What drives the decision to learn?

BY Jeff Cobb

Decision to Learn Cover ImageWhat drives decisions to participate in your organization’s educational programming?

There’s one major factor that was highlighted years ago, and I’ve been getting the sense lately that not enough organizational leaders know about it. As a result, their strategy for growing (or reviving) their education programs may be significantly less effective than it could be.

What I have in mind is the Decision to Learn research that ASAE released in 2010. The study collected data from 7,848 association members across 12 different organizations with the aim of discovering more about what drives them to participate in association educational offerings. I have been asking organizational leaders lately if they are familiar with this research, and I have been surprised how few are.

With the hope of raising awareness, what follows is a slightly modified re-run of a post I did shortly before the full Decision to Learn was published.


I was part of a small group of volunteers that reviewed the draft manuscript of The Decision to Learn and helped to write some of the scenarios in it. A significant number of findings in the study were not all that surprising to me, though that is probably only because I spend nearly all of my time bumping around in association education circles and I do a lot of surveying and interviewing of members regarding their educational behaviors and preferences.

So, for example, I am not surprised that members say they greatly prefer classroom-based learning over e-learning and yet do, in fact, participate in a great deal of e-learning. (See this summary article on Decision to Learn findings for specific percentages.) These findings jibe with what we hear again and again from members when we interview them about their lifelong learning practices.

On the other hand, the study makes explicit a point that I think any organization offering education – online or off – really needs to take to heart and which I have come to fully appreciate only in recent months. Namely, the strongest predictor of whether a prospective learner will choose your offering over other available options is her sense of affiliation with your organization. As the article says:

…a member’s sense of affiliation with the cosponsoring association is a stronger measure than demographics (gender, generation, level of education, or world location) in predicting participation in learning programs offered by their associations.

In other words, how strongly does she identify with you and trust you as a major source of support in her professional life?

There are at least two corollary lessons that extend from this finding. First, association educators should be deeply concerned with and involved in how their organizations approach building a sense of identity and affiliation with members. The marketing and membership functions cannot be silos in which educators have no interaction. Their success directly impacts the success of education (and, no doubt, vice versa).

Second, the marketing of education needs to tap into the sense of affiliation that members may have. Most of the marketing I see for programs tends to be utilitarian and extrinsically focused – i.e., get your certification, earn your credit, save time, etc. – but The Decision to Learn makes clear that we need to connect with members less at a logical/rational level and more at an emotional level if we really want to get them excited about the learning opportunities we offer. Again, doing this effectively means much tighter collaboration with the marketing and membership functions.

There are a couple of points I’d like to add in this re-run of my original post, and both of them align tightly with the previous two points.

The first is that social proof – in, for example, the form of high quality testimonials – is a very important tool in cultivating a sense of identity and affiliation. We’ve argued again and again that any organization can benefit from regular (at a minimum, annual) efforts to gather and publish testimonials. This is the lowest hanging of the proverbial low hanging fruit when it comes to improving your marketing efforts. (See here and here for tips.)

The second is that brand is more important than ever. Make no mistake: your brand – or more accurately, perception of it  – plays directly into the sense of identity and affiliation you will be able to cultivate with your members. What kind of focused efforts do you have under way to build your overall organizational brand – and, just as critically – the brand of your educational programs? As we’ve noted before, a strong brand can really accelerate momentum on your Value Ramp – meaning that is basically accelerates the decision to learn.


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