The Path to the Best Database
By: Karla Taylor
Having worked both in information technology and as an association CEO, Roy Snell has developed a theory of association evolution. A decade ago, only about 10 percent of members' contact with a typical association was online; the rest came through such mainstay benefits as the monthly magazine and the annual convention. But today, Snell says, the proportion may be more like 50 percent magazines and meetings, 50 percent web and, increasingly, social media. And in the decade to come, 90 percent of members' contacts may be online.
When that time comes, publications and meetings won't exactly be extinct, says Snell, CEO of the Health Care Compliance Association and the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics. "But members' interconnectivity is going to continue to go up exponentially, and the organization that makes the most of that will win the day." And that's why, he says, "between social media, the web, and our AMS, we have to provide the best possible experience for those in our profession who want to connect."
How can you make sure your association won't be a technological dinosaur? You need to understand how the databases your online connections depend upon are evolving and how to stay current without losing your mind. Here are five things you need to do to ensure that your members and customers don't ever consider your association extinct.
1. Changing with the times has never been more important.
"Database systems are becoming far more sophisticated and far more affordable than ever before," says Wes Trochlil, president of Effective Database Management and author of Put Your Data to Work: 52 Tips and Techniques for Effectively Managing Your Database. "If you are struggling with your current technology and have not acquired new software or upgraded in the past three years, you need to do that now. Given how inexpensive some off-the-shelf Software as a Service [Saas] products are, it's malpractice to continue to suffer with an absurdly out-of-date or homegrown system."
How can you tell if your databases are meeting today's minimum standards? The majority of Trochlil's clients are able to link their association management system (AMS) with their financial management system (FMS) and content management system (CMS). This means they don't have to rekey data (a member's contacts, for example, need only be entered once to be captured by all three systems); updates appear simultaneously in all three systems; and the three operate in consistent ways, which minimizes both training costs and mistakes.
2. Big changes in what your constituents want are driving big changes in data management.
After more than a decade of using sophisticated commercial websites, your members assume they can go online and interact with your association whenever and wherever they like, whether it's to check their CEUs, register for a conference, or buy a book. That means your AMS must be fully integrated with your website in real time.
Users also expect you to segment and target communications to fit their interests, most likely through an online "subscription center" that lets them manage their communication preferences through an opt-in/opt-out system. "More AMS vendors are providing the subscription-center functionality," Trochlil says.
In addition, members' deep involvement in social media, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, has fueled a growing need for social CRM (customer relationship management)—a need many vendors are eager to fill. Several AMS providers now offer the ability to integrate their systems into "white label" social media platforms, provided by third-party vendors, which you can rebrand as your own platform. And some AMS applications allow you to monitor social media engagement through a "link" from members' records to their social media records.
Though members want you to have their information instantly available for their purposes, they also expect your system to be impregnable against security breaches and data theft.
3. Social-media-fueled changes in CRM provide a new way to think about—and then manage—your members' involvement.
Social CRM can take you beyond the data a customer-relationship management system tracks and into the realm of the conversations and relationships that drive the world of social media. A step beyond that, says Mark Lowry, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Higher Logic, is a consolidated view of engagement that lets you measure how involved members truly are and what you must do to retain them. "Ultimately, greater engagement equals greater retention," says Lowry. "If you can measure it, you can use it."
One example of what this broad outlook on data collection can be like comes from the New Jersey Society of CPAs (NJSCPA). In 2010, it started identifying its "most-valuable members" based on a point system the staff devised to reflect various online activities' importance to both users and the society. For example, members receive eight points for creating a blog and two for rating a blog comment. NJSCPA staff members are now looking into storing the engagement data in Aptify, its CRM/AMS; they added a custom volunteer-management module to Aptify in hopes of gaining a 360-degree view into member involvement.
The project is still evolving, says Rachael Bell, NJSCPA's manager of online communications. "Storing the data is just the first step. Next is figuring out what types of reports we need to analyze that data—maybe dashboards plus more complex reports?" Even with these uncertainties, Bell is confident that using the database to measure engagement will help the society identify strong candidates for service, track the activities people value most, and boost member retention.
The Society for Neuroscience has revamped its members-only mentoring program by combining social networking with both its database and specialized software. In the past, pairing up mentors and mentees involved long hours with piles of paper applications, says Jessica Wesley, project manager in SfN's Information and Decision Support Department. The new program is more like a Match.com for professionals who want to get or give career help.
