Purchasing new technology is a big undertaking. There are so many platforms on the market, how do you wade through your choices to find just one that fits your association? You need to choose carefully: find a vendor that will support you and software that makes employees’ jobs easier.
We’ve worked with hundreds of associations while they were knee deep in this process. We’ve also gotten a lot of great feedback from our own customers about what’s important and what isn’t.
Ariel Brandt Lautman, Online Community Manager for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, has a list of questions to review before she purchases new technology. Here are three of Ariel’s top questions for every association to ask before signing a contract. They’ll help you choose platforms that work for your association and vendors who will be long-term, supportive partners.
1. What Functionality Do You Need in This Tool?
Most associations don’t use just a single platform, they have multiple best-of-breed solutions such as an AMS, fundraising software, and an online community.
When purchasing these or any other piece of association tech, consider the platforms you already have and what you plan to purchase in the future. What functionality will those platforms cover and what functionality do you need in the platform you’re buying now?
Make a list of essential functionality that other tools will not provide. If your community already does a great job engaging members, do you really need that functionality in your new AMS? It may be better to look for a platform with strong integrations. For example, a strong integration lets members interact in your online community then pay dues in your AMS without feeling like they’re switching systems.
Once you have a solid list of essential functionality, including integrations, you can branch out into what would be nice to have.
Ariel’s Expert Tip: Even when your tech search is driven by a specific need or pain point, Ariel recommends going back to your list of core functionality often.
“It's easy to focus on a current pain point (your current AMS's unwieldy relationship with your online community) and lose track of other core functions your organization manages through the AMS. For instance, is having your newsletter tracking in your AMS a requirement? If so, you'll want an AMS that provides robust newsletter functionality or has a comprehensive integration with a robust newsletter tool.”
2. How Many People Will Use the Platform, and What’s Their Learning Curve?
At the most basic level, the number of people using software can affect pricing. Some SaaS platforms base their fees on number of seats, so more employees using the platform means a higher price. Shop around for vendors that won’t nickel and dime you based on how many people need access to the platform.
More importantly, the size and diversity of your team will affect what you need in terms of usability. The more people on your team, the more likely it is you’ll have different tolerances for technology. Some team members will love new tech and learn to use the software quickly, while others will take more time and training to feel comfortable.
To provide a tool that works for everyone, look for a platform that strikes a balance between usability and functionality. The best software does this by providing a user-friendly interface that allows all your staff, even those without in-depth computer or coding skills, to make updates. In that same interface, more tech-savvy staff members will find options to edit HTML, CSS, or Java to make more customized changes.
Most platforms do a good job balancing usability with custom tools, but the more functionality you need, the more complicated platforms become. Keep that in mind when choosing tools for a large or less tech-savvy team.
Ariel’s Expert Tip: Demo sites sometimes have simplified processes, especially if you’re looking for features above and beyond the baseline. For a more complete understanding of how easy (or difficult) the platform is to learn, look at a live example.
“If you are interested in advanced features, ask for a demonstration of how those specific processes work on a live site. Pay attention to the end-to-end process – will your marketing staff have the patience to learn the system for sending newsletters? Will your sales department be able to easily pull necessary reports? Make sure you have representatives from all stakeholder groups in the room for these demonstrations.”
3. How Important Is Customer Service?
We all value good customer service, but for associations with a lot to do and little time, it takes on a new meaning – especially if you know you’ll need frequent support. Large teams with members who are less familiar with technology may need to contact customer service more than those who are tech savvy, for instance. You may also rely more on customer service if you’re planning to use your platform in innovative ways and need help with workarounds.
To help you determine how much you’ll rely on customer service, answer these questions:
- How familiar is your team with platform functionality and the ways you plan to use it?
- Are you planning to use the platform traditionally, or for innovative new ideas?
- How much training and self-service support resources does your vendor provide?
- How easy is it to use your new software?
- How large is your team and what is their learning curve for new tools?
- How frequently has your team contacted customer service in the past?
Use these questions as a baseline for how important customer service is to your association, then choose a vendor accordingly.
Ariel’s Expert Tip: To get a better idea of how supportive your vendor will be, Ariel suggests asking for contact information of current clients. Ask your vendor’s clients these questions:
- How do you feel about the customer support, both for relationship management as well as technical issues?
- What kind of training was offered during implementation, and ongoing, and do you feel that the training adequately prepared you for using the system?
- How has the vendor handled emergencies? Are you happy with the response time and subsequent follow up?
Don’t Forget Your Members
These three questions will help ensure that you choose technology that fits your association and the needs of its staff. However, depending on the platform, you may also need to consider member needs.
Member-facing software, such as an online community platform, should add value for members as well as making it easier for staff to do their jobs. How user-friendly is the software for your members? Will it provide value and deliver compelling member benefits?
Look for technology that strikes a balance between member and staff needs, ease-of-use and functionality. These platforms are worthwhile investments, giving you the most for your money and improve the member experience.