“I hate my AMS, but would never think about changing it.”
This is a direct quote from an association executive at a focus group I recently attended. There were lots of nodding heads in the room. I found this a startling statement and started pondering how we got here.
Back in the day, an association management software system (AMS) focused on the basics of helping an association manage its membership data – things like contact records, member types, member applications, accounting and reports. They evolved to include features and functions like email, directories, event registration, content management and website upkeep. Today, it’s common for an association software suite to support job boards, blogs, forums, surveys and even business analytics. And that’s only a sampling of the abilities of most of today’s AMS solutions.
However, if you’re using an AMS today, you’ve probably discovered that it just doesn’t do a great job at everything you need to ensure your association runs smoothly. In defense of AMS providers, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect them to be experts in all functionalities. I’d even say you should give them credit for being responsive to client needs.
Many AMS providers started out delivering the core set of member management functionalities. Over time, they developed new modules as clients said, “It would be great if it could also do________.” (You fill in the blank.) Like all new (at the time) software companies, they wanted to do whatever it took to meet customer needs.
So, AMS providers expanded their products into adjacent areas outside the core of member management. As they created new modules for their association software they started selling this expanded feature set to all clients. However, most associations think their organization is unique with its own set of requirements. Soon, AMS providers were selling their new modules and customizing them.
You may be protesting as you read this: “We do have unique data management requirements that necessitate custom AMS tooling.” That’s fine – the point is that customizations upon add-on modules on top of more customizations often results in an unorganized jalopy of association software that requires an extraordinary amount of time and manpower to maintain. Furthermore, this type of approach to enhancements make training new staff on a custom AMS difficult because knowing how to use it exists more in the realm of oral history than a pass-down instruction reference.
This is at the heart of the focus group participant’s proclamation. They have an AMS solution that has so many customizations that the thought of unraveling it and starting anew is simply too much to bear.
Specialized association software grows popular
The good news is that today’s association software environment has options that can keep associations from getting into the predicament of our focus group member. The first among them is the emergence of specialized, niche software products. Over the years, there has been an increasing number of software solutions that address associations’ emerging technological requirements to support their membership, professional development, event or advocacy ambitions. Because these solutions are focused on a particular area, such as event management or email marketing, their features and functions are robust and were developed to meet evolving expectations among associations. The result is a product that can typically work out of the box, with no customizations.
Many associations have taken to adopting specialty software solutions from companies such as Cvent, EventCart, Real Magnet and Informz. Associations benefit from the better functionality these specialized solutions give their core AMS system and have chosen to eschew some of their custom AMS modules that were originally designed to meet the same requirements.
Unfortunately, no good deed goes unanswered: This new approach of associations using multiple technology solutions brings its own set of challenges. The overall challenge is how to best get these applications talking to one another and sharing data. After all, siloed data is one of the reasons associations move to association management software in the first place.
On the user interface side, establishing a single sign-on (SSO) across applications is necessary to make it easy for your members to use your association’s systems. They expect to have to remember just one login to move easily between applications. But ideally, you want the back-end of each application to integrate together to make managing member records easy for your staff as well. For example, instead of having staff run an AMS export of customer records to populate your email platform, associations want the two systems seamlessly integrated so that:
- Data automatically flow between the applications,
- Your staff doesn’t have to wonder whether or not a member communication reaches the most current customer list, whether event registration lists are up to date, or if employers from your job board are receiving the most current promotional offers from your staff, and
- Updates to email addresses (i.e. invalid addresses)in the email platform can be noted directly in your AMS.
Challenges to integrating association software functions
Member software integrations clearly make sense for association members and staff but aren’t always being performed. What’s been in the way? Historically there have been three challenges to integrations:
- They are costly. Integrations between applications and an AMS can range from $1,000 to $5,000 or more.
- They are time-consuming. Integrations typically require multiple internal meetings in addition to meetings with the solution providers – both independently and jointly. Then your association must wait for the solution providers to free up some of their limited development resources to spend time on your integration. Three-month cycles between idea and implementation are common.
- They require technical expertise held by select staff members. To make integrations work effectively, you typically need someone from your IT team to spend time on tasks such as identifying which data fields need to be shared and which data set will be deemed primary if there is ever a question about the same data field having different information within each application. This is time your IT staff must take away from keeping your networks running smoothly and working on other improvements.
The good news is there are new products and initiatives on the market that address these integration challenges. Software platforms are beginning to be designed with open APIs (application programming interfaces) that shield your association from worrying about the technical aspects of connecting software solutions. They come with customizations for your unique requirements, too: Most integrations have standard data fields identified for movement between applications based on association standard practices, but your association often has the ability to adjust these if needed. Connecting your applications also gives your association a treasure trove of data that can reveal new membership insights previously not visible when your software solutions weren’t operating together.
Set up your association software to meet future association needs
So, what can an association do to avoid hating their AMS but never consider changing it? First, realize the limitations that come with most association management software. While most are really good at member management, when it comes to features and functions further afield, you’re likely going to end up compromising on some aspect of user-friendliness or ability to update. The expression jack of all trades, master of none comes to mind.
Second, look at best of breed solutions for your core business challenge – whether that is event management and registration, communications management, accounting, or something else – and determine which product makes the most sense based on your organization’s priorities. Simplify your software solutions to create better member and staff user experiences.
Finally, expect your software needs to change as your association grows and matures, but don’t plan to spend time, energy and money integrating new applications with your AMS when you have options that dramatically simplify this for you. Membership software platforms are beginning to offer the ability to easily integrate third-party applications. Users can select a desired application, follow an integration wizard, and start using the application in sync with their association management software suite right away.
For example, Credly is an app that offers digital awarding, display and recognition of an individual’s professional credentials. Organizations that use Credly help their members show off courses they’ve completed and certifications earned. Integrated with an AMS, Credly can help associations automatically and seamlessly keep track of which members have completed certain certifications, which members are working on their next achievement, and which members could be targeted with communications about upcoming certification opportunities. Furthermore, when deployed with a career center, an app like Credly can help members display their most current qualifications to potential employers looking for certain skills – adding member value by giving them the opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Invest in new solutions that meet your need and can be integrated instantly, without heavy technical knowledge, and at little to no cost.
As you think about the best software solutions for your organization, give yourself choices, both now and in the future. You don’t want to become the next focus group participant who feels trapped into an outdated, lumbering AMS. Select solutions and vendors that don’t make it difficult for you to work with other technologies. Even if you don’t need a certain application yet, you’ll want to give yourself the flexibility to easily incorporate one – or more – when the time is right. Working with an AMS that offers quick, easy, no-cost integrations will ensure your association will still love your member software no matter what you need it to do.