If you’re looking for a new system, there could be any number of reasons:
- Your current system is out-of-date and can’t support your needs any longer
- It’s too difficult and expensive to maintain
- You have data silos that are holding you back
- You need one source of data you can rely on
Whatever your motivation, we’ve compiled a mini guide on how to approach the entire effort to ensure you find the right system for your association. Let’s dive in.
Start with Your Association’s Digital Transformation Goals
You’ve probably already begun to put together a digital transformation strategy — or you’re at least talking about it. Digital transformation isn’t just a strategic plan — it explores your corporate culture and encourages you to challenge the status quo by testing and experimenting. As part of your digital strategy, you’ll want to look at your:
- Business processes — are there ways to do things better?
- Business model — how do you deliver value to members?
- Technology — what’s the best system to take you into the future?
- Corporate Culture — are you keeping up with the latest perspectives?
One of the most critical components of an effective digital strategy is ensuring that you have association software that can support your goals. You definitely need a cloud-based system and one source of data.
And remember that your business goals need to drive your technology decision making — not the other way around.
If you need help getting started on your digital journey, download our complimentary Digital transformation whitepaper, and check out our blog post: 3 Steps for Creating a Winning Digital Strategy.
Evaluate Your Options
A cloud-based system is no longer a nice-to-have — it’s absolutely essential that your staff can access your critical systems from anywhere. For associations, you have two primary options to meet your needs:
Engagement Management Systems (EMS)
Engagement Management Systems are Cloud-based platforms with no costly integration or expensive programming headaches because they’re purpose-built for associations like yours. These systems are designed to manage member data, mobile, social, financials, events, and your websites in one solution. By avoiding customizations, an EMS costs a lot less to own and operate year over year.
Generic CRM-Based Platforms
These types of large CRM platforms were originally developed for the sales forces of large commercial enterprises — not associations. Their licensing fees can be low, but these CRM-based solutions typically require extensive customization to meet even basic association needs — so they can lock you into very expensive, long-term costs.
Determine the Tech Stack That’s Right for Your Association
A “tech stack” is the collection of software and tools your association uses to fulfill your mission and deliver member value. Your stack will be unique to your organization and the ways you serve your members. But effective association software must be:
- Capable of managing all of your data in a single system
- Simple to use
- Integrated with your website
- Purpose-Built for Associations right out of the box
Your stack will consist of three major components:
- Core platform
- Specific Modules/Apps
- Integration Tools
Let’s break these down:
1) Core Platform Considerations
You need to choose a software platform that’s designed for the unique complexities that membership organizations face every day. Your core platform will address 4 primary functions:
CRM & Data Management
Your system must be capable of:
- Managing all your contact data
- Ensuring data integrity
- Empowering staff and reducing reliance on IT
- Easily importing and exporting data
Member data is your lifeblood; make sure your system can:
- Make online joins and renewals simple and convenient for members
- Build member personas that will help you personalize your communications
- Empower members to manage their own profile information
- Manage your association’s complex membership models
You need a web platform that is robust enough to manage your entire public-facing web presence, member portals, event sites, and special-purpose microsites. It should empower you to:
- Design web pages using a Content Management System (CMS)
- Personalize the web experience for members
- Give your chapters, affiliates, and other groups the ability to manage their own websites
Accounting affects all areas of your association and It’s critical that you have one source of data that gives you a full 360° view of your members. Integration between systems can be a nightmare while native accounting functionality can be a game-changer. Look for a system that can:
- Manage financial batches, invoices, and adjustments
- Use separate bank accounts for different types of payments
- Offer secure, integrated payment processing
Or if you prefer to use a leading accounting software application, your core platform must have the ability to seamlessly integrate.
2) Specific Modules and Apps
As an association, you have unique needs that your association software should address — either with native functionality or a tight, seamless integration with best-of-breed applications. Here’s what to look for:
Your association software needs to be able to:
- Create dynamic and persuasive automated messages
- Personalize your communications
- Schedule communications for optimal dates/times
- Track opens, click-through rates, and other metrics
You’ll want the ability to create an engaging online presence where members feel welcome and motivated to come back again and again. Your community app should empower you to:
- Personalize content to your members’ needs based on community activity
- Create multiple communities with unique forums, blogs, and libraries
- Offer badges and other rewards for community involvement
If your association just has an event app you use once a year, you’re missing out. A year-round mobile app lets you:
- Send targeted push notifications
- Receive real-time member feedback on important issues
- Improve access to your most valuable resources
- Generate new sources of revenue
For a more in-depth look at year-round apps, see our 7 Mobile Tactics Every Association Professional Should Know blog post.
