As an association learning and development (L&D) professional, the most valuable benefit you provide to your members is fostering their lifelong learning. Dedicated training opportunities empower your members to be more well-rounded and effective contributors within your industry.

For this reason, ongoing training can improve engagement and retention within your organization. When members reap the benefits of training, such as access to new career or leadership opportunities in your field, it encourages them to continue their involvement with your organization.

However, you’ve probably noticed that not everyone thrives in a traditional learning environment. Especially as many training sessions and courses have gone virtual, it can be difficult to engage members in formal, synchronous learning as you once did with in-person training. While working remotely, members have plenty of distractions that can interrupt their learning or disruptions in their schedule that prevent them from tuning into a live training.

To keep your members engaged, incorporate informal learning opportunities into your learning management system (LMS). According to Training Industry, informal learning includes any educational opportunities that take place outside of a traditional, structured environment.

When you first selected an LMS for your organization, you likely chose one with a wide range of features that aligned with your priorities. The best LMSs don’t just offer formal learning opportunities but also provide a hub for any educational materials and content in one convenient location. Let’s take a closer look at how you can leverage your LMS to foster informal training opportunities.

1. Facilitate Discussions With Communities

Humans are naturally social creatures who crave interaction and conversation — which is why videoconferencing platforms have had such a boom over the last year. Amid physical social distancing, folks are looking for ways to stay connected.

When it comes to virtual learning, your organization’s members feel the same way. Especially when learning a new skill or reading up on a complex concept, people seek to reinforce what they’ve learned through discussion with other learners, outside of a traditional classroom environment. By offering your members an outlet for conversation and collaboration, you can help foster the social learning process to ensure members gain the most out of their training.

In a Training Industry Magazine article, Kacie Walters, vice president of strategic programs of Northern Trust, defines these group experiences as “communities of practice.” They require a facilitator or moderator to promote conversation and help learners stay on task, regularly scheduled meetings, and (most importantly) a platform to host content and a record of discussions.

Here is where your association management software (AMS) can complement your LMS. Here are two ideas for how you can use your AMS to supplement the formal learning taking place within your LMS:

Host a Dedicated Discussion Forum

Use messaging, blogs and photo-sharing tools to foster collaboration and connections. Create segmented groups based on characteristics, such as participating in the same course or a shared interest in a specific learning topic.

Promote User-generated Content

Within your forums, encourage members to share videos, infographics and other learning resources discovered in the research process. When members share a great informational TED Talk or research article, they strengthen their bonds with other members and your organization and contribute to the learning ecosystem.

When organizations invest in membership management software, these tools come prepackaged in the system, allowing association leaders to use both their AMS and their LMS to facilitate formal and informal learning. Groups and community discussion boards provide added value to members by giving them valuable social and professional connections. When members network throughout these forums, they can meet other professionals in your industry and gain insider knowledge, maybe even finding new job or leadership opportunities along the way.

2. Host a Resource Library

Content hosting is one of the most valuable uses of your learning platform. No matter the industry or field, people join associations to be able to quickly and conveniently access relevant information that improves their skills and knowledge. Your LMS isn’t just a hub for your structured classes and training modules; it can also offer an extensive library of resources for your members.

When building your resource library, be sure to focus on content curation, the process of acquiring and organizing accurate and relevant content. You don’t have to undertake this task alone, as some of this content may be user generated. For example, if a member shares a particularly impactful video or article on the discussion forum, you can include it within your learning library.

As you create an impressive catalog of learning resources, you can also consider including microlearning courses. For example, within a longer training course, you may have one particularly complicated concept you’d like learners to focus on. You can create a micro-course that covers that topic in detail and include it within your resource library. Learners can access the information they need and work through the material at their own pace to ensure they develop a solid understanding of the topic.

Ultimately, through these activities, you’ll be able to equip members with resources they can reference at any point to go deeper into their education and reap greater membership benefits.

3. Plan a Casual Webinar

Your organization has likely hosted online events such as member meetings or even a full-fledged virtual conference. At this point, your members might have some screen fatigue after participating in remote activities for over a year, and you’re probably looking for new virtual event ideas to keep them interested.

To reinvigorate your online offerings, consider introducing fresh formats to your association’s webinars. While traditional webinars are useful, they’re often a little too buttoned-up and formal. Instead, consider hosting:

A Coffee Break or Happy Hour Webinar

Encourage attendees to grab a cup of their favorite beverage (depending on the time of day you host the event) for an informal chat with a knowledgeable, credible industry leader. Foster engagement by encouraging attendees to send questions and participate in polls, and read their comments throughout the event.

A Fireside Chat Webinar

Invite a panel of industry experts to speak with your members. They might be a handful of people who cover different topics or areas of your industry to provide members with a diverse overview of top issues. In this type of webinar, the content is more engaging, since it’s presented in an open, wide-ranging format. Attendees can hop in to ask questions directly and add their opinions to the conversation, too.

A Crowdsourced Webinar

To help members become more invested in the content of your next webinar, let them have a say in its topic. Send out a pre-event survey with questions about the subjects they’d like to see covered, and take to social media with a poll to gauge interest. Doing so will give members more motivation to get involved during the webinar, since it will be directly relevant to their interests.

These event ideas facilitate learning in a more casual, practical environment, as attendees can hear about how the concepts they’re learning play out in reality. You can also reinforce the points discussed in these informal chats by adding complementary reading materials or other resources to your learning library.

Engaging Association Members With Informal Learning

Overall, incorporating informal learning opportunities into your association’s LMS can go a long way toward strengthening member relationships and improving your retention rates. When it comes to employee recruitment and retention, it’s well known that by giving people access to opportunities for personal and professional development, employers can build loyalty and trust so that they feel that their involvement is worth it. Although they aren’t your employees, the same concept applies to your association members: Offering valuable training opportunities will help your members feel that staying engaged in your organization is worth their time and money.

To boost engagement even further, measure and reward informal learning to increase participation. You can track members’ participation on discussion boards, virtual event attendance and other modes of engagement and reward the most active members with special prizes or merchandise discounts.

Find the programs and opportunities that work best for your organization’s unique needs, and use the features of your LMS to their fullest potential to offer the greatest value to your members. Good luck!

Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic “Creating a Social Learning Culture in the Modern Workplace,” which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.