Oh no! I’m an Association Software “User”!

How often have I heard software developers say “Software development would be much more fun without users!”  Now, in my new life “on the other side”, I find myself a user – a user of association software!

In my career, I was once the manager of a customer support department for a company that was a distributor of financial software written by a different company.  When it didn’t work, it was frustrating to both me and the customer.  The customer didn’t care if I was frustrated; he just wanted it fixed.  After all, why did we sell something that didn’t work.

At another time, I was the president of my own software company and, perhaps to the detriment of our bottom line, we cared a lot about customer support and went out of our way to try to do it right.  Yes, there were problems that had to be addressed, but I felt good about the way we responded.  Once, when a client told me he wanted to see me in person to discuss the installation process, I took the next flight out to accommodate him.  That was a good experience.  That person, though retired now, has remained my friend for over 25 years.

I have heard of companies where software is released even when developers say it isn’t ready but for various reasons the company feels it necessary either to meet competitive issues or sales promises.   Well, imagine that level of frustration for both the client and the developer much less the support personnel.

Someone I respect once commented that he couldn’t understand why software companies didn’t compete on the basis of quality and service.  Quality matters.  Service matters.  When it is bad, people remember.

Now, as I work with this new website, I find myself working with other people’s software and find myself in the position of a “user”.  I have seen both good and bad support through this process.  I got very little help from the WordPress organization and some of the plugin creators.  From MagicMembers, the plugin that handles all of our membership issues, the support was tremendous.  It was responsive and always helpful.  Thank you, Angela!

From all of this, here are my thoughts directed toward software companies trying to be successful:

  • Without clients, your business doesn’t exist.  Treat them even better than you treat prospects.  Don’t assume that a signed contract means you don’t have to go out of your way to please the client.
  • Be responsive to your clients particularly during implementation.  Nothing is more frustrating when needing to get your software working than the inability to get help from someone who knows how things are supposed to work.  Don’t assume users are stupid because they don’t know the internal intricacies of your architecture.  Never have the attitude that whatever is wrong is user error – even if it is!
  • Personalize your support.  In a paragraph above, I thanked Angela for good support.  When she first began to help me, she identified herself and she personally followed my progress and ironed out issues I was finding.  I felt she was personally committed to my success.  All of this was from a company who sold their product for $97!  Just imagine the support you should get from a company whose software was priced in the hundreds of thousands!
  • Still along the lines of personalized service, go beyond the basic facts if you can.  Try to get to know the client personally so that not all conversations will be about problems.  It is amazing what a good relationship can do to smooth the rough places in an implementation.  Personality counts.
  • As a user, I would rather wait for something to be fixed than be given something to do that you know doesn’t solve the problem.   I don’t want to be told to load the latest version if you know that the problem still exists there.  Fixing one important thing to break something equally as important doesn’t help me much.
  • Honesty is better than anything.  Nothing is more frustrating than feeling like someone is blowing smoke up your …..  If something isn’t working and you know it, admit it so the client doesn’t waste time trying to figure out if it is their own lack of knowledge.  If you know it can’t be fixed for a month, say so, so the client can make appropriate plans.
  • Users, on the other hand, should try to understand their support person who may not have much influence on getting something fixed but should be responsible for helping you with their knowledge of how things work.  Be nice and they will go to bat for you.

Downside of Plugin Technologies

Before you think that plugin technology in the open-source world is a panacea to expensive commercial software, particularly association software, you should consider the importance of today’s decisions on tomorrow’s operation.

For instance, in the catalina380.org site, I wanted to provide a photo album capability so that users could create their own albums and upload their own photos.  Each user would own their own albums and photos so others couldn’t mess up something someone else had done.

There are several WordPress plugins for this purpose that their descriptions look great.  I won’t say exactly which they were but think about this.  Once you decide on a plugin for photo albums, you essentially have to stick with it forever!  Even if it works now, will it work later?  What are the consequences of it not working?  It is unreasonable to assume that all the albums already created can be recreated under a new configuration.  Yikes.

