How to Earn and Reward Learner Loyalty

Everyone knows it’s more costly to acquire a new customer (or member) than to retain one. In a competitive marketplace, brands hope their loyalty programs will convince a one-time customer to come back for more. Do brands have anything to teach associations about earning and rewarding customer and learner loyalty?

Sadly, most do not. But we analyzed successful loyalty programs—and came up with a few ideas of our own—so we could share what might work for associations in earning and rewarding learner loyalty.

The state of loyalty in the marketplace

A marketing agency owner recently shared a story that illustrates why many brand loyalty programs have been losing their grip. He travels frequently, usually on British Airways, but this summer he sampled several airlines. He wondered why he was suddenly so “promiscuous in [his] travel choice.”

Well, why stay loyal when purchasing what’s become a commodity? He found the “mediocre” service provided by one airline was much like another. Plus, airline loyalty programs “have been so downgraded that even with [his] stellar Platinum Elite For Life, [he] did not score any upgrades or perks on any of the flights.” His airline decision “now is almost completely cost/convenience-driven,” and many of his other purchase decisions are ruled by the same logic.

Consumers have many choices in the airline marketplace, so it doesn’t always make sense to stay loyal to one brand. If what you’re selling is seen as a commodity, consumers (including learners) will choose convenience or cost over brand loyalty.

These days, a household has an average of 29 loyalty program memberships. However, 71% of consumers don't believe these programs even work. 77% say they retract their brand loyalty faster than they did three years ago.

Loyalty programs have jumped the shark. At the register, clerks ask for a loyalty card or try to foist their loyalty program on you. The rewards no longer seem worth the effort. In fact, it just seems like another way for retailers to collect your data.

Learner Loyalty Reward

Prerequisites for earning learner loyalty

However, we are still willing to give our loyalty to some brands, like Google, Amazon, and Apple. Is there any hope for your association’s educational programs? Yes, indeed, if you offer products and services that deserve loyalty.

Distinctive, high-quality product or service

The 2019 Customer Lifecycle Report from Yes Marketing says the most important factor in earning loyalty is product value and quality. You must provide something distinctive from competing products in the marketplace. If learners can find a similar program elsewhere, cost and convenience alone will drive purchasing decisions.

Mission/public image

64% of millennials say they are still brand loyal, but 78% of them say brands must work harder to secure their loyalty. One reason millennials shift loyalty is if a brand has a public image problem.

Associations have an advantage here. Remind your audience about your mission and core values. Their participation and revenue help your association fulfill that mission and contribute to the greater good. You’re not here to make investors and shareholders richer, you’re on a mission to move your industry or profession forward for the common good.

Empathy and attention

79% of customers say they want brands to understand and care about them as individuals. Loyalty requires trust. Learners must believe they can trust the people behind the website. They want to interact with people who behave as if they care, not a faceless institution.

Beware: any trust and loyalty you earn can erode from a lack of empathy. An Edelman study found that a deciding factor in purchasing decisions is trusting a brand to do the right thing.
If a customer or member feels like they’re being nickeled and dimed, ignored, or taken for granted, they won’t stay loyal for long. Make an effort to recognize a learner’s loyalty and, therefore, importance. Not all members and customers are created equal. Some invest more time and/or money into your association and, therefore, deserve special attention.

Quick, easy, and smart processes

Consumers, including your learners and members, bring high expectations to the online experience you provide. Remove any friction in the user experience. Speed is essential. They must be able to quickly and easily find, purchase, and start using your products and services.

A certain amount of “knowing” is expected as well. Curation is an appreciated time-saver. Recommend products based on a person’s known interests and past behavior.

Security and privacy

Loyalty is a two-way street. If someone is loyal to your association, you must look out for their best interests. Many brands are failing on this front. For example, Marriott didn’t do enough to prevent a data breach targeting their Preferred Guest program.

Make sure your customers and members know that you treat their personal data and privacy with the respect and stewardship it deserves. Your reputation depends upon the cybersecurity measures you put into place.

Learner Loyalty

New ways to reward learner loyalty

A recent report revealed that one of the main reasons people participate in loyalty programs is to have an improved experience with the brand, not to get discounts. Here are some ways you can enhance the learner experience.

Rewards with a distinctive value

Yes Marketing found that providing rewards with unexpected value has a bigger impact on increasing loyalty than providing the same rewards as everyone else. For example, 40% of consumers consider free shipping important when first buying from a retailer, but only 3% said it’s important for earning and maintaining loyalty. If everyone else does it, it’s no big deal.

A learning concierge or coach is a distinctive and valuable reward for loyal learners. A coach can provide:

•    Guidance on a learning path.
•    Suggestions for online learning programs and educational events.
•    Matchmaking with mentors and peers.
•    Recommendations for other “extracurricular” activities, such as leadership opportunities.

The coach checks in on the learner’s progress toward their goals, such as a digital badge or certification, and helps them stay motivated. This personal touch builds deeper trust and loyalty.


Invite loyal learners to participate in an exclusive book club. They can opt into automatically receiving (free of charge) a number of selected books each year, and then participating in scheduled monthly online chats.

Exclusive rewards are highly appealing, for example:

•    Early access to new programs
•    Exclusive access to special programs, for example, dedicated time with keynote speakers, VIP book talks and signings, or special virtual roundtables
•    Promo codes to share with others

Make them look good

An intangible but highly valued reward is making loyal learners look good and giving them something to brag about, like a promo code they can share with someone else. Loyal customers make more referrals, so why not give them an incentive to encourage this behavior: one promo code to give away, and one promo code to keep.

Loyalty tiers

Instead of one set of benefits for all, reward those who have made bigger investments in your programs. Offer both traditional and premium levels in your loyalty program. If you know the lifetime value of a customer, you’re more likely to understand how much you can afford to spend on rewarding them for their loyalty.

Invite feedback

At the 2019 ASAE annual meeting, the opening keynote discussed the new power model: people are seeking more ways to contribute, collaborate, and participate in membership organizations. They want a voice and skin in the game.

Give your loyal learners opportunities to provide feedback. For example, ask them to participate in special surveys and focus groups. Listen to what they think about your learning portfolio—what’s been most valuable and what’s missing. Invite them to serve on an advisory board where you can dig deeper into their needs as well as the needs of their network and co-workers.

Recognize loyal employers

If employers are the ones footing the bill and supporting the professional development of their employees, recognize their loyalty as well. Give them public kudos and help promote them as appealing places to work—a valuable benefit in a competitive talent marketplace.

Keep an eye on loyalty programs in the for-profit space. Notice what comes up in your own experiences as a consumer. Whether you’re at Disney or your favorite restaurant or retailer, look for inspiration that will help you enhance engagement and increase learner (and member) retention.

member engagement
student engagement