Martin Davies
Martin Davies
eLearning Director, Wiley
Source: iStock/Thinkstock
Source: anyaberkut/Thinkstock

Memberships are in decline

It is no secret that many scholarly societies or associations are seeing membership numbers dwindle in recent years. Whether this is due to member needs changing and societies being unable to adapt quickly, the almost ubiquitous access to academic resources seeing the society publication cease to be the main draw, or just simply that societies may not be offering enough to justify their membership dues.

Educational mission

Whatever the ultimate reason for decline, there are steps that can be taken to increase the value proposition to members by looking more closely at their needs. Most societies exist to serve their members, so making those who make up the membership central to the organization’s strategy is crucial. If you look at the key activities most societies undertake, they are closely linked to education: conferences, publications (e.g. journals and books), outreach and so on. Different societies will approach these activities with different emphases, and many are already investing in eLearning programs (78% according to a recent Tagoras report on learning management systems). As I'll demonstrate below, there are great possibilities open to societies in optimizing their existing programs and calibrating them to deliver maximum value, or by setting up an eLearning program from scratch for those remaining 22% of societies or associations.

What about eLearning?

eLearning can take many forms, but there are some common benefits it can yield for societies or associations. It can provide members with professional development and learning, facilitate accreditations and certifications that are critical to their careers, and increase the levels of engagement between societies and their members, and between the members themselves. By matching their strategic goals to the professional needs of their members, society executives and Directors of Education within the organizations can deliver a valuable program of benefits that will attract new members, and bolster retention rates. In a previous post, we highlighted education and certification as two key roles of the ‘Association of the Future’.

Matching up to member needs

If a society can match its membership offerings with the actual needs of its members, the foundations for success are set. So what are the needs of the society and the typical member in the case of eLearning?


Society needs


    • Retain members, attract new members. Where educational resources are available online for members, there is potential to attract members from diverse regions around the world, while building relationships with new communities (and not simply relying on the annual conference to generate discussions).


    • Increase member engagement. Connecting people is often a fundamental objective of any society. Therefore, providing educational activities enables the members to interact and engage more effectively with the society and vice versa.


    • Generate new revenue streams. Creating an online learning platform can open up new commercial opportunities, reducing the reliance on traditional publications and/or conference income.


    • Show leadership. What better position to be in than the go-to place for resources on a particular subject area? It can help to promote the ideas, research and knowledge of the society itself through its educational content. It will also help the society to demonstrate its influence in a digital world.


For these ideas to be realized, a society should focus on a few important aspects: commitment and buy-in from society executives and governors, robust curricula (this is the foundation of eLearning), a delivery platform capable of deploying the content effectively, technological knowhow (which can be injected from the right partner), and a desire to diversify.


Member needs


    • Lifelong learning. Many professions require continuos learning as protocols, standards and knowledge change over time. Many professionals must ensure they have the latest certifications to enable them to actually work.


    • Supported professional development. This is generally a high priority item for many professionals whether they are considering a new job, or joining a professional membership organization.


    • Convenience. Users want information but digital barriers often result in the user looking elsewhere. They want digital content instantly, wherever they are, and that's compatible with the device they choose. They also want the platform to work intuitively. User-experience is an enormously important (and sometimes overlooked) element of eLearning design.


    • Community engagement. How can a society create eLearning programs that really motivate and engage the members? Diversity of media, graded content, incentives, deep social media integration and in-activity polls and surveys and are a few ways this can be achieved.


Where to start?

I've only scratched the surface here, as eLearning is a big step for many societies or associations. There are many vendors of eLearning software, curriculum development packages and online knowledge banks, but many sit outside the research or academic landscape and never really grasp the complexities and nuances crucial to success in this industry. As the publishing industry diversifies,  publishing organizations are building on existing capabilities to support their partners in developing new initiatives. Wiley is a great example of this. Our successful eLearning packages are being adopted by membership organizations around the world as we combine our expertise in publishing with our experience in developing digital learning environments to create new possibilities for our society partners.

eLearning should be part of the strategic roadmap for societies who wish to diversify or improve their membership value propositions to satisfy and attract members, who are committed to continuing education for their members, and who want to further develop the depth of their valuable communities.

How do you view the possibilities for eLearning within the society or association setting?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below,