In my case, the first plugin I tried wouldn’t run either on my own local site or the hosting facility.  Once I worked out UTF8 issues with the database, I could get it to run on my local system but not the hosting site.  The second one I tried, wouldn’t even load without fatal errors.  The third one really looked like a winner and I figured out how to configure the interface such that it would make sense – but then I found that though users controlled their own galleries, there wasn’t ownership of albums.  At that level, anyone could do anything.

Ultimately, I found a photo-album plugin that would do almost everything I wanted it to do so the site is off and flying with everyone’s personal albums as well as links to albums from their own sites.  Cool.

Support for these open-source plugins is spotty at best.

Now, from a professional developer’s standpoint, I like the concept of plugin technologies for large systems as long as you are dealing with discrete activities.  In my previous life designing commercial association software, we considered doing this but found that what we were trying to accomplish was so integrated – everything had to talk to everything else – that the approach had less appeal.

So…..not everything is roses in terms of open-source plugin technology.  Keep your eyes open and consider the future as you commit to a specific technology.

Good, Fast, or Cheap – Pick any two!

Those in the IT business understand the relationship of “Good, Fast, or Cheap – Pick any two!”  This is not something you hear from sales folks, but you hear it often from developers either when discussing internal projects or contracted developments.  I was reminded of this by one of my readers who thought I had lost my roots in serious software development!

I realize that what I have been describing in this blog is underscoring what you can do for relatively little money and expertise as you implement association software.  My intention has been to emphasize how different the world is now than it was five or ten years ago.

On the other hand, “Good, Fast, or Cheap” is still an important concept to understand particularly when you are purchasing commercial software and even more so when you request customized versions of that software or even when you just consider the implementation phase of that software.

Naturally, associations want to keep the cost down while vendors want to keep the profit up.  Unfortunately, the trade-offs are not well-known up front leading to surprised associations when the actual cost and actual time frame evolves.  What makes it particularly difficult is that you don’t necessarily know this until you are so far into the implementation that you will feel it too difficult, perhaps embarrassing, to turn back the clock and do something else.  Buyer beware!

  • “Fast and Cheap” loses “Good”.  “Fast” means you will lose on the care of design, programming, testing, and implementation.  “Cheap” means that the job is done with as little vendor effort as possible.  Everyone loses with this combination.
  •  “Fast and Good” loses “Cheap”.   “Good” can only be achieved by an army of vendor staff at premium prices.   The problem is that “Fast” has the same issues as before.  Costly doesn’t always lead to the best implementation.  “Fast” also puts the most pressure on your own staff.
  •  “Good and Cheap” loses “Fast”.  This doesn’t sound too bad except it means that you are at the bottom of the list of a vendor’s priorities and will get time when they have it available which then translates to a very late go-live date and potentially uncoordinated work by ever-changing vendor staffing.Vendors never have sufficient staff to do what they need to do by a specific time.  It just isn’t cost effective to staff for the busy times and leave them idle when times are slow.  If the pressure isn’t on to complete a contract, the vendor will favor the contract that needs to go live next.  The time frame of your implementation will slip.

None of these sound good, do they?  Seems like you lose no matter what you do.  What you need to achieve is good informed balance.

So, how do you successfully implement a large association software system?  This is where consultants, particularly those with development backgrounds, can be helpful.  Think about the following recommendations:

