One of the biggest questions in the association world today is should I use an association management system (AMS) or a customer relationship management (CRM) system to manage my organization? This is a subject that is at the heart of what Cobalt has been working on for more than 10 years and we felt it was time to share our findings with the rest of the association community. It will be a valuable tool that can help you prepare for the next time your organization needs to upgrade or replace its current system.
A Brief History
Before we dive into this complicated question, let’s take a trip down memory lane. When I started working in the association world in the mid-90s, there were really only 2 choices if you needed an association management system – iMIS or custom. This led to an extremely fragmented market where custom application development vendors all scrambled to find clients to serve as their launching point into this space.
Over the next 10 years things settled out a bit and you began to see other AMS vendors gaining traction in the market including Avectra (now Abila). You even saw some segmentation between vendors serving the medium to large national associations while others served smaller associations and/or niche markets within the larger association market. The barrier to entry for new AMS vendors was now pretty high so you didn’t see too many new players on the scene. Yes, there was a brief period of disruption in the late-90s when a few ASPs (application service providers) and .coms crashed the party, but they mostly faded away.
Just after the turn of the century (it still seems strange to use that term for 2000), a few companies that were already working in the association space decided that they could take existing customer relationship management (CRM) platforms and use them as the foundation for a new breed of AMS. By using these platforms built by larger companies with large R&D budgets, these vendors were able to reduce the barrier to entry and were now able to provide competing offerings in the AMS space. These systems had very robust customer relationship and engagement tracking capabilities and open platforms for building customizations.
At first, associations were leery of these new offerings, but as the vendors began to show results, they started to gain some ground. Of course, the more traditional AMS vendors took notice of this and eventually responded. Many of the market leaders have now added more CRM functionality to their systems to compete against the CRM-based systems. During this time, we have also seen several vendors attempting to offer CRM solutions without AMS modules directly to associations. These vendors have had very little success when stacked up against the true AMS solutions offered by the other two groups.
So now that you have an abbreviated history of the past 20 years in the AMS market, we can start comparing the three main options facing associations today. As with most of my posts, I am focused on medium to large national or regional associations with at least 10 staff people since that is the market that Cobalt focuses on.
Standalone CRM for Associations
The standalone CRM option is the selection of a commercial CRM and either customizing it yourself or having a consultant work with you to configure it to meet your organization’s needs. For this article, I’m going to focus on Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Salesforce since they are the most commonly used systems by associations and are the leaders in customer service for small (10s) and midsize (100s) teams.
*The Forrester Wave: Customer Service Solutions for Small and Midsize Teams, Q2 2014
The biggest advantage here is upfront licensing costs. These costs can vary depending on the number of bells and whistles you want to add, but for between $65 (Microsoft) and $125 (Salesforce), each vendor offers a solution to meet most, if not all, of your CRM needs. The other big plus here is the backing of multi-billion dollar companies and the R&D budget that goes along with it. Similarly, the number of companies and users running these applications dwarfs all of the AMS providers combined. This broad user base means information and documentation (you can Google almost any question you have and get dozens of answers) as well as a larger talent pool of product expertise to pull from when hiring new staff.
The main downside associated with this option is the need to hire a firm or independent consultant to add all of the association management features to the system. Yes, these systems are very robust CRM systems, but if you need to track membership applications, renewals, conferences, volunteers, etc. you will need to add that yourself. While customizing the staff interface with new tables, forms, and fields is pretty straightforward, adding customer facing web functionality is another story. You will definitely need a developer to create your online membership applications, meeting registrations, profile updates, etc. This can be costly and carries significant risk.
This option would have your organization selecting one of the well-known, established AMS vendors including iMIS, Personify, NetForum Enterprise, ACGI and Aptify. I’m sure that these five would hate me lumping them into the same category, but they are the leaders in the medium to large association space. There are other great vendors out there if you are a smaller organization and this infographic from Capterra is a great place to start if you are looking for a comprehensive list.
Since all of these vendors have been offering solutions to associations for more than a decade, industry knowledge is a huge plus. These groups are focused 100% on offering solutions to membership based organizations and their staff is made up of industry veterans who understand the day-to-day operations of an association. In addition to this, most of them offer integrations with other association solutions including online communities, conference registration and exhibitor management solutions, etc.
Of course, this laser focus can also be a weakness. These systems are often built on platforms and processes that are now 20 years old, making upgrades and process reengineering difficult. Additionally, having a set customer base or position in the market has led to some vendors becoming complacent because they know that the pain and cost of their customers switching keeps defection fairly low.
AMS + CRM – The New Breed
The third option is truly the best of both worlds. As I mentioned in my opening, there are a handful of vendors including Cobalt that have leveraged their experience in the association market to build first class AMS functionality on top of world class CRM systems. These systems give you all of the Pros from the two options above without the cons. It would be unfair and inaccurate if I did not mention once again that several of the traditional AMS vendors outlined above have done a great job of responding to the need for CRM features, but with the continuing advancements being made by Microsoft and Salesforce, it will be tough for even the largest AMS vendors to keep up.
I hope that the above analysis has been helpful and that it will serve as a starting point for your research into the best options for your organization. I’ve painted with broad strokes here, but each platform and vendor has strengths and weaknesses. Remember that this is a very important decision and I urge you to be diligent as you find the right fit. There is no true answer to which AMS is the best, but you should be able to find the AMS that is best for you.