While most of my clients use centralized association management software (AMS) systems, which are designed to manage all of an association’s data, almost every one of my clients also uses some third-party system in addition to the AMS. Examples of third-party systems include broadcast email systems (e.g., MagnetMail, Constant Contact), event registration systems (e.g., Cvent, regonline), abstract management systems (e.g., Oasis, Precis), and online exhibit management tools (e.g., a2z, mapyourshow).
Managing third-party systems and their data in addition to managing your primary AMS requires extra effort, so why use a third-party system at all?
As noted above, there are plenty of third-party software systems that can provide functionality similar to what an AMS can provide. For example, most AMS products provide some form of event management and registration functionality. Yet many of my clients use third-party systems for event management. Why is that?
- The AMS software isn’t flexible enough or doesn’t provide enough functionality.
- The association is using an outside company to manage event registration, and that company uses different software.
- The third-party system has been in place longer than the AMS has been, and falls into the “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” category.
While some of these reasons are more legitimate than others, the reality is that third-party systems exist in almost every association environment. If you decide on one or more third-party systems for your organization, you need to answer two important questions.
First, what data, if any, from the third-party tool, should come back into the AMS?
Is there any data being collected by the third-party system that should be brought back into the AMS? Almost invariably the answer is “yes.” For example, if you’re using a third-party registration system, you’ll want to bring attendance data back into the primary AMS. This could be something as simple as a “flag” in the AMS that indicates an individual registered for the event. Or it could be more detailed information like which events the individual registered for. But this data is very useful for marketing and communication efforts for future events, like sending marketing messages that say “Since you attended last year’s meeting, you’ll definitely want to attend this year’s meeting.”
In my experience, this is the step that is most often overlooked by associations. All of the “front-end” work is done to ensure that (in this example) members can register for the event and receive their member discount, but all of that valuable attendance data is left in the third-party system; it never makes its way back into the AMS. And all of that data mining potential is lost.
Second, how will you get that data back into the AMS?
If using a third-party system, you need to create some kind of integration or “link” between the two systems. For example, associations typically have member/non-member pricing for event registration. If you’re using a third-party system for registration, you may want integration between the AMS and the registration system, so that when a user logs in to register for the event, the registration system checks the AMS for membership information and provides the appropriate pricing.
This integration may occur in real-time (as the customer logs into the registration system, the registration system is checking the AMS directly) in a batch process (a set of data is sent to the registration company on a periodic basis, typically daily), or it may be a manual process. In any case, you have to decide to what extent the integration is automated vs. batched vs. completely manual.
What a successful integration looks like
Over my 13 years consulting with associations, I’ve had the opportunity to see many different types and degrees of integrations between AMS products and third-party systems. One of the slickest and most effective integrations I witnessed occurred between my client’s AMS and a third-party affinity program. At the time, the association had a relationship with an affinity program that provided points to members who joined and then used the association’s services throughout the year. The integration was done in real-time via web services, which meant that as data changed in the AMS, it was updated within one minute in the database for the affinity program. As a new member joined, the new member data was immediately sent to the third-party system, and the member was set up in the affinity program. The result was that neither staff nor the customer had to do any extra work to get new members enrolled into the affinity program. It happened automatically.
Integrating third-party systems can be difficult and tedious, but if done correctly, the payoff is worthwhile. Look around your organization. Do you have third-party systems in place? And if you do, have you integrated them to your AMS? If you haven’t, your AMS can’t provide the complete picture you need.
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