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?