More and more members now appreciate a text they can read quickly to bring them up-to-speed. You should be able to:
- Automate and personalize your communications based on queries or personas
- Schedule texts in advance or on a recurring basis
- Ensure your texting follows regulatory guidelines
Events are often a big part of an association’s mission and you need significant control and flexibility to fully execute them. Your association software must allow you to:
- Manage all logistics, registrations, and communications
- Create user-friendly event microsites
- Support various pricing structures and discounts
Learning and Certification
Continuing education and certification offerings are important for your members’ professional development. Be sure to look for these capabilities:
Awards & Abstract Management
Should have an easy-to-use application that can manage the submission, nomination, selection, and notification processes, build sophisticated forms, and support complex review processes.
Learning Management System (LMS)
Should allow you to offer instructor-led, video, and blended learning. It should support your assessment and testing methods, track certification & micro credentials and allow learners to easily access or purchase your content.
Should automate your entire credentialing, licensing, and certification processes. It should offer the flexibility to define multiple certification programs, establish specific requirements and allow certificants to monitor their own progress.
Non-Dues Revenue Generation
Nearly every association looks for ways to increase revenue beyond member dues/membership fees. The newest association software can help you:
- Increase member convenience and boost revenue by allowing you to offer promotions and discounts across all payment areas
- Manage online product sales with tax and shipping calculations
- Provide unified carts that allow members to register for an event, pay dues, or even donate in one transaction
Career Center/Job Boards
While they can be an essential membership benefit, job boards can also generate additional revenue for your association through subscriptions, bundled job postings, upgraded postings, and branding opportunities for sponsors.
Advertising and Sponsorships
You need a solution that can track and manage everything from the sale to the insertion. The leading modules/applications will help you process orders, automate placements and billing, and analyze your sales performance.
Analytics & Productivity
Your association software should help you baseline your individual and corporate member engagement levels, monitor them, and report on progress towards the goals you set.
Dashboards & Reporting
Look for an extensive library of standard reports and dashboards designed for associations. You should be able to personalize your reports, filter across dashboards, change chart types, zoom in, and easily export reports to common file types.
The latest association software platforms can help you automate tasks based on rules you set, schedule member communications, display personalized messages when members log into your website and alert staff to important updates or tasks when viewing a member record.
3) Integration Tools
Finally, your association software needs to be able to integrate with the latest solutions on the market to provide the specific support you need in key areas. Your association’s needs will be uniquely yours but you want to make sure the system offers the greatest power and flexibility you can get. Look for a platform that can:
- Integrate with the latest best-in-class solutions on the market
- Help you build no-code, two-way integrations and avoid expensive one-off bridges or customizations
- Offer an open API to allow you to build your own integrations
- Support Single Sign On (SSO) with SAML, OAuth and other protocols for added member and staff convenience
Consider a System Preview When Evaluating Association Software
RFPs are the norm for most associations but an RFP is probably responsible for the legacy system that’s letting you down right now. A system preview allows you to test the solution provider’s offering in a real-world environment using your own information and processes to see what you can realistically achieve before making a commitment. The entire cost of one of these previews can be less than what you might pay a contractor to develop an RFP for you — and can be a much better predictor of your success.
An effective system preview process should:
- Identify your most pressing problems
- Help you get organized
- Save you time and money by employing proven best practices
- Lower your risk of investing in the wrong technology assets
- Keep you from being disappointed once again
Specifics may vary by vendor but most should include the following phases:
Vendor Selection: Start with a vendor offering a solution that’s purpose-built for associations . If you’re unsure where to begin, use your IT consultants to help you identify the top 3 vendors that can meet your needs and choose one for the preview.
Discovery: The vendor should collaborate with your executive team to assess your current situation. They should evaluate the 4 most important areas that contribute to your association’s success: recruitment, engagement, retention, and growth.
Consensus and Preview: Your vendor should work with the executive team to identify strategic targets, help your operational team define key requirements, preview the system using your own data and processes and then prepare a detailed document with all of your requirements.
Informed Decision: After completing the preview, you can decide whether the association software will address your challenges and help you meet your goals. If it can’t, you will still have highly detailed documentation you can use to create a highly targeted RFP that will save you time and yield a better result.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Client Reviews
Nothing succeeds like success. It’s always helpful to learn from the best-practices of others who have gone before you. Ask your potential vendors for:
- References from Similar Organizations: Look for multiple references from associations like yours in terms of revenue, complexity, staff size, or number of members.
- Video Testimonials: Request video interviews so you can hear directly from the customer rather than just reading a few stories.
- Independent Review Site Ratings: These sites can provide the unvarnished truth that will help you eliminate poor performers before you waste too much time evaluating their systems.
Here are a few independent reviewers you should get to know: G2, Capterra, GetApp and Software Advice.
There are many resources available to help with your selection process. ASI offers a complimentary eBook designed to help you understand what to look for and how to evaluate vendors: The Association Exec’s Guide to Improving Organizational Performance.
To sum up today’s post, remember to:
- Begin by establishing your digital transformation goals
- Consider your available options on the market
- Determine what your association’s tech stack really needs to include
- Explore system previews instead of RFPs
- Look closely at client reviews for important clues