For years, learning and development professionals have been talking about the coming transformation of adult learning and particularly professional development within ones career.

What are the best practices? What are the pitfalls?

How can YOU build a membership model and justify subscription pricing for your excellent content?

Understanding the Learning Landscape

The number of options through which to continue to develop and hone professional skills has been growing for the past several years. Several different types of organizations share a forever promise to “help people thrive in their careers”.:

  • There are dozens of dedicated training organizations that have been established to prepare professionals and managers to thrive in their roles. Content might include leadership skill development, sales training, or diversity and inclusion, for example, taught by trainers and using specially designed, sometimes licensed, materials.
  • Many membership-based associations have deep catalogs of professional education. While some have invested heavily in digital platforms and a few have subscription-based offerings, the majority of these organizations tend to deliver the bulk of their value through physical means like annual meetings, training & certification courses and print publications.
  • There are many new digital natives in the “professional” learning platform space. These include LinkedIn Learning (where I have a bunch of courses) as well as Coursera, Udemy, and Singularity University. Individuals and corporations can subscribe to access content, as well as purchase rights to specific courses.
  • Individual subject matter experts work independently to share their expertise, and package their value as consulting, training, and coaching, but also increasingly through webinars, digital courses and online memberships.
  • All kinds of adjacent organizations, including publishers, strategy consultants and universities are also investing in providing professional development and training.

What’s important to note is that all of these disparate groups are trying to do the same two things: ensure that organizations have the right talent to achieve their goals and/or ensure that professionals have the right talent to thrive in their careers.

Since our educational system is designed to be completed somewhere between a person’s late teens and late 20s, and we might work professionally into our 60s or 70s, it makes sense that there is huge demand for further education.

The market is ripe, but crowded.

Best Practices

If you are sitting on a lot of professional content and want to create a membership around it, and justify recurring revenue, you need to start by taking a step back.

Ask yourself who your subscription is for, and what your forever promise is to that group. Who would want to have an ongoing relationship with you and your learning content? Why? What value would they get from it?

You might also ask who among your existing customers wouldn’t get value from being a member. For example, if your content is heavily weighted toward “beginners”, you probably won’t be able to engage and retain someone who’s been in the profession for a long time. They wouldn’t get great value from your content.

It is unlikely that your first subscription will appeal to everyone who has ever bought anything from you in the past. So start with a small initial segment where you’re confident that you can rapidly create an offering and attract the right people.

Now make sure you have everything you need to deliver on your forever promise to that specific group. It’s not enough to attract these people with your ‘headline’ benefit. You also need to engage them and make your offering a habit.

So pay attention to the member journey. Why would they sign up? What initial goal brought them in the first place? And why would they stay? How can you onboard them to ensure that the enjoy the value they’re paying for?

As you think about the subscription offering, consider this: what, beyond the content itself, would add value and help your members achieve their goals, and solve their problems?

Is there a place for live meetings, to complement the recorded content? Do you want to offer mastermind groups to learn together? Do you need to break down your content into bite sized portions–an emerging standard these days?

Here are a few of the ways learning memberships can layer in value:

  • recorded content (video, audio, print)
  • discussion groups or masterminds
  • livestreamed lectures
  • webinars to learn and discuss the content
  • credentialing programs
  • mentors who’ve completed the material already
  • community platforms where members can ask for and offer help

Over time, you want to continue evolving the offering, adding and removing content, and always considering whether what you have is the best way to to deliver on your forever promise.

Often, you can identify the next thing to add based on behavior and feedback of your most engaged members. You also want to stay in touch with prospects who fit your “ideal member profile” but chose not to join–understanding what they are thinking when they are still considering alternatives will help you ensure that you’re ready for tomorrow’s members as well as taking care of today’s.

A Few Pitfalls To Avoid

It almost seems like anyone who knows how to do anything is launching a content subscription right now. There are membership communities to learn many things: how to be a better marketer, how to learn new languages, how to be more agile, how to use every type of software, how to balance the personal and the professional, and how to thrive in virtually any career path.

Most of them fail.

The biggest driver of failure is lack of product/market fit. In other words, the offering and doesn’t solve the problem or achieve the goal of your target member. Product/market fit is harder when you’re using subscription pricing. You don’t just need your product headline have to drive initial transactions. You need engagement features to drive habits and loyalty…forever!

Another issue is the role you give to “free,” whether it’s a free trial or a freemium membership model.

Free trial should only be used if your biggest problem is explaining to prospects what your membership is like, or convincing prospects that your membership is as good as you promise. If you don’t have these two challenges–if your biggest challenge is retention, for example, don’t give away a trial. Too many organizations give away so much for free that people who would otherwise be willing to pay don’t need to pay because all they need is what’s available for free.

The same is true with freemium. Freemium is membership that’s free forever, like what most of us have on LinkedIn. The only reasons for a freemium model are if influencers (who get your offering for free) attract premium subscribers OR if there’s a network effect in which each free subscriber creates value for those paying, or if you’re free offering changes behavior and results in members predictably converting to paid.

You always need an ROI on your free.

Another pitfall is just bundling the content you happen to have, without considering the forever promise and the best members. Many organizations have accumulated an assortment of recordings, white papers and course materials, designed for all different kinds of people and use cases–and just bundle it together because having a lot seems better than a little. This never works, first because it’s confusing to subscribers and second because the outdated or irrelevant content might give new subscribers the wrong idea about what’s available. Be disciplined about what goes into your membership. More isn’t always more.

A Word About This Moment

Right now, in these Sheltering in Place times, everyone’s habits have been interrupted. Organizations are feeling tremendous pressure to be agile, and evolve offerings to make them relevant to customers and prospects.

At the same time, consumers and businesses are open to new approaches to solve their problems and achieve their goals. My 74-year old mom has changed her routine from “yoga studio/grocery store/bookclub lunch” to “streaming yoga/instacart/zoom-chats”. If she is willing to endure the friction of establishing new habits, everyone is.

These two changes are driving so much innovation and new behavior right now. The question is: which behaviors will last and what will “go back to normal” when we’re not stuck at home anymore?

My last piece of advice is this: spend more time than you had planned in onboarding these new subscribers for engagement. They came because they had no choice, but how are you going to make your solution the best choice?

Onboarding is often the most overlooked and undervalued tactic for driving lifetime customer value. It’s not hard to do–it just takes focus. And it’s worth it.