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Adam Higgins

By: Adam Higgins on April 26th, 2019

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Association Management Software vs. Mainstream Alternatives: Which is Best?

Association Management

For technology leaders working in association management, there’s one question that comes up again and again. Should we use dedicated association management software solutions, or can we switch to a generic mainstream alternative?

As with all tech-related decisions, the answer is: it depends on your circumstances.

For example, most associations rely on Association Management Software (AMS) to curate some of their member data. In theory, a lot of AMS functionality can be handled by more general-purpose software, such as a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

Some organizations might need to stick with AMS; others might be able to switch to CRM. Many organizations will find that they need to use a mix of both. To understand why, let’s look at the advantages of both approaches.

Advantages of Working with Mainstream Software

Mainstream software can offer direct alternatives to association management software

There also are a number of other mainstream packages that you might consider here: CRM, Content Management Systems (CMS), marketing automation and email automation are some tools to look at. When you go with a mainstream alternative, you can expect some of the following advantages:

1. Faster innovation

Some of these tools have huge user bases, which drives a constant process of improvement and upgrades. Salesforce, for example, is credited with releasing the first-ever public API when they allowed integrations with their CRM, which kick-started the current era of cloud computing. Most new features tend to land on the big, mainstream tools first and then trickle down to more niche software providers.

2. More responsive developer community

Lots of software platforms have active developer communities that build add-ons and plugins. If you use an open source solution – a CMS platform like Drupal or Joomla, for example – you’ll find that the community is very quick to respond to bugs and security threats. The most popular tools have huge communities, who keep the software up-to-date and build a library of add-ons and plugins.

3. More options

Association management software and other association-specific tools are ultimately a small niche. There will always be a much broader set of options available to mainstream users. When you look at mainstream software, you’ll find a great deal of choice, as well as a wider range of approaches to solving problems, many of which you may not have considered.

4. Better pricing models

Pricing is usually related to scale. Service providers with a large customer base generally charge less; vendors who cater to a niche market (such as associations) tend to charge more. While this isn’t always accurate (there’s certainly no shortage of very expensive mainstream options), it’s much easier to shop around in a bigger market.

Advantages of working with Association Management Software

If mainstream software could do everything that associations needed, then there would be no demand for association management software.

Of course, the demand for dedicated association software is huge. AMS is very popular, as are association-specific email marketing tools, Event Management Systems (EMS) and Learning Management Systems (LMS).

Using a tool like this can have some advantages over the mainstream options for several reasons, such as:

1. No configuration required

While it may be possible to, for example, get a CRM to function as an AMS, this can only be done with add-on components and extensive configuration.

An AMS will be ready to work right out of the box, however, and your team can start using it immediately. There may be an up-front savings in this case, as you’ll probably have to pay someone to configure the mainstream tool.

2. Improved support for Association tasks

Associations do lots of things that for-profit organizations don’t. For example, membership might be contingent on the member completing a certain amount of educational programming each year.

The system needs to send reminders to the user, manage their educational path, and might have to block membership renewal if they don’t meet membership criteria. An AMS and EMS can automate this process from end-to-end, while most generic solutions simply don’t have the functionality for this kind of workflow.

3. Less focus on for-profit activity

Mainstream business software is usually based on the for-profit model, and understands people the way businesses understand people. This generally means viewing people as customers (who need to be funneled towards some kind of sale) or employees (who are resources that need to be allocated).

An association member is neither of these things. In database terms, an association member is an entirely different kind of entity. Their data needs to be captured differently, and processed in the correct way.

4. Excellent member retention

The biggest difference between an association and for-profit organizations is that businesses expect a certain amount of customer turnover. Associations do not – they generally want to keep their members for life.

To handle that kind of relationship, you need a software platform that can support decades of member data, including preferences and information relating to engagement. AMS and other tools built for associations have all been created with this particular goal in mind.

Solution: integration of association management software and mainstream tools

The question remains, which approach should you use? Should you go for the functionality of AMS or the flexibility of CRM?

If possible, you should use both. The right mix of association management software and mainstream tools in your tech stack could help to unleash a new range of opportunities. When evaluating your options, try to bear the following things in mind:

1. Use the right tools for the job

To do this, you’ll need to understand both the tool and the job. For example, data related to current members is best handled in the AMS, where you can deliver services, manage subscriptions, deal with programming and event attendance, and track engagement. An AMS is the best possible tool for the job of retention.

An AMS is generally not very good at working with leads, however. This is where the CRM comes in. The CRM can create records for leads, whether they are existing members are not, score them based on the likelihood of conversion, and then funnel them into an appropriate buyer journey. CRM is the best tool for the job of recruitment.

2. Max out core competencies

Each software tool has a range of functions available, and it makes sense to leverage those functions rather than new elements to your software stack. This is where working with a consultant or agency pays off, as they can show you how to get the most from each tool that you use.

Remember though, sometimes it is better to get a new tool rather than rely on an existing one. For example, a marketing automation tool can send mass emails such as the newsletter, in theory. But an email automation tool generally works out cheaper, plus it has better functionality with respect to things like inbox placement and engagement tracking.

3. Use add-on components where possible

Instead of buying an entirely new system, can you add something to an existing tool? For example, if you’ve tried using a CRM like Salesforce to manage your member data, you’ve probably found that it’s not doing what you need. But there are plugins such as Fonteva that add some AMS capabilities to Salesforce, and this might get you a little closer to where you need to be.

Add-ons can really help when you just need to add a small piece of functionality to your existing stack. Speak to the software vendor for guidance on available plugins. If you’re using an open source solution, try posting in the community forums to see if anyone can offer guidance.

4. Integrate and harmonize

Everything works better when it’s integrated with the rest of your stack. For example, a CRM might be able to create a better lead profile if it can check for relevant data on the AMS. Similarly, when a new member is added to the AMS, you should be able to pull through some information from the CMS related to their sales journey.

Some integrations are easier than others, of course. You’ll generally find that APIs for association management software are a lot more complex than interfaces for mainstream software. Speak to a partner like HighRoad Solution. We can work with your stack to make sure that information is flowing smoothly between all systems.

5. Fill any gaps in the stack

When you’re trying to stick to a budget, buying new software should be the last thing you do. Of course, sometimes you may have no option. You might have to invest in a new system, be it a tool for associations or a mainstream alternative.

That’s fine, as long as you know you’re getting the most from your existing stack. If so, then you should have a very clear idea of what you need and which option is best suited to you. Remember, integration needs to be your top priority when adding new elements to the stack.

Every element of your technology stack should be aligned to the overall goals of the association. In the end, it doesn't matter whether you use association management software or a mainstream alternative. Just make sure that you have what you need to deliver results.

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