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How Social Learning Can Boost Member Engagement

  • 7 Min Read

Make social learning part of your virtual professional development offering to improve engagement with existing members and drive new member recruitment.


The last year has been challenging for every organization, including associations. According to the 2021 MGI Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 47% of associations reported declining memberships. The report says that associations have also seen almost double the drop in membership renewals compared to 2020.

Associations are rising to these challenges with innovative programs to engage and provide value for their members. One of the most effective association member retention strategies has been offering professional development opportunities.

The Marketing General Incorporated (MGI) report revealed that 85% of associations are either offering or planning to offer expanded virtual professional development opportunities to their members. These programs proactively deliver some of the central values of membership—education and community.

While expanding professional development opportunities has its benefits, associations can still use additional strategies to further improve member engagement and loyalty. Social learning as part of your virtual professional development offerings can help strengthen your association’s sense of community and drive an increase in member loyalty—and referrals.

In this post, we’ll look at what social learning is and three ways it can help fuel your virtual professional development programs.

What is Social Learning Theory?

While it may seem like a new buzzworthy trend, social learning traces its roots back to the work of psychologists such as B.F. Skinner in the 1940s and, most notably, Albert Bandura in the 1970s. A professor at Stanford University, Bandura’s research on how cognition and learning work showed that the process happens through observational learning and instruction. Bandura’s social learning theory says that instead of learning through doing, we learn by observing others and building upon what they learn.

Social learning has been part of our everyday lives from our earliest experiences. As children, we observe as our parents, siblings and peers engage with the world around us. We look for similar social learning experiences as we are introduced to new tasks, tools and skills in our professional lives.

Today, social learning can be weaved into learning platforms to create online communities and provide channels to ask for advice from peers and experts. Most importantly, it can encourage a culture of continuous learning in organizations and associations.

How Does Social Learning Theory Work?

Bandura’s social learning theory has four steps to explain how we learn.

  1. We observe many things happening on any given day, but we don’t learn from most of them. Social learning theory says that we learn when the lesson grabs our attention. As children, we’re told not to touch the oven when it’s hot—but many of us have either learned that lesson by experiencing it or by seeing someone else make that mistake.
  2. Doing a task immediately after learning it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll master it. Retention is the second step in social learning. It can be encouraged by breaking up a lesson into smaller parts or by actively engaging the learner during training or teaching.
  3. Observing someone playing the drums doesn’t mean you’re ready to go on tour. Being able to reproduce a skill or task is based on a combination of ability and memory.
  4. The core of learning comes down to one thing—motivation. When we’re motivated by the possibility of reward or an inner sense of achievement, we’re more likely to retain that skill. Seeing others in our peer group learning a skill can help reinforce that motivation.

Thinking back to how your early days of school, you can see how social learning impacted the skills you retain to this day. The steps of Bandura’s social learning theory can be applied to everything from learning to speak to the human skills we use in everyday life.

How to Use Social Learning to Improve Member Engagement

Whether in a meeting room, in person or online, social learning has numerous benefits for associations looking to create more engagement with their members. People often prefer to learn in the company of others, which is why professional development training can be more impactful when members feel part of a group. They’re more open to ask questions, engage in conversations and retain more as they progress through the training.


Using social learning in professional development provides opportunities for members to engage and learn with each other. Members can work together to solve problems and form strong bonds that last beyond the end of a course.


Social learning tools like polls and games allow members to learn in interactive ways. This can help improve learning retention and spur engagement with your association, giving your members a reason to renew their memberships and invite their peers to join too.


One of the most significant values of membership is a feeling of community. Building social learning into your association’s professional development helps connect your members through shared learning experiences.

Where Can Associations Use Social Learning?

Building social learning tactics into your professional development offerings can increase collaboration, engagement and the sense of community among your members. The combined effect of these can help attract new members, increase member loyalty and increase membership renewal rates.

The changing nature of work, including remote and hybrid workplace models, has created a need for upskilling for internal role changes and employees looking to make career changes. According to the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 37% of associations reported an increase in members’ use of their career services in 2021.

Video Learning

Synchronous online learning brings members together to observe and learn. Even without being in the same room, members can see and talk to each other as they learn. Bringing members into smaller breakout rooms during courses lets them learn together and share tips and insights to strengthen their learning.

Video learning doesn’t have to be real-time either. By sharing videos, members can present their work to get valuable feedback. In this asynchronous online learning model, the trainer can tailor videos for individual members to help with specific questions or issues.


Providing timely feedback is a core part of reinforcing learning in professional development. Social learning tactics such as surveys and discussions can connect members and trainers to make feedback valuable and engaging.

Giving options for feedback during courses can also help keep members’ attention. We’re all suffering from some level of video call fatigue after working and learning remotely during the pandemic. Interactive material during training can help create an active environment for social learning that promotes attention and retention.

Online Community and Discussions

Providing your members with an online forum creates a community where they can ask questions and discuss concepts at the times that work best. For many of your members, asking questions during a course might be outside of their comfort level, but asking questions in an online forum can provide them with a safe place to engage.

These communities work well with both synchronous and asynchronous online learning models. Additionally, having a record of discussions can benefit new members interested in pursuing one of your professional development offerings.

Ask the Experts

Another great use of social learning is identifying members who can act as experts for your association and your professional development offerings. Experts can help connect members who need assistance with job searches and interview tips too.

They can be ambassadors for your new member recruitment campaigns by demonstrating your value proposition in their everyday activities.

Written by:

Haley Wilson

Haley Wilson is a Content Marketing Manager at D2L, specializing in the corporate learning space. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Guelph as well as a Master of Arts focused in history from Wilfrid Laurier University.

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Table of Contents
  1. What is Social Learning Theory?
  2. How Does Social Learning Theory Work?
  3. How to Use Social Learning to Improve Member Engagement
  4. Where Can Associations Use Social Learning?