By Julie King
Part I of Selecting the Right AMS for your Association explored key considerations for Canadian associations when selecting a new AMS.
Yet as anyone who has gone through an AMS conversion already knows, finding the right product for your association goes beyond the core features. Thinking about the integration process and anticipating both complexity and areas where there could be a misfit is equally important.
These 10 tips are designed to help you plan for a successful membership database / website integration project while you are still in the selection stage.
- Project scope / definition: Improper scope definition and documentation are the number one cause of project delays, budget over-runs, and project failures. If your purchase involves any customization at all, then it should be carefully documented to ensure the AMS vendor understands what is needed, and can properly price and implement it to your satisfaction. If you are buying an off-the-shelf product that cannot be customized or are considering a web-based software as a service (SaaS) solution, it is important to go through all the features to ensure they will meet your needs. If some features will not be available to you, you need to consider how you can compensate for the missing functionality. Note: Most SaaS software allows users to configure their account, but if a configuration is not available it likely cannot be added, which is an important decision factor. For example, one US-based Chamber of Commerce AMS had limitations on the wording that was displayed during the event ticket checkout process, which could not be changed to appropriately reflect Canadian jurisdictions.
- Staff lead: Picking the right staff member to lead the project is another critical choice. The working and thinking-style of an administrative professional who is responsible for your membership data may not be suited to the intense change associated with a database implementation. This could lead to frustration and misunderstandings. The project lead should also be respected enough to successfully champion it within your organization (the importance of senior executive support cannot be emphasized enough) and have the people-skills needed to get everyone’s buy-in as the project moves forward.
- Privacy & security protection: Many associations store sensitive data: security needs to be built into the AMS and should encompass data privacy best practices at the very least, as well as be encrypted in some cases. Most AMS vendors cover the basics. However, it is often the little details that matter when building a system that is truly secure. Consider to what degree data in your AMS can be secured, in addition to standard security protocols like encryption. Many associations are also concerned about the hosting location for any membership data that is stored online, and prefer to use a datacenter based in Canada.
- Data model: At its core an AMS is about collecting and linking data into one cohesive system, doing away with silos of information that are difficult to compare and merge for reporting purposes. Each AMS will have its own standard model, which can usually be configured to address the needs of each client. In addition to the AMS’s data model, investing time to properly clean your data before it is imported into the new system is equally important. Part of the requirements gathering, vendor selection, and implementation process should be a comprehensive cleaning and combining of all sources of information and data.
- Online availability: Many products now offer a level of online integration, yet this is also an area where associations may feel they are buying a fully online-connected database, only to learn that some of the off-line data and features are not available online. Be sure to clarify this when evaluating systems for your shortlist.
- Web integration: There are a number of ways that a database and website can be integrated. There can be a straight integration based on the way the standard AMS works, there can be configurations to the standard implementation and there can be a fully custom integration where original software is created. The more customizations that are required, the higher the overall cost, especially in terms of long-term maintenance. Many AMS’s also come with a website content management system (CMS) and some AMS systems have to take over your website completely for the integrate to work. It is important to make sure that the CMS being offered meets your website needs, and if not, what alternative options are available. Where the website is not included, there are often additional costs to integrate your AMS with your existing website. (See APIs in point number 8 for more on this.)
- E-commerce + online interactions: The ability to register and pay securely for events, join / renew or have members self-manage their personal or company profiles are now considered standard features, and should be considered “must-have” options for any AMS solution. Be sure to check the compatibility between your current merchant account and your AMS. If any changes are needed, start them early as it can take 1-2 months to get a new account set-up. If you find yourself shopping for a new e-commerce vendor, take into account any additional PCI compliance costs, as each vendor has different requirements and a full PCI compliance audit can be a hidden cost that increases the total cost of ownership for your account.
- APIs: As mentioned in web integration section above, the ability for the AMS to connect to other systems is increasingly important. This is achieved with an API, something built into the AMS that lets it connect securely and reliably to other software, whether it is a separately developed website, your accounting software, or something like a 3rd party learning management system (LMS.)
- Upgrade path + Innovations: Look for vendors that are committed to upgrading their product as technologies evolve and that provide a continuous upgrade path for their customers. Some AMS products are now starting to build-in innovative elements, like behavioural profiling of members and customized dashboards for each system user. Even if you do not need these features now, having the ability adopt them in future years could be an important consideration.
- Training & support: This cannot be emphasized enough: An investment in training and acceptance of the new AMS is perhaps the most critical aspect of its long term success within your association. Even with a user-friendly interface, to fully understand how they can truly leverage the new AMS, your staff will need to understand a complex system. It will take time and practice to become fluent in all of the software’s capabilities. Change-management within the association is a vital part of the training and support stage. Beyond that there is always a benefit to having access to people who deeply understands the more powerful and complex aspects of your system, which is where an allowance for ongoing support becomes important. Your staff may be able to figure out how to do standard processes, but what about things they have never even considered?
Julie King is the CEO of BizZone, a company that helps associations transform their offerings to members with technologies that include an Association DNA – a uniquely Canadian association management system – and specialized websites for Associations, including a bilingual Content Management System that fully integrates with the company’s AMS.