  1. Know exactly what you are paying for before you sign a contract.  Unknowns become very expensive.  Time-and-materials is exactly what every vendor wants and in many cases needs just to ensure a profitable implementation.  At the same time, it is cheaper than their quoted “fixed price”.  If you can be comfortable with time-and-materials it will cost you less but to do this you need to know exactly what is being done.  The more detail you have on what you need to do and how, the easier it is for the vendor to price your needs and for you to get the best overall price.If you are purchasing modifications or entirely new functionality, insist on at least high level design documents for these changes so you know what is going to be done.  Don’t sign time-and-materials contracts without this.
  2. Plan, plan, plan in excruciating detail from contract signing to final go live date.  Who is going to do what and when both for the vendor and client?  What will the deliverables be and when?  What are the criteria for acceptance?  What should happen if either party doesn’t perform according to the contract?
  3. To the extent possible, use the base software rather than modify it to match your own processes.  Yes, I know, everyone says they are going to do this but I have seldom found it to play out in reality.  Change-orders after the contract mean higher cost at a time you can’t easily negotiate.Most associations don’t need to do everything they currently do in the way they do it.  Their processes have been established and tweaked for years in ways that may be more influenced by their old software than what they really need to do with new software.  Get you staff’s buy-in to new processes prior to contract signing.
  4. Understand what the base software will actually do before you sign a contract.  Don’t just accept what the sales people say.  You need to try an entire process from start to finish before you accept that something is real.Sales people don’t want to raise issues during demonstrations even if they recognize that they exist.  Issues raise doubts.  Doubts are bad for sales.  A screen may look good but is there any real logic processing behind it?  Do not assume anything.  It is easy to provide a screen that says something that looks familiar to you but doesn’t actually do anything.  Your responsibility needs to include teasing out all the details involved in your own processes.  Then you need to compare them to the actual software.  Don’t just accept “Yes, it will do that.”  You need to actually see the process from start to finish!
  5. Plan adequate staff time for the implementation especially for training, testing, and final implementation.  Few associations have the staff to do both their full-time jobs and what needs to be done to implement a new enterprise system.  It takes a lot of your staff’s time to be successful and support for this needs to come from the top.  Don’t just make assumptions that you can just work this in.
  6. Be realistic during negotiations.  Try to understand the amount of time you are contracting for and use your consultants to do a sanity check on this.  Understand that it always takes more time than you expect but consultants often have a good sense of what is reasonable.Understand that if you force a negotiation to reduce the price, you are apt to get less vendor time and effort.  After all, though you will be told you are the most important client they have, the vendor will still need to make a profit on your business.
  7. Finally, do as much as you can prior to contract signing.  Once the contract is signed, you will have lots less influence and power than before the contract is signed.  Sad but true!

So, what do you think?  Does anyone have good examples to share?

Do you really want a members-only site?

Do you really want a members-only site?

Before you commit to members-only content for your association, consider the upfront setup and long-term maintenance of a membership list.  One of the important aspects of integrated commercial association software is that all of this is generally handled automatically, i.e. you pay your dues, you have access; you don’t pay your dues and the account expires – but then again, if this is all you need, you can do it with a plugin (for us, MagicMembers) for around $100.

In my case, for a 250 member organization, I probably spent a full week getting accounts set up and sent to users.  Then, users came back asking for different usernames than my assumption of the same username as their email address;  or they wanted a different email address.  Bottom line is that this is a time-consuming process.

In addition, there was sorting out which of the available membership plugins would provide the functionality I required and then making sure that it actually worked.  I had some good and bad experiences with that process but did eventually find a product that worked well.

Interestingly enough, for this small association, there was push-back from the officers themselves when I brought up the idea that the website could control membership in terms of renewals and dues collection.  They felt that many members didn’t actually have internet access depending on where they were in the world or simply didn’t use the Internet in the same way that I’m used to.  They were concerned that email addresses change so often that members wouldn’t necessarily receive their renewal notices.

They wanted to continue to maintain their membership through snail-mail and keep that one central list outside of the website.  Well…I have been in the computer biz long enough that I can’t even imagine doing such a thing outside of the website but in this case I do what the “client” is asking for.  🙂  When and if the decision is changed, I can use the membership plugin to automatically handle renewal notices, payments, and extension of expiration dates.

The up side of the members only content was that we are actually driving additional membership to the organization because people want to use the new site and finally realize they can’t do it without paying dues.  The downside was a lot of work but worth it!

For those of you maintaining small members-only sites, what are your experiences?

