10 Rules for Generating Value and Growth for Your Education Programs

The only way forward for association education programs is to improve them and grow them. This is not a time to stand in place. There is no good reason to stand in place.

Every membership survey report says people join associations for networking and education. People need new skills and knowledge to keep up with the changes occurring in every industry and profession. They need them to stay promotable and employable. As revenue declines from traditional sources—in-person events, sponsors and exhibitors, advertising, publications, even membership dues—the expectations for revenue-generating education programs rise.

Professional development is a competitive market in many industries as for-profits and higher education expand their portfolios. Associations need to differentiate their programs to capture more market share.

What does it take to generate value-creating growth for your education programs? McKinsey & Company conducted a study of the growth patterns and performance of the world’s 5,000 largest public companies over the past 15 years. Their findings suggest “ten imperatives that should guide organizations seeking to outgrow and out-earn their peers.”

generating value and growth

10 rules for generating value and growth for your education programs

Here are McKinsey’s ten rules of value-creating growth for you to keep in mind when developing a strategy for your association’s learning business.

#1: Put competitive advantage first.

McKinsey: “Start with a winning, scalable formula.”

McKinsey suggests establishing a “distinctive business model and then scale it.” But first you must understand what your competitors are offering, how your programs compare, and where you can win market share. Identify your unique value proposition. What do you do better than your competitors? How does the learning experience you provide exceed the industry standard? What marketing messages are you using to differentiate yourself? You must hone your program’s elevator pitch so people remember it. It will help to ask: Only your programs do what?

Revamp your business model if you must. Keep an eye out for inspiration. The Transportation Intermediaries Association did with their New Broker Success Package (NBSP). For an additional fee, new members can add this package to their first year of membership and receive access to the NBSP Online Course, professional coaching sessions, and other membership benefits.

#2: Make the trend your friend.

McKinsey: “Prioritize profitable, fast-growing markets.”

A rapidly changing world creates new opportunities your association can take advantage of. Keep your eyes and ears facing outward and forward. Lean into your inner futurist by watching trends and forecasting. Figure out where your association can ride the wave of change.

#3: Don’t be a laggard.

McKinsey: “It’s not enough to go with the flow—you need to outgrow your peers.”

All your research and ideas are for naught if your association’s leaders aren’t agile decision makers. They must be able and willing to quickly adjust direction and invest resources where market demand is going.

#4: Turbocharge your core.

McKinsey: “Focus on growth in your core industry—you can’t win without it.”

Your core industry focuses on the needs of your members and non-members—the people and industry for whom your association was founded. Your association must be known as the best in that market. If you can’t serve your core audience well, you have no business getting into other markets.

What do you need to dominate your market? Perhaps a better understanding of data? Know what industry employees and employers need and what they will pay for. Analyze behavioral data. Listen to people via group and individual discussions, surveys, and polls.

Do you need a better method for nurturing prospects and retaining customers? Perhaps it’s time to invest in marketing automation? If you’re not attracting specific market segments, find out why and address that elephant in the room.

#5: Look beyond the core.

McKinsey: “Nurture growth in adjacent business areas.”

The emphasis here is “adjacent.” McKinsey found that 80% of growth comes from a company’s core industry and the remaining 20% from secondary industries or expansion into new ones.

If your data is telling you about a market need in an adjacent area, listen to what it’s saying. Don’t be blind to future opportunities if you have the capacity to pursue them and they make sense for your mission.

generating value and growth

#6: Grow where you know.

McKinsey: “Focus on growing where you have an ownership advantage.”

Go deep, find the riches in the niches. In which niches do you have the ownership advantage? That advantage might include relationships with members, industry employers, or sponsors. You may have the advantage of customer or employer loyalty, brand name, or reputation.

The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research met with employers in their industry before designing a learning portal for corporations and subscriptions for individuals. Education revenue quintupled as a result.

Industry employers need to provide soft skills, leadership, and manager training to their staff. Why should for-profit training companies get business that should be rightfully yours?

#7: Be a local hero.

McKinsey: “Commit to winning on the home front.”

Make an effort to help repair or strengthen your association’s relationship with its chapters or local affiliates. By partnering with chapters on education, you can leverage each other’s strengths and share revenue.

#8: Go global if you can beat local.

McKinsey: “Expand internationally if you have a transferable advantage.”

Virtual conferences opened the global doors for many associations. Are you still nurturing that audience? Look at global traffic trends in your website analytics to see if any potential is there.

#9: Acquire programmatically.

McKinsey: “Combine healthy organic growth with serial acquisitions.”

Associations often acquire trade shows, and for-profit education providers buy each other. Does it make sense for your association to acquire a for-profit provider so you can get access to its audience and content? Or is partnership or collaboration a better route?

#10: It’s OK to shrink to grow.

McKinsey: “Ruthlessly prune your portfolio if you need to.”

Every association needs a sunset review process for programs, products, services, and committees. You won’t have the freedom to pursue new opportunities unless you relieve your staff and budget of programs that are weighing you down.

Hopefully, these rules for growth from McKinsey inspire a different way of looking at your business strategy for educational programs.


learning business
association growth
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