Association Learning System Rankings

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Welcome, welcome, welcome.  Helping me with today’s post is Voodoo, who is sitting, looking out the window, Spirit who is snoozing by me, and Cali, who is somewhere, no doubt exploring how to dig holes and chase squirrels.  Yes, a very eventful day. Best of all, this home workforce acts as a security company for only dog treats and belly rubs.

I hope wherever you are, you are safe and well.  And if you have any pets, giving them treats and belly rubs.

The Association market is by far, IMO, one of the top three markets, that as a vendor, you should be in.  In the past, I’ve always listed the association mkt within the B2B/Customer Education, because it does fit nicely within.

Now though, I am pulling it from B2B and listing it as a separate entity.

Before diving into the rankings and the explanation on this new approach to rankings, here are some interesting factoids about the association space.

  • There are Professional (which most folks are aware of) and Trade associations.  Trade are businesses, from mom and pops to Fortune500.  Typically for trade, you are providing training (some refer to it as education) to the owners of said businesses, and in many cases it might trickle down to the employees, depending on the type of vertical/industry the trade association is in.  Thus, you provide content for the member – i.e. owner of business,  and often training content for the employees. 

Professional associations are individual people, for example SHRM or ATD, a member is an individual.  However, a professional association may also allow companies to be members too,  and sometimes, there are vendors who are members referred to in the industry as “associate members” (but the vernacular can be different).  This can exist as well in trade too.

  • Depending on the data source the numbers of associations, regardless of size, around the world is at least 336,000 (professional and trade, not including foundations, charitable institutions)
  • The country with the most associations? Japan. 
  • There are associations for pretty much anything you can imagine. For example there is the American Miniature llama Association.
  • Association Management firms are entities that typically oversee smaller associations, not necessarily member wise, rather employee wise.  I was once recruited many years ago, to run training/education at an Association Management firm, who oversaw more than 100 associations. Thus, I’d be responsible for all training/education for each of those associations.
  • If the association has a trade show, typically it is the largest amount of revenue for the year, and will play a key role in the budget for training/education for members.
  • There are exceptions of course.  I once attended a session whereas the speaker was an executive at an association in the financial space.  They have a certification program that if you are in the financial market, you will want.  The amount of money they make, accounts for 98.6% of their total revenue. And it is hundreds of millions of dollars on that certification program alone.  They did not have a trade show.
  • The decision maker in associations is typically two-fold. The key is whomever is overseeing training/education. The other? The Education member committee, which is usually eight or 10 members, who often have various ideas on what system you should go with, and their research can be based on a state chapter, or what someone told them, or they are committed to member education, but are wide open for discussion.

Always remember that the reason the association hired you, is because you as the person running education is supposed to be the expert. Thus, at the end of the day, your job is to convince the member committee that System X is the best system for the association.  I know of some training/education association execs who get steamrolled in the committee discussion, often due to one member of said committee pushing a narrative of another system, and has sway over some of the members.

I can tell you, that this scenario does happen more frequently, than not, but you, can still sway them, after all, if you land the head of the committee to your side, it is easy to get others to move with you.   The ideal is to have your executive director behind you, and to have a few separate meetings with key stakeholders on that committee before the “member committee” meets.

  • There are associations where the executive director is the key decision maker, even though they have a training/education department for members.   Personally, I never understood this angle, after all, if you have some one running that department, and have the knowledge of effective or best types of training/learning, shouldn’t they be the decision maker?  

Rankings for Learning Systems

A new method/approach, that I believe will be very valuable to consumers and vendors alike. 

Ranking Point #1

 I am going to push out on-going rankings of various learning system spaces (i.e. LXP, LMS, Learning Platform, Micro-Learning Platform, Training mgt system), along with individual segments i.e. Top in B2B/Customer Education, Association, Software and so forth. Each ranking section will have a post tied to it, explaining why so and so is high on the current list.

Ranking Point #2

There will be regular updates via LinkedIn (I recommend you follow me, uh, not in person though) to see the quarterly updates on the rankings of the systems in each vertical/industry, plus additional rankings for B2B/Customer Education, Employee-Only, LXP, LMS, etc. 