Through an easy-to-use, customized enrollment process, SfN's Personify database works with Higher Logic's Connected Community software to make matches based on demographics and interests. In addition, the software provides a community space for user discussion groups. Since its launch in September 2010, the online mentoring program has drawn 280 users, 100 more than the mentoring program at SfN's annual meeting attracted. In addition to letting participants choose their own partners, the online system reduces staff time and permits data tracking and reporting.
"Associations should not focus on ROI but instead on ROE—return on engagement," Lowry says. New technology that lets you define, track, and measure engagement "helps build a case around the need to create new ways of getting engaged as a way to create long-term viability for the association."
In an ideal world, technological advances like these should lead your association to a kind of knowledge nirvana—what Trochlil calls "a holistic view" of your members and customers. You should be able to track not just their transactions with you (when they join, sign up for a conference, or buy a book) but also their volunteer service, areas of interest, and participation in your social media site. "A holistic view allows the association to communicate with every individual in a manner that is valuable and relevant," he says.
4. The prospect of achieving knowledge nirvana sounds great. If only it didn't involve so much suffering.
You may have heard the old joke that nobody in IT ever got fired for buying IBM; if you were confused about a computer purchase, at least there was one safe choice that no one would question. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent in today's rapidly changing world. "The past three years have seen more changes in AMS vendors—bankruptcies, mergers, et cetera—than in the previous 10 years," says Trochlil, who monitors membership-management software tools. The result is a splintered market—and a bigger challenge to choose wisely when you lack a blindingly obvious frontrunner.
Nor is there a well-worn path to guide you to total interconnectivity, says Snell. "It's something you can strive for and get close to, but it's always an ongoing battle as things change. You have to work your tail off to get the right software, get it installed in an optimal way, and then maintain it so that it's always improving in its interconnectivity.
"Is that bad news? Oh my God yes; it's the biggest pain in the neck for associations, in my opinion, to stay on top of this. It takes time, it takes money, it takes effort, it takes desire. … But if you think about it, it's really, really important, and worth all the time and money you can put into it."
Sean Walters, CAE, executive director of the Investment Management Consultants Association, agrees. When his organization began a database and website overhaul in 2007, the goal was to enable members to conduct business with IMCA without having to submit forms or call staff. It worked. He's especially pleased with improvements in online certification management. But "every element of our operation was touched by the project," which continues to this day.
"Implementation will take 50 percent more time and cost 50 percent more than you expect." Walters says. "There ought to be a sign on every AMS to this effect."
5. Fortunately, there's plenty of advice on how to make an informed choice.
Here are some tips from association professionals who've evolved along with their databases.
- Set clear goals. Snell cites a saying in the compliance world that applies equally well to choosing technology: If you don't know what's important, everything has to be important. That's why your first step has to be deciding what your database most needs to accomplish in a big-picture sense, now and for the foreseeable future. "Don't make your decision based on technology," Snell says. "Base it on functionality—what you actually want to do."
- Look for signs of dedication to the association market. The vendors you consider should have the modules you need; a deep track record with your kind of organization (whether a trade or professional association); and enough size, commitment, and staying power to support their products and make them better every year, even in the face of growing desire for connectivity. For a list of AMS vendors, click here.
- Keep the search focused. Avoid sending out what Snell calls "the 250-line-item RFP." Instead, concentrate on the workings of the modules you need—Membership? Certification? Conference management? Make sure your interviews feature an actual demo (not just a PowerPoint about the product) and a site visit that includes a meeting with the staff you'll work with directly. "And then talk to colleagues who work with the companies and will keep you from making an egregious mistake," Snell adds.
- Remember that perfect is the enemy of the good. "Finding perfect databases is like finding perfect mates … they don't exist," Walters says. "Strive instead to get it to work, and then strive to get it to work better." When, inevitably, even the good seems to be too much to hope for, "remind people to not take things so personally," Walters adds. "We named our new database Fred in an effort to keep the process light. The AMS is a tool. Tools tend to break sometimes, but we don't get as mad at them as we do at a database. When people are overly invested in the illusion that 'I am my work,' they tend to take technology failures as personal failures."
No matter what, your association's primary goal should be to make sure your connections with your members constantly demonstrate your importance to them—and vice versa. It's the best way to avoid going the way of the dinosaur. As Trochlil says, "Any message we send our members and customers has to be relevant to them and has to provide value. A well-managed AMS can ensure this happens."
Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For a list of AMS vendors compiled by Wes Trochlil, see "Association Management Software (AMS) Vendors" at Effective Database Management.