The Ups and Downs of Free Education

By: Jacqui Cook

Association members may have less money, but they are still looking for knowledge to help them do their jobs better. As a result, some organizations are offering programming at no cost. Learn the pluses and minuses from those who have given it a try.

Educational programming has long been a cornerstone of association annual budgets, often sitting right alongside membership dues in revenue contribution. The formula was simple: Associations assemble the expertise, and members pay to access it.

That model has been turned upside-down in recent years, as recession-weary members have demanded more for their dues dollars while, at the same time, technology has advanced to the point where almost anyone with a computer and access to industry experts could put together a webinar and distribute it far and wide. Even before the recession took hold, members were beginning to ask why they should pay for an association's webinar when vendors were putting together similar information and offering it for free.

The result is a new educational landscape in which the cost of knowledge is determined product by product. In some cases, the decision is not to charge at all. This is particularly true with webinars, podcasts, and other distance-learning products that are no longer the exclusive domain of associations.

"It used to be that people would join their association, the invoice came, and they'd write the check. Now, members are getting their invoice and saying, 'What have I engaged in during the past year? Have I been active? Was there education I could participate in?,'" says Debra Bachman-Zabloudil, CAE, FACHE, president of the Learning Studio Inc., a Chicago-based education management and consulting firm.

"Charging a fee, even a small one, can be a barrier," she adds. "I've worked with some associations that charged as little as $25, and people still didn't register for an event. So if it comes down to that and so little revenue is on the line, at some point it might make sense to just make it a member benefit and create goodwill from the event."

Meeting Demand

Concerns like these were exactly what prompted the Public Relations Society of America to discuss making some of its education offerings more accessible even before the recession took hold, says Barbara McDonald, PRSA vice president, marketing. The association already offered preferred pricing to members, but the demand was still there for free products. At the same time, corporate sponsors wanted more thought-leader opportunities, and PRSA was looking for inexpensive ways to add to its content resources.

That discussion accelerated as the economy turned sour and it became clear professional development would be among the first budget casualties at many associations across the country. PRSA's first free webinar was held in March 2008, and the association now offers about 10 percent of its 100 annual webinars at no charge. It still provides a wide variety of paid programming, such as seminars, PR boot camps, accreditation programs, and in-person conferences.

"The economy has had a tangible effect on career development, so it is really important to PRSA to be able to offer programming when our members need it most," McDonald says. At the same time, the free webinars also fulfilled the goals of opening up sponsorship opportunities and shoring up prospect rolls.

"Our corporate partnerships have been good to the bottom line," she says. "The free webinars have helped deliver on that goal. At the same time, some prospects do convert to members, and we also have healthy nonmember purchasing of our other products."

The free webinars have delivered on attendance, with an average of 700 registrants versus the 70 or so who register for paid webinars, a difference McDonald attributes to the glut of free products that present the same topics PRSA charges a fee for. Registration peaked at more than 3,000 in August 2009 for a program titled "Does Traditional Media Still Matter?" that was promoted by both PRSA and its corporate partner, Vocus.

Despite this success, there have been some drawbacks that are prompting the organization to retool its free offerings for 2011, McDonald says. First and foremost, there will be more free webinars that are members only, instead of making all webinars available to both members and nonmembers. Prospects will have to pay to access the members-only free webinars.

"It's tied to the response from the membership," says McDonald. "It was mixed—they are positive about accessing quality programming free, but they've been vocal that it should be for members only.  Free webinars are a good lead-generating tool, but we have to make sure our focus is on member value, rather than the prospecting model."

Stay Focused

In some cases, the model for the organization is what determines whether free education is a smart way to do business.  John Mancini, president of the Association for Information and Image Management, says his organization represents all parts of information management—the people who create the equipment, purchase it, and use it, as well as consultants who help organizations make decisions about what they need. In its role, AIIM brings together all those constituencies and facilitates the education needed to understand the technologies and learn to use them. In that respect, Mancini says making all 30 of its annual webinars free makes sense.

"We decided that given our core business is trying to create a community that has relevance to the buyers and sellers of these technologies, and given that a big challenge people have is obtaining the very early-stage education about what our industry is about, we thought we should keep the barriers here as low as possible," he says. "Obviously, the objective of all this is they'll eventually buy the products, and we'll provide the training."

As with PRSA, AIIM's free programming succeeds in large part because of sponsorship. There are one to four sponsors for each AIIM webinar, and the $10,000 sponsorship per program more than offsets the cost of presenting it. One of the sponsors is allowed to speak for five minutes before the programming begins, but the rules are very strict: The sponsor may only talk about industry trends or information, not about a specific product.

