Your assessment work as you look at AMS systems and your association’s needs is all about surveying and summarizing the needs of your staff and members. It gives you the clear priorities for your search. The next phase is about quickly considering the options from vendors and AMS systems that have a high-level alignment with your needs and priorities.

In this post, we’ll share the best of what we’ve learned about initial research for an AMS after partnering with associations in Washington D.C. and across the country in the last 26 years. This post is Part Two of our 2023 Association Management Software Buying Guide.

In Part One, we tackle the association management software assessment phase in-depth. And Part Three is packed with our best practices for advanced AMS software demos in the final selection process.

Download a copy of the entire buying guide for your team. Associations like yours have found this to be a helpful roadmap as they evaluate different AMS systems. You’ll get a clear, streamlined process with the best questions to ask at every stage.

Download a complete copy of this 2023 AMS Buying Guide.

Initial AMS Systems Research Priorities

It’s so easy to get deep in the weeds with research as your association is looking at different AMS systems. Of course the details and finer points matter — but too much attention to them at this stage can sabotage or drag this project out forever!

Below you’ll see what we cover in this post, and it’s all about trying to keep things simple and keep your AMS Task Force and stakeholders focused on the priorities for the middle phase of this project. We’ll cover RFPs, what AMS features to look for, some of the best AMS systems in 2023 to consider, customization and how it affects your final price tag, overview demos, and more.

Topics We Cover in This Article

Why you should wait to send vendors an RFP at this stage
Invest in due diligence for your AMS systems search
What features should you prioritize in your AMS systems research?
11 of the best AMS systems in 2023
How AMS vendors quote implementation projects
How much customization do you need?
AMS systems vendor support and culture fit
This year’s top AMS providers
Best AMS systems for smaller associations
Other AMS systems to consider
Request an overview demo from your top AMS vendor prospects
What do expect from an ideal AMS overview demo
What to ask AMS system vendors
Read more about researching AMS systems

Why you should wait to send vendors an RFP at this stage

Do you need an RFP to submit to vendors? In all likelihood, yes. Do you need one at this stage of the search? Absolutely not. 

Earlier, we mentioned that an exhaustive RFP early in the game could ruin your chances of getting connected with the best vendor for your needs. Here’s what we mean.

Some associations compile a huge specifications list (often without doing much internal assessment or talking to their members) and mold it into a similarly unwieldy RFP. Then they blast it to dozens of AMS systems vendors.

Companies that pursue this path almost never account for the overhead in responding to their massive RFP. When they start rolling back in to review, it’s a huge amount of work to sort and take in. But that’s not even the worst part

The reality is that a new vendor or one on shaky legs has no other choice but to fill out as many RFPs as they happen to get. So the majority of the unwieldy proposals that do come back to your team will be completed by the most desperate, least qualified vendors available

Established, stable vendors who know their market and their software will not spend the time to respond to all (or even most) of the RFPs that come out of nowhere.

That’s because we understand there is a very low chance of winning these deals. 

So, with the RFP-widely approach, the vendors that are most likely to offer a superior, trustworthy solution and service are much less likely to show up in your responses.

Not to mention, if you send out your 500-requirement RFP out to 12 vendors , and if just half of them respond, that’s at least 3,000 lines of juicy, detailed technical reading you’ll have the dubious pleasure of reading through. And you haven’t even seen any of these systems yet!

Your comparison matrix will be equally gigantic and difficult to see at a high level. But that is exactly where you need to be thinking at this stage in the process. Let’s look at a far better approach to doing helpful, initial research for AMS systems.

Invest in due diligence for your AMS systems search

What we recommend to organizations at this point is that you let your point person and Task Force invest some time doing due diligence. Many, if not most, of the questions you have are already answered on software vendors’ websites.

Take your core features and needs from your assessment. Compare them to what is listed on vendor websites for other AMS systems. 

Believe us: a little extra time invested at this point will save your company a lot of time in the search process. Best of all, this is a great way to increase the odds that you will connect with a vendor who is the best fit for your organization.