At the end of Q3 (based on a fiscal calendar year), the top vendors in each of those industry/segments will be placed into a pool, with each one receiving a three-page sheet for them to complete, along with a couple of additional items. 

The final rankings for industry/vertical will appear in Dec. of 2020 – and represent into 2021 (think of it as a special holiday treat).  This will be a list of the top five vendors in each of those verticals/industry.  However, only the top two will be placed into the final pool for best LMS, LXP, SEP, Learning Platform, Skills, Coaching and micro-learning. 

The final pool will lead to the Rankings for the top 10 learning systems for 2021 (published in Jan. of 2021). 

What are the verticals/industry?

That is for another post, because right now we are covering the association market.

Factors that weighed high in the association rankings

As a former exec in the association space, I see a lot of systems that say they target the association market, and in some cases, list some impressive associations, but just because they have those clients, doesn’t mean they are at the top of association space, nor is their system awesome.

You may disagree with what I see as relevant, and that is cool, after all, we are not robots.

  • Multi-Tenant – A must.  And it should be free to your client. Some vendors charge for more than one tenant, which frankly is dumb.  The association is the parent, and each tenant is a child.  Thus, let’s say you have state chapters, and each state wants to have their own access to the system, but not thru the main association view.  This is achievable with child tenants.  The chapter has their own look and feel to the system, and can add their own members and content, but can also get the content that the association provides too.   As the parent, you can see all the children and their data, etc. You can also assign rules and limit what is doable and/or not doable.  A child can only see themselves. 

If you are an international association, you may have it by countries for example, the main is you, each child is a different country, with a different language. It is totally doable.

Let’s say you are an association whereas employees of your association receive training content, as well as your members.

The parent is the association – for members, the child is for employees.   If you have associate members, the members themselves are in the parent, and associate members are a child, and even suppliers could be another child. 

As noted earlier, regarding the child having a different look,  in the multi-tenant, each child must have these capabilities, it is up to the main administrator of the association (parent) to decide what the child administrator can and cannot do. 

  • Robust e-commerce.  Even if you never charge for whatever content you have on the learning system, it is important to have e-commerce, because you just never know.  Too many associations still rely on a separate system for e-commerce because they are unaware that many systems have e-commerce within.   If your system only offers PayPal or Stripe, that is not robust e-commerce.  The e-comm must offer Visa, MasterCard at a minimum.  It must have a subscription capability or (it is on the roadmap), bundling, discount codes, promo codes, are essentials. If the vendor has VAT an added bonus.  

It is true that some associations provide content for free as a member benefit, but I always look for e-commerce, because there are plenty of associations who provide content for free, but charge for a certification program or books or resources, or whatever.  Some systems allow you to add product, t-shirts, etc. to check out.

  • Social and Collaboration is a must. A chat room is so old school, thus having “Groups or Communities” is important.  I always look for a more modern approach.
  • UI/UX is extremely important. As an association, you have one shot when the system goes live to get members not only in it, but to use it often.  If they can’t figure it out on their own, or with the materials you provide them including mini-how to videos (which you should), then they are leaving and not coming back.  Worse, they will tell other members how bad it is and it just snowballs from there. 
  • Content – you have to have a content marketplace, because associations only have so much of their own content, and many are still with paper and videos (VHS anyone?).  If you have a built-in authoring tool that doesn’t weigh, although I know plenty of associations seek that.  Always remember that built-in authoring tool will never be as good as say a Storyline for example, because (the built-in authoring tool) is designed for anyone to create a course, with zero instructional design skills.  I recommend buying a 3rd party authoring tool, ideally SaaS based and using that in conjunction with your system.
  • Mobile with on/off synch app – it is either live now or on the roadmap.  Members are everywhere, mobile is a must.  The more they can do on it, the better.  Taking content is basic.
  • Event management feature sets.  Event management is geared towards webinars, virtual events, vILT, with a waitlist, calendar where folks can see what they registered for, or register within it, receive notifications when they sign up, etc.  Auto-waitlist is ideal.  You can also have seminars with event management, but it is not the same as classroom management which is specifically for ILT – physical location with people attending, and which is not doable at the present time, thus event management is super important
  • Web conferencing integrations – Zoom is hot, so look for that, WebEx, Gotomeeting are the other ones that often appear.  The more the better.
  • APIs to connect to the membership platform the association is using.  Push and Pull data is important.
  • Batch upload of learners – associations can have a lot of folks, nobody wants to do one by one, and typically mid-size and lower size associations are not using an HRIS system or similar.
  • Analytical data and reporting must be solid, ideally strong.  Metrics are extremely important in the association market, especially if you are charging your members for content.  It helps identify what is working and what is not. It is a must for any online certification program especially when it comes time to the assessment.
  • Additional items include certificates and capabilities within, multiple catalogs, skills management capabilities (very new for many vendors who have lived on competencies for far too long), CEUs/CUs with tracking and notifications, instructor feature sets, still geared more so towards ILT, but you can do some vILT stuff.
  • Coaching/Mentoring Components (must be active or on the roadmap)
  • Assessment tool – a must with a quiz bank, and random capability.