"We found that works well, mainly because people have gotten so skeptical about webinars, and they are afraid of getting an infomercial," Mancini says. "We tell the sponsor you get just a little bit of time. The SME [subject-matter expert] is the bulk of the content."

He stresses that any association considering sponsored education must ensure the content remains the focus, no matter what the sponsor's investment is.

"Whatever technological edge you have in the platform you use to deliver content, it will only last so long," he says. "So you have to have the edge in quality of content and, at the same time, continue to push the edge on the platform. For example, next year we are moving beyond voice-annotated PowerPoints and getting into video and integration into social streams."

AIIM has experimented with a number of free models over the years, even structuring its membership to offer a free basic plan for those who simply want to be listed as a member without having voting rights or other benefits offered to "premium" members. He admits not all have been successful. The organization tried offering one of the steps in its certificate program for free, with the idea that users would pay $1,500 for the full series after sampling one part of it.

"We found that has not worked as well as we would've thought," he says. "I'm not sure why. It's not different content or anything – it's not cheapened up – but we have not had much luck upselling from there to the whole thing. People buy a lot of our training, but they don't seem to come to the buy decision through the free route."

On the other hand, AIIM had an unexpected success with a series of ebooks that grew out of Mancini's blog, Digital Landfill. He asked for contributions for an "8 Things You Need to Know …" series and has had 20,000 downloads of various topics, such as "8 Things You Need to Know About SharePoint but Were Afraid to Ask."

"We've published about 126 separate articles using this framework," he says. "Most of them have been ones where the author has come to me. The only cost is to edit and trim—just the sweat equity of publishing."

Online Versus Onsite

For most associations, especially larger ones with different divisions or sections, the best model may be several models. Mary Ghikas, CAE, senior associate executive director of the American Library Association (ALA), says each of the organization's 11 divisions must examine all of its offerings to figure out whether each should be in person versus online, free versus paid, members-only, or open to everyone.

"You need to think through what you're trying to do," she says. "What are you trying to accomplish here? Is the objective here to sell membership? To sell a publication? To provide a service for members? What do you think the value of this is for members or customers?"

In some cases, as when there is a sponsor, it makes sense to offer something free, she says. This is especially true for publishing units that offer author interviews or a discussion about a new book in the hopes of driving sales. One ALA division offers some of its webinars for free simply because of the member value, whether or not it can offset that revenue with a sponsor. Another division offered a downloadable version of a book for free and a paid print version and discovered no impact on the number of print sales because users were sampling the book online and then buying the print version.

"The range of options is so much bigger, and the diversity of models is enormous," she says. "That's fascinating, but it's also difficult. You've got to think hard about the value you are offering and whether members and nonmembers will see that value."

Associations considering free education may be concerned about drawing attendance away from in-person events, which generally come with a cost and can be a revenue generator. However, Bachman-Zabloudil says surveys, including ASAE's recent Decision to Learn, show members would rather learn face to face than via distance learning.

"That doesn't mean, though, that if you offer distance learning members won't engage in it, because sometimes they don't have the choice," she says. "Often, there is not an option to attend in person, either due to cost or time away from the office.  A longstanding concern was that it was a threat to face to face, but it rarely provides a tangible threat to face-to-face programming in most associations."

Ghikas concurs, though she adds that the availability and quality of distance learning—coupled with the low or no cost to participate—is forcing associations to examine the true benefit of in-person events.

"You have to work harder at it," she says. "You have to think through why people would come to a face-to-face meeting. If what you think you're selling is content, you may be in trouble. If what you think you're selling is connections and interactions and a place to engage with others about content, you may be in less trouble."

Jacqui Cook is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Free or Fee?

Debra Bachman-Zabloudil, CAE, FACHE, president of the Learning Studio, Inc., offers this advice for associations considering free educational programming:

  • Be very deliberate. Before deciding to make a program free, think about the motivation behind that decision.  If the program was set up to make money and it's not, you need to review what's not working before deciding the answer is to make that program free. You may decide to tweak it and try again, or you may decide it's important enough to break even or lose money, just to assure members have this information.
  • Choose what works. Some free programming works better than others. In particular, look for topics that are immediate and relevant to your industry, such as a new piece of legislation or new regulations that members need to know about right away.
  • Stick to members. Free programming should be part of the membership package. If you are offering a free program to get prospects interested, go ahead—but make sure you offer members far more free products so they always know there's a bigger benefit to being a member.
  • Make an announcement. When you decide to offer something free, make sure members know about it. Tell them you're making it part of your member-value statement, so when renewal time comes they will see another tangible benefit of belonging.
  • It's hard to turn back. Once you start offering a program for free, it's very hard to start charging for it again. So put your toe in the water and test the impact on your bottom line and gauge the member response before doing a full-scale launch of free programming.