Association Software vs Blogging Software – Comparison

Association Software versus Blogging Software

Before anyone thinks that you can use WordPress and a membership plugin to accomplish what you can with the major association software packages, let’s look at some major issues that make this approach unsuitable for larger organizations.

Though the plugins will allow you to have multiple levels of membership and even restrict the site in terms of what each membership type can see, membership in a large organization is often quite a bit more complex than just the level and amount.  Medical societies, for instance, typically require members to be vetted by their boards prior to membership.  There is no such capability in the typical plugins.

Secondly, once we get to the shopping cart issue, the plugins can’t address the incredibly complex discount structures that these associations offer.  Now, whether such a complex discount structure is actually benefiting the association is another question entirely.  I previously posted my views on this!

Next, you’ll find that membership in large organization permeates everything that an association does and affects meeting registration, subscriptions, expositions, personal transcripts and more.   Making simple software do complex activities may be a fool’s errand.

On the other hand, compared with what you could do five years ago versus what you can do virtually for free now is quite amazing.

Next, I’ll explore the shopping cart issue…

Blogging Software is not Quite Commercial AMS Software

Association Software versus Blogging Software

In a previous post, I discussed the mind shift from a “web-site” to a “blog configured as a web-site”.  So what is still missing and how do you achieve it?  This post will deal exclusively with membership issues for association software.

One of the problems that many small associations are having is that there is so much information online for free that it tends to marginalize the association itself as the gate-keeper of technical knowledge.  Free list-serv capabilities of Yahoo have often eliminated the need for extensive libraries of technical information given that it is often easier to just post a question to the list-serv and wait for the answer.

Now, the answer may be worth what you pay for it, but these sites tend to self-correct to a certain extent since other members with different experiences may disagree and give you other information.  Then it becomes up to you to wade through the varying opinions.  I have personally had situations where the responses were conflicting and there were too many of them to make an educated decision without some real independent thinking.  I guess that’s the price you pay – or didn’t pay.

From the website’s perspective, you don’t want to contribute to the lack of need to join the association.  Being able to restrict the content to just members but providing “teasers” to show what would be available if only you were a member is not a bad thing to want to do.  Not a problem…

I found a number of WordPress plugins to deal with the situation.  As you might recall, the site I put together for the group was done based on WordPress.  These plugins are considered “premium” so carry a charge of anything from $50 to $150.  That’s quite a bargain compared to some of the custom approaches I have seen or especially the commercially available AMS systems!

Now, here’s where you run into some of the problems of open-source, inexpensive software.  There may or may not be any documentation and may or may not be any support.  As with any software, that software may or may not do what it advertises it will do.  Then again, you face that with some very expensive software as well.

I first experimented with eMembers ($49) but ran into issues that I couldn’t get past both in terms of functionality and in performance.

Then I picked MagicMembers ($97) and found again that there was little useful documentation but very good and very responsive customer support capabilities.  Once you understand their terminology and wade through all the details, it works quite well.  As with eMembers, performance of the site was significantly slower with the plugin enabled but not nearly as bad.  Load times were longer but still acceptable.  If anything, the Magic Members software is more complex than what we needed but also offers capabilities that we may use in the future.  For instance, it can deal with renewals to credit cards with automated notification that the renewal is due.  Ultimately, we will do this on the site but the officers weren’t quite ready to give up their paper system.  Well, baby steps…

So, we now have a site that visitors can look at that will show them how much material is there but not let them read any more than a snippet of the text.  Members can see everything.

What experiences have you had with either the issue of driving membership through your website or dealing with open source software to accomplish everything?

Do your web sales make money?

Does your Association Software support sales and if so does it pay?

Marketing Manager:  Just think!  We may sell 500 extra units if we just create the right bundling, pricing, or discount structure!  We increase revenue by $5,000!

Software Developer:  Cost of the software modifications, testing, documentation, implementation will only be $10,000!

