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The Amazon Challenge: Part 1

“Why can’t our website function more like Amazon.com?” How many times have you heard this question from your members, your board, or your customers?

There is a simple reason: The database drives the website. Associations manage far more diverse data sets than most other businesses, even giants like Amazon.com. Most association databases track data sets like membership, events registration, and publication sales. In addition, associations may also track data sets such as certification programs, donations, grants, exhibit sales, advertising, sponsorships, and myriad other programs that would send an Amazon.com developer into a tailspin.

So why is it important to know that associations manage such diverse data sets? For one, it makes creating a database from scratch (custom-built) exceedingly complex. Second, it makes managing the database more complex, too.

It is tempting to think that we can custom-build a database that will serve our association better than any of the “off-the-shelf” packages currently available. On the surface, this seems true. After all, who knows our processes better than we do? But once the custom-build process is begun, the development never ends. And in our experience, most custom-built systems fail to take into account the diversity of data that most associations collect, so they inevitably miss something key in the early stages of the process. This leads to unexpected delays, increased expenses, and frustration.

The diversity of your data makes managing your database more complex, too. Managing your AMS is not just a matter of tracking names, addresses, and phone numbers. You’ve got to be sure that you’re working with the same John Smith whether it’s an address change, a certification update, a meeting registration, or a publication sale. And if a change is made to John’s record, your database has to be designed properly to allow that change to be reflected wherever John’s information is stored. If Amazon.com doesn’t remember who you are when you log in, you have to re-enter your own data. I cringe to think how most association members would feel about that.

The next time someone asks you why your database can’t be more like Amazon.com, ask them a few questions like “How often does Amazon.com have to distinguish between member and non-member pricing?” or “Can our association afford to lose a billion dollars on our website, like Amazon.com did last year?” Or you can just tell them there’s a lot more data than meets the eye.

Having said that, there are new AMS packages coming to market that model themselves after Amazon.com’s predictive marketing system. These systems help integrate your website and your AMS into a single system that help you communicate to your members only the information they want to receive, based on a self-selected profile and your members’ purchasing and web-browsing behavior. I’ll talk about those packages in my next article.

This article originally appeared in Association Trends. Reprinted with permission.

 

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