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The Evolution of the Association Web Site

In the early days of the web, few associations had a members-data-driven web site.

Over the past 6-7 years, there’s been an evolution to a content-management driven web site, which allows the web site owner to update their own content directly using tools that appear similar to what they are accustomed to with their word processing software. Price, capabilities and confidence have all evolved in this software marketplace so that there’s no real reason why an association wouldn’t want this ability, regardless of whether they update it directly or not.

Changes Ahead for AssociationsToday, more and more associations are in the next phase, and have been for a few years. It began at national level associations but we now see more and more statewide and regional associations adopting an association management software (AMS) or customer relationship management software (CRM) platform for the hosting of their site. This evolution has expanded the capabilities of the hosting software beyond content management; now these software packages offer the ability to provide online contact management, online transaction and financial management, customized member use, member usage history and other components that are part of what an association can, and most likely needs, to be doing online.

There are lots of players in this marketplace and a lot of variability in costs for service. Some of these AMS or CRM software packages can be quite expensive and customized and are primarily for large associations with considerable IT budgets, and others are more fixed-template with a much easier price for smaller statewide organizations to afford.

From my standpoint, all of these software packages have relative strengths and weaknesses, and usually it’s because they’ve evolved from either an offline software product, or a software product that previously was really simply a component of what they offer today. The key to remember is that this is an evolution; software improves continually, prices become more flexible with less barrier to entry, and experience in using this kind of software is increasing in the employment marketplace from which your organization will eventually need to hire from.

Most associations probably know that eventually they will have to move to an AMS or CRM based web site if they haven’t already, and if considering a redesign, are wondering what their options are. We do a lot of work with Wild Apricot, which is a reasonably priced online AMS, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that most associations will have a website with AMS or CRM features within 3 years at most, so if you invest in a redesign that doesn’t currently include one now, you should understand that time window.  And recognize your ability to “plug-in” such software for members and others in your community if you need to within an existing site design.  Doing this evolution in a piecemeal fashion isn’t the worst thing you can do… think of it as incremental change.

And if you invest in a redesign that DOES include this software, you should recognize that the software winners and losers in this particular marketplace haven’t quite been determined yet, so there’s a decent chance you’re going to select software that you’re going to migrate away from in five years. I don’t recommend going whole hog in the first iteration – be careful, be cost-effective, and expect to learn from your mistakes.

If you do design your association’s web site using CRM or AMS features, make sure you can export everything relatively easily in the future, just in case. As everything becomes more complex online, migrations become a bigger deal. Make sure you will have the access you need to migrate your data.

Finally, realize that the content management system software packages we all know of – WordPress, Joomla, etc., – are also going to be players in all this. They already have varying levels of capabilities into what we see as specifically AMS features, and the marketplace will push that to continue. If you’re going to continue with a site that uses primarily a content management software, keep watching that hosting software for evolution, because there should be plug-ins or classes you can add to the software today, or in the future, to provide at least some AMS features.

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Kessler Freedman, Inc.