After 30 plus years in the business of designing association software, I can’t even count the many times I have heard the above conversation only to have the organization move forward with the software modification.  I’ve also watched software become so complex in trying to figure out all the marketing, pricing, and discounting rules that an association just can’t live without, that the performance of that software becomes terrible and itself discourages sales.  In essence, the order entry system needs to look at every product in the order and compare every combination of those products and quantities to determine what the price should be.

What’s more, I’ve worked with organizations where one department is requesting a process that will determine the mix of requested breakout sessions that will result in the highest revenue (cost to the member) while another part of the same organization will insist that the system always calculate the lowest price all within the same order.

You may think I’m making this up but as a “retired” software developer, I can tell you that some of us try to talk people out of these things and ultimately make money implementing them.  Each time a new rule is added to the old set, the cost of yet another rule escalates both in required testing and client frustration as they try to understand how all the rules ultimately relate.

Add one more thing….  If you look at inexpensive commercial packages and services to sell products, the main things preventing their use are all of these very custom rules.  If the rules were simpler, you could deal with much of your order entry through Amazon or other services and thus outsource a lot of the internal pain.  Simplify the system and save money.  You may save much more than you think you may gain.

What I’m advocating here is a real cost-benefit analysis that includes all the costs of these schemes and not just the perceived increase in revenue.

Think about a couple of issues:

  • You are selling T-Shirts or other branded items.  Do you make much money on them?  Do you want people to wear them as a fashion statement or as free advertising for your organization?  Maybe giving them away for free would ultimately create more revenue for your organization.
  • You want to make membership valuable and not give away your proprietary knowledge for free.  Many inexpensive software packages can restrict sales of members-only products simply by only allowing purchase from members-only pages.  There doesn’t need to be separate pricing rules at all.
  • You sell products to members at a cheaper price than to non-members.  Perhaps you can even do this type of thing without different pricing by offering something else to members.   Rewards programs, coupons for future purchases, or even downright cash refunds to members may be a cheaper way to go.  “Rewards points” like “airline miles” work partially because a member’s  organization may pay the original price while the individual takes personal benefit of the reward.

Many pricing schemes are already supported by standard software but real analysis needs to be done that goes beyond the perceived increase in revenue derived from the structure.  Bottom line is that your organization should benefit from the sale of products and not your software developer!

AMS Website Collaboration – or is that really a blog

A Blog as Association Software

Originally, I thought what I needed was a Wiki where the association’s members would all contribute to the creation of a body of technical information about the sailboats in question.  I was thinking about Wikipedia, of course, as the model.  I ultimately didn’t find that a wiki was the solution.  Though a wiki plugin for WordPress exists, it failed the requirement of having a global search along with standard posts.  Furthermore, as I canvassed the membership, I wasn’t finding a lot of people willing to get the wiki topics started but lots of continued participation in a Yahoo Groups list-serve where topics typically started as questions from one member to others.

So, mind-shift kicks in again. Why not have a blog where posts can be entered by and commented on by any member but not by John-Q Public?  This actually works easily and really facilitates the global search concept.  A site can be created where there can be a technical article that can either be edited by other members or perhaps just commented on by other members.  I think at least initially, I will allow only comments on the article rather than total anarchy that allows people to correct other people’s work.  Then, I can act as moderator to decide whether or not the new information in the comments should be incorporated into the basic article.

For a site like this which concentrates on technical information on a product that has been produced over a long period of time, this is particularly important given that changes have been made in the Catalina 380 series of sailboats over the years that can make a big difference to the advice that may be given in the article itself.  For instance, some of the boats had Westerbeke auxiliary diesel engines while later models used Yanmar engines and within those there were two different engine models.  If someone has heat exchanger problems, it is important to know which engine you are talking about before accepting someone else’s advice.

This then raises an interesting issue of whether the website has become much the same thing as a Yahoo Groups list-serve where questions go out to the membership and those questions are answered by email from other members.  Where I see the difference is that our experience with the list-serve is that there may be a great many responses that may or may not have much relevance to the original topic.  Responses may also morph into invitations to come sail in some particular region.  Trying to find specific information becomes difficult simply because there is so much junk to wade through.  A moderated blog approach could make the content cleaner and easier to work with and thus more useful to the membership.  What I have found after a couple of months of experience with the site, is that I move selected topics from the list-serve to the website when I think there is value to having such information stored historically in a way that can be easily searched.

