In an AI-Powered Market, a Human Touch Can Differentiate Your Association’s Education Programs

Building AI into your association’s practices is a careful balancing act. It makes sense to use AI to automate menial tasks and extend your capabilities. But you must also consider where to draw the line with AI—where you can double-down on the human touch. 

The human touch can become a differentiator for your association in the membership, information, and education marketplaces. Competitors will inevitably enter your market as AI lowers the barrier to entry for those who want to make an impression on and a profit from your members and customers.

AI’s potential impact on the information and education markets

You can already spot AI-produced content when searching on Google. Much of it was produced purely for SEO purposes (to rank high on search engines). As AI pervades further and further into our information streams, AI-produced content will become an irritating commodity. Irritating because you know it’s generic stale text, you know it’s a cheat, and you don’t know if you can trust it. 

In describing this trust flip, Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly points to photography. “The arrival of generative AI has flipped the polarity of truthfulness… Just recently, our initial default response to a photograph was to believe it as real, unless proven a fake. Now our default response to an image is to disbelieve as a fake, unless proven to be real.”

AI allows your competitors to scale up personalization of content, education programs, and learning pathways. Of course, you can do that too. People will soon expect that personalization. 

If everyone offers AI-empowered education programs, AI-empowered education programs become a commodity. So how do you differentiate your education programs

The human touch becomes your competitive advantage—a premium service built into your programs. Because AI frees up staff and volunteer time, you will be able to take on high-touch tasks, which are more fulfilling for everyone.

Offer an authentic human touch in a sterile AI world

AI tool developers already brag about their tool’s “human touch” because they know organizations worry about relying on AI for customer-facing functions. Associations should decline participating in the AI-empowered race to the bottom. Use AI where it increases productivity, but don’t ignore the value of the human touch and human interaction—your specialties. It’s only natural for a profession of people, even introverts, who describe themselves as “people people” to lean into the human touch.

People are willing to pay more for human interaction if it enhances an educational experience. Associations are natural facilitators of human interaction. Help people get to know each other—a powerful value-add to education programs.

Passive online content consumption can happen anywhere. The magic ingredient—people—transforms an educational experience. Start thinking about how you can create the conditions for volunteer and staff roles that help provide the human touch in your programs.

Offer experiences that AI is not capable of offering

I’ve got practical examples for you, but first, consider the feelings and emotions a human or group of humans can trigger. How might your association trigger these feelings through education, networking, and other membership or association experiences?

Thinking about these emotions may help you identify elements to build into your education programs and membership experiences. 

a human touch can differentiate your association’s education programs and touch a learner's heart like this young man on his tablet

How a human touch can differentiate your association’s education programs 

But will people really care about the human touch in education programs? Right now, many are happy with on-demand passive content consumption. But as our world becomes more and more AI-infused, our mindsets might change. It doesn’t hurt to think now about ways to get an edge on the competition and offer what people will seek in the future. Build the culture, practices, and processes to make that future happen.

Recruit member advisors, coaches, and mentors

Many associations assign an ambassador or buddy to first-time conference attendees or new members. These advisors:

  • discuss the person’s event or membership goals
  • help them find the right programs, benefits, and opportunities to achieve those goals
  • connect them with peers and potential mentors 

Extend this service to all members. Sure, ChatGPT can offer advice about a tricky work situation or a career decision, but what’s that advice based on? Members would rather talk with a real person who has the ability, unlike AI, to care about the mentee’s situation and who’s been in the mentee’s shoes. 

A real person brings their experience and their knowledge of the experiences of others to the discussion. A mentor can take in the mentee’s responses, signals, expressions, and manner to explore possibilities with them.

Humans are capable of bringing critical thinking, judgment, creativity, empathy, and emotional intelligence to their interactions with others—qualities lacked by AI. They tailor their guidance, support, and encouragement to the complex person in front of them.

Offer mentorship or coaching as part of every online course

Associations and for-profit providers are already offering coaching or mentoring services in their online cohort programs. Member volunteers of all ages and career levels could serve as advisors, coaches, or mentors individually or in groups. AI can help by making initial matches.

Coaching is a microvolunteering activity if you limit the volunteer’s time to 20-30 minutes every few weeks. The coach or advisor reviews the learner’s performance and then meets with them to provide feedback and suggest resources and/or connections. 

Invite program alumni to apply for these volunteering positions. These volunteers would also enjoy being a part of a community. Provide basic training and support for coaches, including a community where they can seek advice on resources and connections for their charges.

With the increased emphasis on coaching in the workplace, these volunteering opportunities are a valuable experience for members who want to take on or succeed in managerial positions at work.

Build learner interaction into every live (synchronous) education program and course

We’ve written about the advantages of social learning and retrieval practice many times before. When learners have the opportunity to recall and apply new knowledge together, they’re more likely to retain and apply that knowledge back in the workplace. Plus, social learning gives them the opportunity to develop relationships with people like them who are driven to learn and succeed.

Virtual meetups for asynchronous learners

Offer the human touch in your on-demand, asynchronous programs. It takes more effort, but how many providers in your market offer asynchronous programs with a human interaction component? Build some of these elements into the price or offer them at a premium: 

  • Exclusive invitations to facilitated hot topic discussions, panel discussions, and Q&A sessions with industry experts
  • Accountability buddies
  • Coaches or mentors
  • Online discussion forums by topic, career stage, or career goals 

Personalized learning pathways

If your association develops its own AI tool, you’ll be able to offer personalized learning or career pathways based on your educational programs, recordings, content, and volunteering opportunities. But only a real human can assess the pathway and learner to see if they’re a good match. 

A volunteer or professional coach can discuss the learner’s career goals, interests, and learning pace, conduct self-assessments, and refine the learning pathway. They can provide check-ins along the way and adjust the pathway as needed.

Learning campaigns 

Make learning an essential element of your membership culture by crafting intentional campaigns around learning. You could roll out a campaign after your annual conference. Or select monthly themes and books or series of articles and recordings that relate to that theme.

Schedule live discussion forums or recording replays with speakers or facilitators in attendance. Ask course alumni to share what they’ve learned with others—a great way to retain knowledge is to share it.

Online cohort programs

Cohort programs are growing in popularity in both the association and for-profit world. People join cohorts because they want to learn alongside others.

A cohort program is a mix of live and self-study online learning, facilitated by instructors, coaches, or advisors. Cohort programs have fixed start and end dates, usually a few months. In the for-profit world, some cohort programs offer lifetime access to resources and an alumni networking group. 

Chapter education 

Every time I see an article about the loneliness epidemic, I wonder why people say chapters are dying. They’re the perfect solution for getting members together in real life. Yes, recruiting volunteer chapter leaders is difficult because the workload is usually too heavy—although you could relieve that burden by using technology to automate and centralize financial and membership tasks and reporting.

Help chapters by designing member-facilitated education programs or hosting national broadcasts. Provide discussion guides and facilitation toolkits. 

Associations have long existed because they give members the opportunity to accomplish together what they can’t do well separately. They’ve become part of the civic fabric of our country because personal and professional relationships and communities come to life in associations. AI can’t replicate that human interaction. It can try, but only an authentic human touch can move and inspire us. 

learner engagement
instructional design
program development
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