Making the Case for Online Education to Association Decision-Makers

Many professional development teams and their association leadership—staff executives and board—are living in two different realities. In some associations, leaders are living in La La Land. They see the switch to virtual conferences as a temporary fix until things get back to “normal.”

Meanwhile, professional development teams are living in the real world. Sure, there will always be an eager audience for in-person events, but the larger audience is virtual. That audience has always been there, but associations have ignored them.

How do you shift the boardroom’s focus from the old events they’re personally invested in and get them to invest more heavily in online learning? How do you convince them that online education is a year-round imperative not just a temporary replacement for their beloved conference?

“Good business strategy looks forward.”

To muster up the strength and inspiration you need for this challenging conversation with association decision-makers, commit this quote to memory. It’s from an excellent post written by Joy Davis, CAE, managing director of member products at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, for the Velvet Chainsaw Consulting blog:

“I need to operate now and look forward, not try to claw my way back to ‘normal.’ The ‘normal’ we know is history. And I have to ask, do we really want to repeat it? We should not, even if we think we can.”
The historical normal for many associations was in-person conferences and educational programs. It’s where board members first established the relationships that got them to where they are today—no wonder they’re so invested in these events.

But in-person education always left out the majority of your members and market. In the coming year, or longer, most of these people will stay home because:

•    They’re unwilling to travel while COVID still lurks.
•    Their employers won’t let them travel.
•    They can’t afford to travel.
•    Thy can’t take time away from other responsibilities to travel.
•    They discovered virtual learning is just as good with less hassle.

Is your association going to be future-focused by delivering online education to members and customers… or stay stuck in the past? I know what you want but how do you convince your C-suite and board to see the way forward?

making the case for online education

Making the case for online education

Here are principles to keep in mind when making the case for increased investment in online education. If what you’re really after is a new LMS, take a few minutes to also read our posts on preparing a business case for a new LMS and presenting your case for a new LMS.

Bring leadership up to speed on professional development trends

The C-suite and board aren’t following professional development trends like you are. You can safely assume they aren’t fluent in the benefits of online education for your association, industry employers and members/customers.

Before you dive into data that will bolster your argument, describe the benefits of virtual education already experienced by your association and its customers/attendees and by other organizations. Focus on organizations with stellar reputations as well as similar member profiles and organizational resources.

For example, show how virtual conferences and educational programs expand your audience, give you access to a wider range of talent (instructors and speakers) and generate new streams of revenue (registration, credentialing, publications and sponsorship). Share examples of similar associations meeting educational needs with their online learning programs.

Discuss the changes you’re seeing in the skills and competencies required by industry employers. Point out the opportunities for your association to offer courses and certificate programs that fill those skills gaps and corporate training needs.

Before you enter the boardroom, sketch out how you might proceed if given additional resources. Paint a picture for them so they can imagine how your association’s online education portfolio might look.

Map out learning pathways for different competencies or career goals. Fit existing programs into these pathways, for example:

•    Session recordings
•    Webinar recordings
•    Online courses
•    Podcasts
•    Reading selections

Highlight the gaps you need to fill. Describe the benefits of tying these pathways to certificate programs and digital badges.

Align your proposal with your association’s mission and strategic plan

Joy Davis said, “We never lost sight of the fact that our mission is not to have an in-person meeting—it is to bring scientists together. That’s our actual job, and we’re doing it.”

Have your leaders lost sight of that fact? In case they have, study your association’s mission and strategic plan. The mission probably says something about advancing the profession, promoting professional growth, or improving practices. How can online learning help your association fulfill its mission and achieve its goals?

Naturally, online learning is essential to achieving professional development goals, but look beyond that. Does the plan mention any particular demographic, for example, young professionals or recent graduates, BIPOC professionals, women or other market segments? How can online learning attract and serve membership and market segments?

What about revenue goals? During this pandemic, many associations painfully discovered the need for revenue diversification. Online education registrations and sponsorships deliver year-round revenue streams.  

making the case for online education

Support your case with data

If you’ve hosted a virtual conference, show leaders how the engagement data compares to past in-person conferences. Share what you’ve learned from conference data—or data from other virtual events.

Survey members on their desire for online learning and networking opportunities. You’ll get a quicker response if you deploy a poll or pulse survey rather than a comprehensive survey.

Make sure leaders know what competitors are doing on the virtual front. Share revenue and engagement data or anecdotes from similar non-competing associations with robust online education portfolios.

Association benchmarking data can give you a better lay of the land, for example:

•    Marketing General Inc.’s Fall 2020 edition of the Association Economic Outlook Report

•    The Virtual Conferences Report from Tagoras

•    Association Trends 2020: From Disruption to Opportunity from Community Brands

•    Freeman Future Forecast: How Live Events Are Evolving

•    PCMA’s COVID-19 Recovery Dashboards

Carefully choose the data you present. You don’t want to overwhelm them with information. Select reliable data that you think will have the biggest impact. Use data visualization tools to interpret it for them in an easily scanned format.

Rehearse your ideas and presentation with a colleague who understands your goals, preferably an objective colleague from another association. If you have an ally on the leadership team, consult with them too about your plan and presentation.

Understand leaders' perspectives and anticipate objections

Know what’s most important to decision-makers. The CFO has different concerns than the CIO. Board members are all over the place. What gets their attention? ROI, engagement, industry standing, value delivery or audience development?

You’re about to rock the boat. Anticipate how leaders and stakeholders will react and what they will want to hold onto. Investing more in online education means taking money from somewhere else.

•    Whose budget might be threatened?
•    Whose job might be on the line?
•    Which department head will protest?
•    Which leader will take up that department head’s battle?

Leaders might declare that members aren’t ready for online education. Now, if you’ve hosted a successful virtual conference, this objection is dead upon arrival. But, if you haven’t, send out a quick poll to find out if members have been Zooming at all during these past eight months or if they’ve helped anyone (their kids or parents) get online. If they can access Zoom or another LMS, they can take an online course or attend a virtual conference.

The sacred cows will stampede. Which traditions, signature events, and personal experiences and preferences is your plan threatening? How about the volunteer roles associated with those sacred cows?

Many of your members will be happy to travel somewhere for a few days to see their friends and make new acquaintances in person again. But what about the rest of the year? Members and industry professionals expect to have hassle-free options for learning and networking online, not just in a convention center or hotel meeting room.

While momentum is in your favor, you must convince your C-suite and board that virtual is here to stay. Your association can decide to either move forward and take advantage of new opportunities or get left behind.


online learning
virtual education
business case
association growth
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