Increase Member Engagement with an Online Learning Challenge

Participating in an online learning challenge is a great way to kick-start a new habit, acquire a new skill, or accomplish a long-desired goal. For example:

  • More than 250 novels have been published by authors who started writing them during the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 30-day challenge.
  • A 7-day green smoothie challenge helped the founders of Simple Green Smoothies build an online community of more than 200,000 people.
  • Countless fitness and wellness experts have used 30-day challenges to grow successful online businesses.

When you invite members to participate in a learning challenge, and guide and support them throughout the challenge, they’ll become more comfortable with online learning and your learning management system (LMS). The challenge will give them the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and/or skills in the company of their professional community.

Why learning challenges are a fit for association members

During a challenge, a big project or goal is broken down into manageable daily chunks. A steady, daily application of effort helps build the momentum that makes new habits possible. As each day is ticked off, members see how far they’ve progressed and are encouraged to not break that string of successes.

A challenge provides structure and community for what would otherwise be a lonely struggle. The participants are all in it together, holding each other accountable for showing up and doing the work each day. For many participants, a sense of competition and social pressure act as additional motivators.

Challenges aren’t new to the nonprofit and association world. The Good Partnership runs Operation Major Gifts, a 5-day challenge to help small nonprofits launch a major gifts program. The American Nurses Association (ANA) has a longer “grand” challenge, Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation. Participants take a health assessment survey at the start to identify health risks, choose a focus area (activity, rest, nutrition, quality of life, or safety), make a health commitment, and participate in health challenges.

learning challenges goes on the calendar

The benefits of a learning challenge

What habit or skill can you help members develop in 10 or 14 days? You could choose something that would appeal to all career levels and positions, or focus on a targeted audience, for example, young professionals who don’t normally have the budget for conferences and other expensive events. Or, you could help mid-career professionals brush up on skills needed for C-suite positions.

A 10-day learning experience may be all it takes to give members the taste for lifelong learning. They can quickly see the transformational power of professional development. And, they’ll get a chance to become familiar with your association’s online educational programs and LMS. Chances are they’ll explore a bit while they’re inside the LMS to see what else you have to offer.

If your association builds an industry-wide marketing campaign around the challenge, you’ll attract the attention of professionals beyond your membership. They’ll have the opportunity to see what it’s like to be an active member of your community—and you’ll have the opportunity to add them to your email marketing list.

Planning your learning challenge

Begin with the end in mind.

Before you develop challenge content, be absolutely clear on the purpose of the challenge. What can participants expect to do after completing the challenge? What’s the desired, measurable outcome for the participants? The challenge goal(s) will guide your content development and your marketing copy.

Make sure challenge goals are aligned with association goals. How does this challenge fit in with the goals of your professional development program? Are you using the challenge to introduce members to your online education platform and programs? Or, are you using the challenge to raise awareness of an important issue, like ANA’s Healthy Nurse challenge? Are you using the challenge to increase association awareness and engagement with a particular targeted audience?

Design the challenge content.

First, you have to decide how much content you will offer during the challenge and how long the challenge will be. Challenges that run for 7 to 14 days are the most successful, with 10 days being the most popular. 30 day challenges are prevalent but participant momentum is hard to maintain. Many participants may drop off before the challenge is complete.

Develop all the challenge’s educational and marketing content ahead of time. During the challenge, you want to have plenty of time to moderate the online community or discussion forum, encourage social sharing, and send emails to participants with congratulatory or motivational messages.

You need to create content for:

  • Promotional emails, social updates, and web copy.
  • Challenge sign up (landing) page and thank you page.
  • Welcome email and “get excited and ready” email.
  • Daily emails that include links to lessons, recorded videos, and assignments; challenge tips and motivational messages; save-the-date info for livestreaming videos/webcasts; and the challenge’s social hashtag.
  • Challenge educational content on your LMS, including lessons, templates, tip sheets, checklists, and other resources. Challenge participation should take no more than 45 to 60 minutes a day.
  • Pre- and post-challenge quizzes or questionnaires.
  • Online community content, for example, ideas for new discussion topics each day.
  • Plans or scripts for special events such as livestreaming videos or webcasts.
  • Post-challenge follow-up emails and survey.

Build marketing into the challenge design.

Many online entrepreneurs run free challenges as a feeder mechanism for their more expensive online courses. They design the content so participants will recognize, by the end of the challenge, the gap between their current skills/knowledge and where they’d like to be. And, it just so happens, they can fill that gap by registering for one of the entrepreneur’s online courses.

Your association may not wish to hard sell your programs like an online entrepreneur would, but don’t miss out on this opportunity to make challenge participants aware of your online educational programs. Feature related content and programs on the user dashboard.

Consider whether completion of the challenge merits the awarding of a digital badge. If not, let participants know what other classes or courses they need to take to earn that badge.

coworkers take on a learning challenge

Promote the learning challenge.

Challenges provide an opportunity for associations to create a buzz beyond their membership. Don’t promote the challenge as only an association or member benefit. Make it a profession or industry challenge.

Run regular promotions using these channels:

  • Your website’s home page and other popular pages.
  • Association newsletters, blog posts, and other publications.
  • Social media updates.
  • Facebook and LinkedIn ads.
  • Google retargeting campaigns.
  • Email marketing campaigns.

Keep the marketing momentum going.

After the challenge, send a recap email to all participants. Include a PDF that outlines content highlights and takeaways. Remind participants about related online educational programs. Send them an exclusive discount coupon for those online programs. Put a reasonable deadline on the discount. Remember, they just dedicated a good deal of time to your challenge and may have to take a break before they can dedicate time again to an online course.

Request testimonials from participants in different membership segments. Use this “social proof” in the marketing for future challenges.

Consider using the challenge content as an evergreen program that’s sent to new members. Don’t send it all at once. Space the challenge content out over several weeks so you don’t overwhelm them.

For a learning challenge to make a positive impact on the lives of your members and on your association, it must create a buzz in the member community and in your members’ industry or profession. Ideally, members will get excited about taking on this challenge together and making progress together. An association that gives its members the opportunity to accomplish something together that they wouldn’t accomplish on their own is an association with a bright future.

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