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Key things to look for when choosing Association Management Software

20 Jul 2017

In the depths of the internet there is a vast amount of marketing material for a large number of Association Management Software available. There is also a lot of cross over between Client Relationship Management and Content Management Software platforms.

The technical requirements across Business, Industry Organisations, and Associations are similar, with a marketing focus on additional features for each of these groups (such as membership management needs for membership organisations, and eCommerce capability for businesses).

On the face of it a large number of the available options seem to offer similar features, and it takes a lot of digging to understand some of the differences between them.

There are 3 main areas of consideration when determining what the right choice is for your organisation.

What processes does our organisation undertake?

When looking internally at an organisations processes it is beneficial to have a clear view of what is required to meet the organisations operating goals effectively.

Keeping clear of pre-conceived boundaries and past practices can help to establish what internal user flows and processes an organisation needs to achieve to manage staff, engage its target audience, manage data and online presence, without limiting possibilities.

Keeping internal rules and process tidy before embarking on a software solution hunt makes it easier to establish key processes that need to be achieved, which software to use, and what tools and features are important.

Having a clear view of outcomes also gives direction if you are using a third party provider to setup or develop any systems.

What software is available, and what features are included?

The second question is usually marketed on supplier websites by the use of some snazzy icons and buzz words, such as CRM, CMS etc. Similar icons do not lead to the same level of functionality. A summary of the typical areas that might need to be considered are included below. You will need to delve deeper on most marketing material to establish the key features offered. Its important to note that there are very few providers that can meet all of the elements below in a single solution.

Website Content Management - Find a system that you don't need to become an HTML programmer to use. Whilst it is tempting to go for a cheaper option, and building your own website is satisfying, there is usually a large initial internal cost to understand the software chosen, and unless you have a strong understanding of HTML and design you risk missing the mark.

"A website is only the surface of the organisations online engagement"

The data and administration side of this content is what really drives an organisations capability.

Client Relationship Management - Managing client communications, storing contact details and maintaining engagement information is important to any organisation. Benefits available here range from stand alone systems that integrate with email and file management at the expensive end, to basic recording of key information. Either way its important that all engagement tools used with your key audiences can be incorporated into your CRM system in a functional way.

A key here is to ensure a selected system can handle your membership subscription process in an efficient manner, with flexibility to meet your particular membership types and benefits.

Email Marketing - Most systems allow for some level of email marketing. The best systems here allow for direct integration with all types of engagement methods (such as event attendees, subscriptions, cpd, and similar) without the need to use third party tools or manually import email address and name information. Email validation and Analytics, and unsubscribe flexibility are also important

E-commerce - There are some slick stand alone e-commerce sites, however its good to find one that doesn't take a cut of your sales. Presentation is usually down to the users preferences and templates available. Look for flexible systems that allow product categorisation, the ability to auto complete search areas, and search alogirthms.

Event Management and Booking - Some basic CMS systems will allow for event listings and manual contact us forms to provide requests for attendance. Better quality event management systems will allow for online booking with flexibility around the level of information both displayed to an attendee and level of information supplied by attendees on booking. Like all of the processes below this should be integrated into both your CRM system and your CMS.

E-Learning - Online learning can be important to organisations, and a system should be flexible enough to allow a wide range of delivery options, and assessment options, with ingratiation to CRM, CMS and CPD systems if required.

CPD - A lessor required tool, but important to those that need it, a CPD delivery system should allow for third party education providers the ability to market their offerings to your audience, as well as allowing your organisation to market its own CPD activity. All CPD members should have access to a dashboard to allow them to plan and track activities against an organisation or industry's prescribed standards. Check out a Stream CPD case study here.

Other engagement tools commonly used include Quizzes, Surveys or Feedback tools, and SMS communication.

How does the solution selected meet the need?

Finally, there is a common perception that the above engagement tools need to be provided by different providers and then presented together online. This can work, however from an administration view point its not ideal. Often there are multiple logins to manage multiple types of software, with differing interfaces, and duplicated data.

An ideal system will incorporate as many of the engagement tools and processes required by an organisation in one place, accessible by a single log in, with the parts integrated in ways that suit the internal rules and values of the organisation.

Pricing models

Software available ranges from free for small sports organisations, to hundreds of thousands of dollars setup and large ongoing costs. Budget will often be a driver of selection, however the way in which a number of providers markets their offering can catch you out.

Where systems are provided “free” - Usually these systems will seem like a good choice, however a number of them will entice you with the free offer, and at a later date when you discover you need further functionality you may need to sign a monthly subscription or similar. Often the functionality you might want won't be available, and or you will need to integrate additional system apps or components that belong to other parties in order maintain a sensible level of operating.

Subscription based offerings - As per free offerings subscription based models charge on a per user, or per event, or per communication basis. This may suit smaller organisations with a pay as you go preference. Often these types of solutions focus on a single aspect of an organisations operation , such as mail marketing or event management. There is a risk that ongoing costs can rise beyond expectation, if you grow your organisation or the suppliers structure changes.

Ongoing Cost Models - For moderate sized organisations it is possible to find an “out of the box” solution, that meets a number of requirements, however most organisations have very specific rules of operating, complex membership types, complex freight considerations or other specific online processes. This can lead to frustration around meeting a part of an organisations needs, but running into development walls when a customised approach is required.

Typically this type of solution will incur a smaller up front fee, and larger ongoing costs to meet ongoing support. If the ongoing cost includes support and development as component it is important to have defined in writing exactly with constitutes support and development.

All up front costs - Some solutions provide an upfront development cost with the promise of low ongoing fees. This can suit an organisation as there should be certainty around cost, and ongoing development is charged based on what is determined in the future, on a case by case basis.

This forms a transparent model, but be sure you understand what ongoing support is included and if it's not planned, what it may cost.

Other Considerations

Development Walls - If your organisation is likely to want to do things outside of a standard offering make sure the supplier you choose is willing to customise their software. Usually a standard hourly rate can be agreed upon up-front.

Shared Data - Free or low cost systems often allow you to enter your organisations data in a central database, which is shared with that providers clients. The solution that you are using is the same across that providers customer base, and you are at the mercy of the providers development plans and upgrade programme.

Open source code. - Open source code means the code is common and available to a broad range of suppliers, however typically one supplier will use this code in a different way to another supplier. An open source system can mean that your solution is portable to some degree, but there is overhead in having a new consultant learn how a past consultant has structured a system, sometimes to the extent that it may be easier to start again.

Which Cloud? - For cloud based systems your data is actually in real server somewhere. Make sure you know where and who has control of it.

Back-up and data handling - Also be aware of back-up provisions – is your data backed up, how often is it backed up, how long is it kept or archived.

Forms - Forms for collection of information can be used in many ways, make sure they fit your requirements exactly. You don't need to settle for a generic form that misses the mark, customised options are preferred. Form data should also be databased and used for the intended purpose to avoid double entry from collection point to end use.

Clearly there are a large number of considerations, and the task to research and choose can be daunting. Its worth mentioning that the ability to pick up the phone and talk about what you need with any supplier will also be key, and customer service ethics will ultimately smooth the path.

Book a Demonstration with Stream Interactive, or call us to discuss further.


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