyone took away something from that conversation.

What happened to the agenda? It was still there, waiting. Did the discussion put a hole in it? Yes. But that hole was filled because the conversation covered content that didn’t have to be handled in the same way later, saving time in the long run.
What About Volunteer Content Leaders?

Thrilled to be asked to lead a session, your expert volunteers tend to err on the side of traditional session leadership, aka “Sage on the Stage.” They spend time crafting their session, and they want to be sure they cover everything.

The best thing you can do for those volunteers? Urge them to

  • Trust their peers
  • Be willing to learn from the session themselves
  • Be alert for openings in the conversation that can lead to a broad range of perspectives, and to exploit them
  • Ask the group if they’d like to pursue a tangent rather than stay on the agenda — let the learners decide what they most want to learn
  • See tangents as opportunities rather than interruptions

“But what about the learning outcomes?” you ask. “Won’t following tangents jeopardize meeting the objectives?”

Not necessarily. Usually a tangent opens up because it’s related to the topic and will lead you in the direction of the same objectives and outcomes — it’s just taking the session down a different road to get there. If the session leader keeps those objectives in mind, he or she can guide the conversation through questions and comments.

“Okay. What about those participants who want to show off what they know rather than learn something — those people who like to try to take a session off-track just to prove they’re experts, too? How do you handle that?” you ask.

Good question. This situation is always a challenge, but it doesn’t need any special handling if you’re willing to follow tangents. As a matter of fact, being willing to follow tangents means comments and questions from these folks can be used to even greater effectiveness. Shift the question to address an objective by re-stating it, or hand the comment back to the larger group for further comment are both ways to repurpose them to shape the conversation.

To use our metaphor: someone bulldozing the road shouldn’t be allowed to get tear up much of the asphalt until another road is paved.

Think of it this way: all roads should lead to the learning outcomes. Which roads you end up following are up to everyone in the room — not just the session leader.

You’ll probably discover what others have found — that the scenery was much more interesting and much more memorable.

That’s what it’s all about after all, isn’t it?!?

Posted in Learning in General | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Revisiting Relevance

Posted by Ellen on June 7, 2011

Remember a few years ago when the association blogosphere trampled all over the notion of “relevance”? The hue and cry went something like this: “Don’t be relevant. Be innovative.”

I raled against the suggestion that relevancy is passe, and a few agreed that maybe they shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

At the time, I focused on the need for relevancy in learning. A few folks raised their glasses and said, “Here’s to relevancy in education and training. But for association management, innovation is still king.”

Something I was reading about relevancy in learning brought this whole online discussion back to me. Never one to hesitate about stirring the pot, even one sitting on a cold fire — I figured it’s about time to revisit the antiquated notion of relevancy.

My comment is actually very simple: If your organization isn’t relevant to me, why should I join? Renew? Participate?

I’ve had to cut back on my memberships over the last couple of years, and you know what? I don’t miss some of those organizations at all. I glance at their online blog or e-newsletter or other missives (of course I’m still on their e-mail list, despite a lapsed membership) and nothing makes me think, “Oh! I need to know about that. I should resurrect my membership to attend that event” (or read that members-only article, etc.).

If it’s not relevant to me, I don’t care about it.

You can be as innovative as you want. You can provide me with the latest trends and experts and future-thinking ideas, but if none of them are relevant to me, then I just don’t care.

I. Just. Don’t. Care.

So while you’re concentrating on being innovative, resuscitate the notion of relevancy. Make sure you’re connecting in a meaningful way — being relevant to — your members.

Innovation is the icing. Relevancy is the cake.

Yeah, it’s always tempting to just scoop up the icing with your finger, but where would that icing sit without the cake as a foundation?

Posted in Learning in General | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »