By DJ Muller, President & Founder, WebLink International
Association management software (AMS) is the term used for software that helps trade and professional associations run their operations. For the purposes of this article I am going to assume you know how associations operate.
The primary benefit of software dating back decades is to save time. Being “more efficient” was - and still is - the primary benefit software provides for many associations.
Being more efficient for associations means the time-consuming tasks of member/donor management, event management, committee management and all manners of list management in between is much easier thanks to the association software. The most common gains in staff efficiency are time spent looking up and entering member information, doing mailings (and even email) to members, printing reports, processing invoices, entering checks, managing event registrations, committee RSVP’s, etc.
If you talk to most association staff, these benefits of time savings are “the” benefits they care most about. As well they should; saving time saves your organization money and enables you to provide more benefits to your members. Fortunately today there are many good online low-priced association software packages that can really help with staff efficiency. But that’s usually where they stop.
The future for successful associations, and the association management software they use, has less to do with staff efficiency features (those will just be expected) and will have EVERYTHING to do with providing member benefits and helping management make better decisions. As I travel the country and speak with top tier executives at associations and chambers of commerce, the #1 thought that keeps them up at night, is their ability to keep their association relevant. (A great book on this subject is “The End of Membership as We Know It” by Sarah Sladek.)
Technology and AMS must play a HUGE role in your association’s ability to deliver member benefits in a cost effective manner and not just helping your organization stay relevant, but in you becoming a critical partner of your members’ success.
Let's read that again: The future of Association Management Software will help your association become a critical partner in your members' success. Talk about a great way to retain members and recruit new ones!
Here’s my check list of attributes you should look for in association management software that will take your association well beyond “staff efficiency” and provide you the tools to set up your association - and your members - for greater success and growth.
- Choose a vendor that is trustworthy and reliable. While not as important as choosing your spouse, this decision is close (I am only joking honey) – changing from one AMS to the next is a BIG decision and not one to be taken lightly. Ideally you’ll only get married once and only have one AMS. So, be sure to review the executive team of your vendor, check references, and make sure they are going to grow as you do. Even be so bold as to inquire about financial stability. Check to make sure they already work with associations your size and aren’t “over reaching” to accommodate your needs.
- Choose a SaaS (Software as a Service system). The world of AMS has gone to the web; if you are not using online software you are falling behind and paying more than you should. Online software is essentially paid for as a service, you can stop using it anytime you like – which puts the burden on the providers to always provide you with new releases to keep you from changing solutions. Additionally there is no server hardware to buy, your staff can be mobile and your IT guru can actually come out of the dark back room he or she has been locked in and get more involved in helping provide more value than just keeping the servers running. If you are not familiar with the advantages of SaaS just Google “SaaS Advantages” and you’ll find plenty of resources to convince your boss to change.
- Strong financial Integration. No matter what your mission, every organization needs strong financial reporting and management. Be sure your AMS software integrates well with your general ledger system whether it’s QuickBooks, Microsoft Great Plains Dynamics or other system. Most AMS systems do a good job of collecting payments; the best systems however provide features of being able to handle both cash and accrual, revenue recognition reporting, and detailed audit trails. Insisting on these features now will save you headaches down the road when your CPA (or the IRS) rearranges your accounting requirements.
- Strong website Integration. Choose a website vendor that has expertise in association management websites and be sure your AMS system has an API (a technology that enables the website to talk to the database and vice-versa) that enables your website vendor to integrate. This enables your website to be more robust and changes and updates flow back and forth seamlessly. Or better yet, find a vendor that has a great AMS with integrated website management who specializes in association websites too.
- PCI compliance. PCI compliance is related to your ability to process credit card payments. Being out of compliance (which most older locally installed/onsite systems are) is a headache you don’t want to deal with – think fines, and being unable to process credit cards. Be sure your AMS payment gateway is compliant.
- Big data/business intelligence/reporting. The ability to get data out of a system is good; the ability to understand and interpret what the data means to make data driven decisions is even better. Be sure you get the data and the expertise you need from your vendor. You'll need reporting and export functions beyond just summary level reports. The ability to segment your members into different groups to see which members are most valuable to your association is critical for creating member recruitment and retention strategies. Being able to drill down into financial reports and member histories allows your executive team to make better decisions when managing your association. Also, be sure your vendor can track member benefits, referrals and leads received from your website, contact histories and more so your staff can easily demonstrate value to your members.
- Industry expertise (support). This ties in with my comment on #6 about data, and frankly maybe this should be the #1 requirement. Make sure the vendor has staff that KNOWS your business. Many vendors will have low paid “techies” who know software but lack the intellectual curiosity to really help you excel in your use of technology teach you how to APPLY it to benefit your members, increase retention, event revenue and engagement. You're not just buying software; you're investing in a partnership that will help your organization become stronger.
- Ease of use, anywhere. All of the above won’t help if your staff and members don’t use the system. Be sure the system is web-based, and you can also access at least core information from other devices such as your phone and tablets. And, does the AMS give you tools to be productive in the field, such as collecting credit card payments for new memberships or registering event attendees via a mobile device? Think about the services you'll need to help your association continue to grow.
- Social media integration. Today's AMS needs database fields for your members' profile pages on LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and more so you can easily engage them on those social networks. And, you should include links to your members' social media profiles from your online member/business directory to help your members connect with new customers. Your vendor should include social sharing buttons on your site to help your website visitors share your content (your members' listings, events, news, etc) with their networks and drive more traffic to your site - and more value to your members. Additionally, your AMS should have features for automated postings to social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to help your association engage your members and followers.
- Ability to be customized to your needs. The saying goes, “if you’ve seen one association, you’ve seen just ONE association” because they all operate differently. Be sure the AMS you select has the ability to be configured to the needs of your staff and your members specific needs. Ask your vendor if they will do any customizations. There may be an extra fee, but you’ll get what you need and won’t have to settle for something less.
I am sure your list might vary, but this list should give you a good start and keep you from making a bad decision. Obviously I am biased and would like you to choose WebLink for your next AMS, but if not, hopefully the above list will help you make a great decision that is best for your members.