Many times you can eliminate a potential candidate in this early research and save everyone a lot of time and hassle. Once you’ve narrowed things down a bit, build a list of your top 5-6 candidates.

What features should you prioritize in your AMS systems research?

There’s a good chance you won’t be able to afford every single item on the wish list for your staff and members — at least right away. Many associations take a phased approach to implementing their AMS systems. 

It’s often a great strategy. That’s because it allows your team to add the functionality that will make the biggest impact first. Then, you can add on and roll out new features over time. The two biggest advantages to this approach are:

  1. You can spread the cost of your new association management software out over several years.
  2. Your staff and members have time to adopt and adapt to the new system and its core functionality before adding advanced features. This effectively diffuses the change management cost to your organization!

But what features are likely to be the top priorities for your association? Our team has been building software solutions specifically for the association industry for a long time. There’s a good chance you’ll want some mixture of the modules we’ve built into Cobalt’s Engagement Dynamics. 

Engagement Dynamics is our flagship product and includes refined tools for handling membership, certification, events, engagement tracking, eCommerce and accounting, subscriptions, and portals and web elements.

The membership functionality in your new association membership software should help make the processes for membership applications or renewals a streamlined, intuitive process. We’ve built our membership module with the capacity to handle any number and combination of member types and subtypes. Ideally, this part of your new AMS will give you one place to manage committees, chapters, and all your membership data.

If your association also needs certification/credentialing functionality, you’ll be looking at how a new system defines complex initial application and recertification requirements. Can it automate the integration with your testing vendor or deliver digital badges to your certificants?

Cobalt is truly unique in the association vendor industry because certification organizations have also been a core focus for our business for many years. As a result, our association management software includes more sophisticated, flexible, and integrated certification management software than you’ll find elsewhere.

Every association will need to host a wide range of meetings and events. It’s critical that AMS systems help you manage everything from receptions to webinars to massive trade shows. Look for foundational functionality that includes customizable registration forms, waitlist management, and variable pricing before exploring more advanced features.

Does your current AMS help you monitor the critical interactions with your members? It should make it easy to see metrics that include your total customer spend or engagement scores at a glance. This functionality will make or break your association’s readiness to see and quickly respond to member needs and trends.

The technology you depend on for credit card processing has got to be secure and reliable. Your AMS should easily be able to manage tax, shipping, and the necessary functions to push data to your financial management software.

All the blogs, magazines, newsletters, and other web-based subscriptions your association offers members need a central place to live in your AMS. Cobalt’s subscription module is designed to handle fees and marketing campaigns within your subscriber list. Those kinds of efficiencies are essential for a modern association membership software solution.

How long does it take to create and deploy something like an interactive form on your website? This is a major frustration with most outdated AMS systems. Drag and drop design functionality and intuitive controls for embedding forms don’t need to be assigned to your IT department with more sophisticated AMS systems. You might also want to prioritize giving your members access to content based on customized roles and permissions, as well as allowing them to create and manage their own online profiles.

11 of the best AMS systems in 2023

Budget, feature sets, and vendor support are the three major considerations for most associations shopping for a new AMS system and partner. Which AMS provider is best for your organization will probably depend on how you prioritize and evaluate offerings in these three areas. 

Before I list some of the top vendors for AMS systems in our industry, I want to give you some of my clearest advice for what to consider with your budget, feature wish list, and vendor support needs.

How AMS vendors quote implementation projects

The main thing I want to stress here is that every AMS system vendor quotes implementation projects differently. And the more customized the implementation project is, the more true that is!
It’s important — but often more difficult than you would think — to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples with custom AMS systems quotes. My advice is to really take your time here and look very closely at what each vendor bid includes.

Pay special attention to the data migration line items and deliverables. Some vendors hugely underestimate the work here or put too much of it on the association team. 

Associations will find a range of offers for data migration. You’ll see everything from vendors offering a magical tool that allows your team to pull the data into the new system on your own (which often doesn’t go well) to bespoke data migration services.   

On a larger AMS implementation project, the difference in data migration services could be 100K or more. 

