Jason Griffey the other day suggested alternatives to the traditional funding streams ALA has, and it got me thinking about how ALA could make money in the online medium.

I sometimes forget that I have this amazing resource at home (my husband) and that the things I learn from him can sometimes be translated into the library world. Seven years ago, Adam created an online community for his dad, who had recently retired from optometry and teaching. ODwire is an online community for those in the optometric field where they can discuss professional issues like private practice vs. the big chains, practice management, government policy, and clinical issues. He designed the technical infrastructure and his dad did the work to make the community “sticky” for his peers (spending hours and hours nurturing the fledgling community). The community has been so successful that they currently have over 7,000 members (pretty big in a 30,000-strong profession), many of whom post daily in heated discussions on current topics in their profession. I’m telling you, Adam and his dad (Paul) could really teach a lot of people about how to build and nurture a successful online community. They’re a great team. They even ended up starting a professional organization for optometrists; an alternative to the American Optometric Association that offers lots of member discounts on the things optometrists frequently buy.

Last year, Adam and his dad started offering webinars to their members, much like what OPAL or SirsiDynix does. Similarly, they didn’t charge a dime for people to participate in the Webinars. They ended up having several hundred people at each of their first few Webinars, which told them that this is a model that gets a lot of purchasing power in one place. Once they saw how many people they had, they started selling sponsorship of the webinars to the major companies in that profession. They’ve already gotten a number of takers at a price I couldn’t even imagine someone paying.

ACRL does a lot of Webinars, but they’re not free for ACRL members. What if every webinar ACRL did was sponsored by a library vendor? It would be like radio; a company would fund that webinar (at maybe $3,000 – $5,000) and would get a little advertising time during the talk (“this Webinar is brought to you by…”) as well as their name, logo and link to their site on the website users go to to access the webinar and the archived webinar. It gives the company more exposure and it gives the ALA member a free learning experience. It’s a win-win. It also answers the question “how does being a member of ALA benefit me?”

And it doesn’t just need to be ACRL doing this. ALA and all its divisions could benefit from free sponsored Webinars, and not just in terms of money from the sponsors. It likely would attract a lot of librarians to ALA who currently aren’t members because they don’t have the money to benefit from any of the current continuing education options ALA offers and they don’t see American Libraries as enough of a member benefit to join (yes, I know ALA fights for libraries and freedom and all, but people want direct and immediate benefits when they shell-out $100 or more for membership). It makes sense to look outside of our field at what other professional organizations are doing. The medical and optometric practices have had vendors sponsoring talks for decades. This isn’t unusual. You don’t let the sponsor dictate what the topic of the Webinar is (like WebFeat sponsoring a webinar on federated search). It’s more like paying for ad space.

I’m sure there are probably a million good reasons why this won’t work that I’m not thinking of, but I strongly believe if people knew by joining ACRL (or PLA, or LITA, or whatever) they would be getting the ability to attend online educational Webinars for free, more people would join.

Adam and his dad also sell ad space on the online community, which is another revenue generator. If the ALA had a thriving online community with lots of librarian eyes all over it, they could likely make a lot of money selling advertising space. They do it in Cognotes and American Libraries, why not online too?

I really should have Adam and my father-in-law write a guest post about the amazing work they did to make their online community successful and to turn it into something that could even make them some money without alienating their users. I don’t think either of them realize how extraordinary what they’ve accomplished really is, but they have a lot of insights that would benefit anyone trying to build an online community or trying to bring a professional organization into the 21st century.