Shift from Transactions to Relationships with Learning Subscriptions

When a speaker’s topic gets the audience excited, the conversation in the chat box flows by too quickly to read. Jack Coursen, senior director of professional development at The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), caused this kind of ruckus at Leading Learning’s recent Learning Business Summit.

His topic? Learning subscriptions. In keeping with the summit’s theme, Jack told us how the ASHA Learning Pass delivers much greater “reach, revenue, and impact.”

Solid reasons for offering learning subscriptions

Jack believes ASHA should’ve been offering a learning subscription all along because subscriptions are better aligned with the concept of membership. Their Learning Pass has been transformative for ASHA’s learning business—I’ll share the numbers in a bit.

He reminded us that learning is a process, not an event. A learning subscription makes learning a regular, sustainable process for customers. It also shifts your connection with learners from a transactional relationship to an ongoing relationship of engagement and value delivery.

Learning subscriptions help people solve challenges and meet goals as they emerge in their lives. Subscribers don’t think of themselves merely as customers, they have a long-term relationship with you.

Subscription expert Robbie Kellman Baxter said, “When subscribers feel like members, they are more likely to be loyal, even through bumps along the way. This emotional connection leads to long-term relationships and a forever transaction.”

ASHA’s astounding success with learning subscriptions

ASHA’s learning business strategy focuses on impact, revenue, and strategic engagement. They offer over 800 learning products, most of them online asynchronous programs. ASHA also competes with over 500 ASHA-approved CE providers, so business never came easy.

The ASHA Learning Pass was launched at the start of 2020. Members have to purchase it separately from membership, but only for $144. Non-members pay $179.

The Learning Pass is the dominant driver of revenue, growth, and engagement for their professional development program:

•    Revenue is up 300%
•    Learner engagement is up 200%

Before 2020, when ASHA had an “a la carte” model, their best revenue year brought in $1.7 million. Last year, with the same products on offer, subscriptions brought in $3.4 million plus $420K of “a la carte” sales. They also started January 2024 with $1,960,000 of deferred revenue.

Subscriptions are better for learner reach and engagement too. With the old model, 17.5K unique learners consumed 104K hours of educational content. Last year, 29K unique learners consumed 265K hours of educational content.

woman taking notes while taking an online course on her laptop

Essential elements of a learning subscription

For a successful learning subscription model, you have to keep customers year after year. To do that, you must require automatic renewals. Don’t worry, people are used to auto-renewals. They don’t mind as long as you alert them that their auto-renewal is coming up and let them know how to change credit card information or unsubscribe.

If company cards or B2B sales are involved, Jack recommends having someone on staff manage those relationships and taking care of upcoming subscription expirations.

ASHA’s course catalog includes soft upselling copy, such as “Our learning subscription, a much better value, includes this course.” But some products in the catalog serve as hard upsells for the Learning Pass because they can’t be purchased separately.

An attendee raised a good point in the chat: how do you motivate people to purchase a subscription if CE credit maintenance isn’t required? Jeff Cobb, co-founder of Leading Learning, said he’s seen for-profits include a well-managed, meaningful community in learning subscriptions. He admits that’d be trickier in the association world since professional development teams rarely have any control over the online community. But community is such a huge driver for learning engagement and effectiveness that this idea merits exploration.

What to include and exclude from your learning subscription

When deciding what to include and exclude from a learning subscription, Jack suggests sitting down with a list of your products by category. Look at them through both a business and customer lens.

Taking on the business lens, the learning subscription might include:

•    Similarly priced products 
•    Underperforming products, revenue-wise
•    “Broccoli” topics, the ones you’re forced to develop 
•    Free and inexpensive entry-level products

Because of financial considerations, you probably want to exclude premium products.

As for the customer lens, include products that customers don’t differentiate. If they think of webinars, online expert series, and discussion panels as the same thing and call them the same name, include all of them.

Think about your rationale for including and excluding products. Will it make sense to customers? It’s best to keep the logic simple. Will customers assume an outlier product is included, based on the other products in the subscription?

Jack suggests thinking about how a subscription fits into your overall content strategy. You don’t want the subscription to cannibalize events. ASHA doesn’t include conferences and events in their Learning Pass, but subscribers receive a discount. They embargo event recordings for a while and then add them to the subscription.

ASHA surveyed customers before bringing their subscription to market so they could refine the offering. He recommends conducting an annual subscriber survey. Find out:

•    If you have enough content 
•    If your current rate of production is enough to keep up or the rate is ahead of what people can consume
•    How happy subscribers are with the amount and pacing of new content
•    Who pays for courses
•    How subscribers pick courses
•    If subscribers are aware of specific features of the subscription

Jack said the whole point of his presentation is to convince Summit attendees to do something. He said he’s not a magician. He has no background in education or business, no special training. Anyone can bring the learning subscription model to their association. You just have to be curious and like solving problems. “You’ve got this,” he said.

online courses
Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to receive our blog posts and updatesSubscribe