So we won’t have a Wiki on this site but can successfully establish a collaborative environment for members to both learn and teach.  Not bad!

Has anyone out there solved the problem in the same way or have you found a better approach?

Is Blog Software Website Software?

One important thing I learned in a recent project to create a website for a small non-profit is that a blog is very similar to a website whose main objective is to share a knowledge base.  When I started, I was thinking about websites as a group of pages, each with a different topic.  In fact, I started the project by trying to recreate their old site in a new technology – bad idea.  I needed a mental shift to realize that blog software was already most of the way there.

The scenario I wanted was that there would be a welcome page with some way to get to additional technical information.  Users would need the ability to search for what they want since there would be too many articles for anyone to wade through even by title.  Ideally, there would be a way to categorize things and make those categories obvious so someone could see articles about specific high level subjects without having to search for specific terms.  Conceivably, the result of a category pull would be more efficient than a full text search given that the original author would have purposefully categorized the article in a specific way.

The mental shift here is that this is really the exact thing that a blog is, particularly since you can, at least with WordPress, define a static home page and a separate page for “discussions”.  The articles become different categorized posts where the same page is displaying information stored in a database which then makes full-text search simple.

Yes, I still have a few static pages but only because one might expect to have specific menu items that lead to specific information, i.e. contact information, officers lists, association bylaws, etc.  In general, though, almost anything in this type of site can be done through a typical “post”.

As for menu structures, WordPress already supports this as do other blogging software packages.  They need them to differentiate the discussion pages from the typical “About” page to describe the blogger.

So, it looks like blogging software can be used to create reasonable web-sites.  Makes me smile.

What do you think?

How close are we to websites for the masses?

Is it possible to create a website for little cost and without having to be a programmer?  If you are looking for association software for a small association, is it realistic to do it yourself?  Evidently, yes.

Having come from an environment where putting up a new website was expensive and understood by only fairly senior technical folks, I was a little surprised to see how much is available on the web to allow people to create their own websites without much technical knowledge at all.  This is not what I expected to find and proves how insular you can be when focused on just a specific segment of the market.

To review, my objectives for the new website for the Catalina380 International Association were the following:

  • Create members only site to share technical information about Catalina380 series sailboats.
  • Provide excellent full text search capability to easily find the information needed.
  • Work with an environment that a non-technical person could manage easily.
  • Create the site with little outlay in cash and only a small outline for hosting.

There are a number of ways to achieve the objectives.  There are even many web sites that will support the effort and provide free (or almost free) hosting for your site.  Initially, I was looking at DotNetNuke community edition since I already had experience with DotNetNuke professional version but my investigation of DNN at the basic level didn’t pan out.  Simple non-technical maintenance and cost ruled DNN out.  So then I looked at Drupal and then at WordPress.  I finally settled on WordPress given the wide availability and support.

What I found was the following:

  1. WordPress is open-source and very well supported in the community so you can do a lot without spending much money.  As with other open-source software, there are “premium” themes and plugins available for specific purposes if you are willing to pay for it.
  2. You can log into www.wordpress.com and actually create a free account, visible to the public if you want it to, or just an account through which you can learn the environment.  The have a rule that you can only use their own supported plugins and this ultimately became too restrictive for my project.
  3.  If you want to have your own domain, they will create one for you to make it look much more sophisticated than just www.wordpress.com/yourname.  You can have www.yourname.com assuming it isn’t already used.
  4. If you then want to graduate to something more sophisticated, you can log into www.wordpress.org where there are many plugins that can be added to enhance the site but then you will need hosting for the site.

More about WordPress and this project as I get further into everything.  Right now, it is all looking good.

Bottom line is that there are a number of ways that anyone can have their own website or blog and not spend much, if any, money in the process.