Building a realistic estimate for AMS implementations should take some serious effort on the vendor’s part. If they don’t ask many questions up front or come back with a bid too quickly, that’s not a good sign, in my opinion.

How much customization do you need?

Cobalt has scoped and pulled off some of the most complex AMS system projects possible in the last 26 years. I’ve got a crystal clear sense of how much the level of customization for an AMS project will increase the complexity, cost, and time to complete. Consider a few specifics as you’re considering vendors.

Are you getting AMS systems bids over 500K? If so, I think you should be asking yourself if you really need to do this project. Are the customizations you need really not available in a system or tool on the market? Or will you really be paying for a vendor to build something they just haven’t developed yet?

As a concrete example, let’s say your association has a custom job board built on top of your current AMS. A vendor you’re talking to quotes you a high price to build you a new one with improved functionality in your new system.

Do you really need the new vendor to build you a new version of that job board? Or, can you integrate an off-the-shelf solution with your new system at a fraction of the cost? 

It really does depend on the nature of your needs and functionality. But a savvy, seasoned vendor should be able to help you see the range of realistic options for critical niche needs and applications like this. 

AMS systems vendor support and culture fit

Budget constraints are obviously important to associations and AMS vendors in this process.

So is the level of complexity and customization for an AMS system implementation.

But support and culture fit are some of the things our team takes most seriously in the bidding and sales process. Here’s why.

Once you get beyond the entry-level AMS systems, the standard feature sets — and to a lesser degree, the cost for customization — start to homogenize pretty quickly. There are definitely differences and strengths and weaknesses for all the providers in the mid-to-large-scale vendor range. But you’ll find that the core feature sets have a lot of overlap.

What really makes the difference for most teams, especially after the initial implementation, is the ongoing support, cultural fit, and responsiveness of your new partner. 

If you need help, you need it right away. And that’s sadly just not what you get with a lot of providers and AMS systems. 

Or, if you need something tweaked or some additional development support, it shouldn’t come with a long wait time (or shocking price tag). 

There’s a range of ongoing support for AMS systems on the market every year. One of the things that Cobalt’s association partners love about our team is that we’re in a sweet middle ground. Our organization is large enough to provide robust, responsive support, but we’re not a huge enterprise that falls prey to depersonalized and overly salesy rapport. 

It’s no surprise that most of our association partners are shaped a lot like our organization: mid-sized teams that value sustainable growth and a personable company culture. The AMS system and vendor you need should be a strong fit with who your association is!

This year’s top AMS providers

Cobalt (Engagement Dynamics)

Modern AMS systems have robust dashboards like this one in Cobalt's Engagement Dynamics, featuring a color-coded pie chart for membership type, a segmented bar graph depicting dues renewals by category, and a simple bar graph illustrating the membership lifecycle stages by percentage. All of the dashboard modules are housed directly in the AMS system's interface inside Microsoft Dynamics 365.

Our association management software is called Engagement Dynamics. It isn’t a perfect fit for every association, but (obviously) I’m very proud of what we’ve built since the first version was released in 2005. Cobalt’s association partners consistently appreciate our transparent contracts, processes, and customer-first approach to business partnerships. They love that we take the time up front to deeply understand their true needs and surface new opportunities for their staff and members. 

Everything we’ve created for associations in our AMS solution is built on Microsoft Dynamics 365 (D365). I’ll talk more about the value of a commercial CRM engine for AMS systems in the selection phase of this buying guide. 

Briefly, though, the huge value of D365 for associations is what it comes with out-of-the-box and how their entire tech stack will integrate seamlessly with tools you’re probably already using (Outlook, Excel, Teams, etc.). 

I also want to highlight that credentialing and certification organizations have also long been cornerstone industry partners with Cobalt. Because we get the specialized needs for those organizations, we can also bundle compelling tools for those operations and processes in our solutions for associations. 

If you’re a mid-sized, large, or growing association with an outdated AMS that needs some customization in your next AMS implementation, we are probably a prime candidate for your shortlist. 