Rankings are for Feb-March-April 1st (and yes, I know that begins Q2, but deal with it), oh and for folks who use FindAnLMS, nearly all are on the platform, so you can search and compare system to system.   Top 9, who says it has to be Top 10?

Top Nine Rankings

1. D2L– Very strong system in the association market, but very under the radar.  This is a wonderful system, easy to use, lots of functionality and scored high in my data keys.

2. CourseStage–  Outstanding system, feature rich, easy to use, lots to like, continues to get better every year.

3. Absorb LMS – Extremely robust system with extensive feature set.

4. Docebo – Very good system with a lot to like.  The share and coach component (used to be listed as a module) is really good.  The UI is easy to use and admin side too, although the metrics need to go much further than currently set. 

5. LearnUpon –  Plays quite well in the association market, very nice UI and UX.  Analytical data needs to improve, but nice system.

6. Cornerstone Learning –  Very robust system with multi-tenant capability.  NexGen feature rich. UX can be a bit overwhelming and needs some tweaks, especially on the admin side.

7. Top Class – Hits all the requirements for an association target system.  UI/UX is good.

8. Thinking Cap – Has some very nice coaching capabilities, offers a wide set of features, UI is solid, UX is good.

9. Area9 Rhapsode –  A bit of a different look and feel then I suspect most folks will have ever seen, but it is quite robust and offers a lot for an association that wants to go a different way. 

Just missing the cut  

  • Tovuti –  Seriously under the radar but more that enough to stand on its own.  UI and UX are good, system easy to use and members shouldn’t have a challenge here.  Waitlist is missing feature.
  • Instancy On-Demand – Very nice system.  Under the Radar in the association market.
  • SkillJar – Missing a couple of feature sets, but has potential to do well.
  • Community Brands Wisdom – See Below on my Take

About Community Brands

I know there are plenty of sites that list them as an association LMS leader, but I feel that is somewhat misleading.  Community Brands first and foremost is an association management platform (not the same as a firm in association management). I know plenty of folks who buy it for the association management piece.  They offer a career center, fundraising, background checks, event management (which is very strong), as modules.  They of course have an LMS.   Thus if you are someone who is seeking a complete solution for your membership, rather than piecemeal, it is easy to see why they do well in the association LMS space. They remind me of the days of Legacy systems where folks purchased an ERP (as the key reason) with a set of modules, and then since they needed learning, they bought that too.  The ERP’s main focus was on the platform and depending on module needs, it wasn’t learning.  But they sold a lot of it.  

Wisdom appears in the Top 10 because it you have the event management piece (geared more I feel to ILT, but clearly has to jump more to vILT, in today’s world), and the feature set is solid, but it’s UI needs some improvement.  Taken as a whole with the association management, it works.  Separately, I’m not sold.

Bottom Line

You can check out nearly every system on this list on FindAnLMS, with the exception of Community Brands.  Please note that being on the platform was not used to rank any system higher or not, it had zero bearing.  FindAnLMS’s goal is to bring the best systems in the world (in all verticals/industries) on one platform. 

A learning system is one of the most important solutions for any association, professional or trade, especially today.  Members are going to expect more, and training/education plays a big role in that. 

There are plenty of players in the association market, but what differentiates one from another, may not be recognized upfront.

Until it is too late.

E-Learning 24/7










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