Selling Education to Nonmembers, a Market Segment with Huge Potential

If you’re like most associations, the biggest segment of your market is nonmembers, not members. Nonmembers need education as much as your members do. Yet, associations often focus their marketing on members. You’re missing a huge opportunity by not shifting some of your focus to marketing and selling education to nonmembers.

Obstacles to selling education to nonmembers

It’s not as easy to sell education to nonmembers. For one, many of them don’t know you. You haven’t established trust with them as you have with members. One of your first tasks is to develop tactics for starting a relationship and establishing that trust—more on that later.

Another obstacle is your higher nonmember prices. A few years ago, Associations Now reported that the median markup on association products and services for nonmembers was 25%. If people in your market see your educational programs as commodities, they will shop around for the best price. But if your programs offer a value that’s distinctive (and better) than your competitors, that 25% markup may not matter.

The toughest obstacle to overcome may be your organizational culture: “We’ve always done it this way.” A member-centric mindset is a smart way to operate, but you can be member-centric and market-savvy at the same time. Attracting nonmember customers can help you spread the word about your programs, increase revenue, and develop relationships that may lead to more purchases and even new memberships down the road.

Who are these nonmembers?

You can’t treat all nonmembers the same. Some of them have a history with your association—perhaps they’ve attended your conferences, read your publications, or regularly visit your website. But some don’t know you at all.

Like your members, nonmembers have different needs, interests, and goals. The more you learn about them, the more effectively you can market to them.

Something to keep in mind: a tighter relationship doesn’t always lead to membership. It might, but some nonmembers will never join because their employer pays only for professional development but not membership dues. Or, the nonmember isn’t interested in the membership benefits you offer. They’re only interested in education—and they’re willing to pay a higher price for it.

Your marketing efforts could lead to success, but they could also lead to the cold shoulder if you aren’t coordinating your marketing and communication efforts with other departments. You don’t want to bombard your leads with messages from several departments—that’s a sure way to end up in the spam folder. 

You also need reliable, accurate, and up-to-date data. Leads can come from the membership, publications, conference, and trade show teams. You need to get this data out of departmental silos so your association can make a coordinated effort to establish relationships with these prospective customers, attendees, and members.

selling education to nonmembers

12 tactics for marketing and selling education to nonmembers

Everyone is a marketer to some extent. But, if you’re expected to market your programs, do yourself a favor and hone your marketing chops by reading, attending webinars, and signing up for online marketing courses. Increasing your marketing knowledge will help you implement these tactics and write more effective marketing copy.

#1: Offer distinctive educational programs

The professional development marketplace is full of competitors. What makes your programs stand out? Spot emerging educational needs before your competitors do and you’ll have an advantage. Or provide extra value that nobody else does.

Talk to industry employers about skills gaps. What competencies are becoming more in demand? Don’t limit your research to technical skills; you may learn there’s a need for industry-specific training in soft skills.  

#2: Encourage word-of-mouth marketing

In the 2019 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Inc. (MGI), 69% of associations said their best channel for membership marketing is word-of-mouth marketing. That’s not surprising since word-of-mouth marketing always takes first place in consumer studies too.

You can encourage word-of-mouth marketing with a referral program. Give “alumni” a promo code they can share with a new customer. When it’s redeemed, reward the referrer with a promo code they can use for themselves.

Collect testimonials from successful learners to share in your marketing emails and on your website.

#3: Provide proof of competency: digital badges

Digital badges are public proof of a learner’s accomplishments. They’re rewarded when a learner demonstrates their mastery of a competency or competencies, for example, at the end of a course, series of courses, or upon certification.

Unlike certificates hidden away in file cabinets or hung on office walls, learners can publicly display their digital badges in LinkedIn profiles, email signatures, or digital badge backpacks like Badgr. Think of them as an additional social advertisement for your credential programs.

#4: Convert leads into customers with inbound marketing

Inbound marketing, a type of content marketing, is the most effective way to nurture prospects and convert them into customers. You attract their interest with a piece of valuable content—the lead magnet—that is emailed to them after they complete a form on your website.

Based on their interest in the lead magnet topic, you continue to send them related content via email. The goal is to establish a relationship so they see you as a trusted source of valuable information—someone they may want to do business with in the future.  

#5: Publish nonmember newsletters

Newsletters also serve content marketing purposes. Create a bimonthly or quarterly newsletter for nonmember segments. Add value to their inbox by including information relevant to their interests, behavioral data (email opens, links clicked, webpages visited), or demographic data.

In the newsletter, suggest low-cost (low barrier to entry) programs they might be interested in. Nowadays, people expect brands and organizations to know them. Since you have data on their interactions with you, they believe you have no excuse for not being relevant.

selling education to nonmembers

#6: Lure nonmembers in with free webinars

Free content, like webinars, can help you earn the goodwill of nonmembers and establish your association as a valuable source of information. Webinars can help lure prospective customers into the top of your marketing funnel and nudge them along that funnel toward one of your paid programs, like an online course.

#7: Entice nonmembers with a sample of your value

A wine tasting usually leads to a wine purchase. Give nonmembers a taste of your best. Offer a sample program that leads naturally into one or more of your other programs so they know exactly what their next educational step should be.

#8: Experiment with advertising and sponsorship

Organic reach on social media platforms no longer works. If you want to get in front of your target audience, you have to pay for advertising on Facebook and LinkedIn. In fact, 68% of the associations participating in the MGI benchmarking report said Facebook advertising is their most effective digital advertising channel for member recruitment.

You may also want to consider sponsoring a series of episodes on a popular podcast in your industry or profession. If you need convincing about the popularity of podcasts, these statistics on Convince & Convert should convert you to the podcast side.

#9: Improve your SEO game

SEO or search engine optimization: you can’t effectively market without it. If an industry professional is searching for information about educational programs, you want them to end up on your site. But, it won’t just happen naturally.

On a basic level, you have to optimize your website’s architecture for factors like mobile responsiveness, speed, and easy navigation. Your website copy must use the same language people use to search. But, there’s a lot more to SEO. An SEO expert can help you increase your marketing ROI.

#10: Have a trade show or conference presence

If your trade show or conference has a high nonmember participation rate, consider asking for a booth on the show floor where you can lure attendees in with free professional development resources, such as self-assessments or advice on learning paths.

#11: Offer learning subscriptions

Learning subscriptions help people stay accountable to their good intentions. For a monthly or yearly fee, nonmembers can take advantage of any (or some) of your online learning programs. Your association enjoys recurring revenue while building a relationship with a loyal fan.

#12: Start up a learner loyalty program

If you win a nonmember’s business, the next step is to earn and reward their loyalty. A learner loyalty program makes it worth their while to continue doing business with you.

Nonmembers have the same needs, interests, and goals as your members—but not the same relationship with you, yet. If you provide educational programs that make a positive impact on their work, career, business, and life, they will become loyal fans and customers, even if they never become members.


content marketing
online marketing
lead generation