We’ve got the experience to do the really hard stuff most teams can’t — and a truly mature system with one of the strongest CRM engines on the planet. 

Take some time to read the overview of Engagement Dynamics now.

Best AMS systems for smaller associations

If you’re a small association with a lean AMS budget, there is a good chance one of these AMS systems could be a great fit for what you need.

Wild Apricot
Wild Apricot has become a wildly popular choice for small associations with less complicated AMS systems in recent years. Their lowest pricing tier starts at $48 (billed monthly) for a personal account with less than 100 contacts.

YourMembership competes with entry-level AMS systems in the Wild Apricot range of functionality and price. They offer a free demo, but no pricing information on their website. YourMembership is one of the Community Brands offerings (which include other AMS providers Aptify, NetForum, and Nimble AMS). 

MemberSuite has an AMS systems niche carved out for itself with nonprofit organizations and pricing that starts at $2,000 per month. 

Other AMS systems to consider

The following are some of the most likely options for other AMS systems you might review in 2023.


Altai Systems






Request an overview demo from your top AMS vendor prospects

This is the point in the process where you should start taking a deeper look at the candidates who seem most aligned with what your stakeholders need. One of the best ways to judge the quality of a vendor and the capabilities of their software is to request a demonstration of their product. 

What to expect from an ideal AMS overview demo

A solid association management software system should be flexible and agile. So, a vendor should be able to present a customized demonstration to you in fairly short order. 

An overview experience like this should help you see how the interface looks, feels, and works. It should also give you a sense of how it functions in real-time.

A typical demo might last an hour. If you’ve got 10 front-runners at this point, that’s still a big time investment for your team. The benefit is that you will have a much more focused group of candidates with this methodology.

It’s far too easy to get bogged down in details or the more obscure functionality of the AMS systems you’re considering. Try to hold onto the idea that you’re simply comparing the major elements.

This post deals with these questions in more detail if you want to think more deeply about the issues they raise.

What to ask AMS system vendors

As your Task Force moves through the research phase of this project, keep this core objective and question front and center:

How quickly can we weed out AMS systems and vendors who don’t align with our core needs we’ve identified with our staff and members?

Before weeding out vendors, your Task Force should answer these questions: 

  • What tier of AMS systems fits best with our association’s size, core needs, and budget?
  • What are the 5-10 most essential features or capabilities that we need to be considering right now? (Capture everything else on a list for your RFP in the next phase!)
  • Do the websites for the top 10 AMS systems have information about the core features and capabilities we’ve identified?

When you begin doing overview demos for AMS systems, ask vendors these questions:

  • Do they specialize in our industry?
  • What kind of customer support systems do you offer?
  • How deeply (and quickly) can you customize your association membership software for us?
  • What does a timeline for implementation look like?
  • What kind of end user support do you have?
  • How long, on average, does it take you to respond to support requests?
  • How do you describe your end user training?
  • What is the step-by-step process for entering support tickets?

After your Task Force does an AMS demo, use these questions to help formalize your assessment of what a vendor has to offer:

  • Do you see major red flags for their system’s usability or user interface? 
  • Do you like the interface? 
  • You know how you handle your core processes. Does their system line up with how you do things? Or, will it take a major customization just to accommodate your team’s needs?

Read more about researching AMS systems

Cloud-Based Association Management Software: Pros & Cons

AMS vs CRM for Associations: Which is Best?

You’re Getting the RFP Process Wrong When You Search for a CRM

Why your AMS Shouldn’t Do Everything

Why You Should Expect Less From Your Association’s AMS

Get a Complete Copy of the 2024 AMS Buying Guide

Take a free PDF of this guide for your team or future reference today. It has 50 insider questions for your association staff and AMS vendor prospects. Use it as a roadmap from assessment to selecting the best association management software for your team.

Send Me a Copy Now
Association Management Software 2023 Buying Guide cover image. It includes a large version of Cobalt's logo, the AMS Buying Guide title, and photograph of Cobalt's Washington, D.C. lobby.