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AMS vs. CRM vs. MDP: What’s the difference?

By Jeff Horn

Member management software is one of the most essential pieces of software associations have in their toolkits. Using the right member management system can provide the tools you need to acquire new members and increase engagement with your existing members. Choosing the right software, on the other hand, can feel really overwhelming. 

When you’ve looked for new member management software in the past, AMS, CRM and, more recently, MDP, are probably terms you’ve come across. What does this all mean? How are these platforms different? What platform is right for you?

Let’s break it down. Understanding the options available is vital in making the right choice for your organization. Looking at all of the possibilities and clearly identifying their differences, benefits and challenges will help you understand what kinds of solutions will best meet your needs. 

What’s the difference between an AMS, a CRM and an MDP?

Association Management Software (AMS)

AMS is specifically designed to help associations perform their daily functions. It’s an all-in-one solution, so it will have an extensive set of features. You can expect there to be a module within the software that will help you with your everyday tasks, including website management, dues and renewals payments and conference/event registration and management.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software

CRM software is designed to suit all businesses. The ultimate goal of a CRM is to make you better at marketing and closing sales. To do this, CRMs facilitate data collection and analysis in a single repository so that you can better understand your members’ purchases and behaviours. Associations who use CRMs tend to track their members in a similar way that other businesses would track leads. This allows them to keep track of their members’ full journey. 

Member Data Platforms (MDP)

MDPs are the newest category of software for member management and are also specifically designed for associations and other member-based organizations. Instead of doing it all, MDPs are developed to allow users the flexibility to choose different best-in-class software for their daily needs. An MDP is the single source of truth that connects all of the various software and feeds member data back into one centralized database. Like an AMS, members still enjoy a seamless user experience because MDPs will connect all of your tools. For example, members can use one username and password with single-sign-on features offered by your MDP.

What are some of the pros and cons of each type of platform?

Benefits of an AMS solution

Industry knowledge is one of the most compelling reasons to choose an AMS. With decades of experience, these platforms have been focused solely on member-based organizations for a long time. All the modules and tools they create are designed with the specific needs of associations in mind. 

The other positive aspect of using an AMS is that you’re able to use one tool to power a large portion of your organization. Your staff will only need to learn and maintain a single platform, leading to less complexity from an operational standpoint. 

Drawbacks of an AMS solution

The longstanding legacy of AMS solutions is both a blessing and a curse. While they do understand associations really well, often an AMS won’t stack up when compared to modern software. Both the overall user experience and feature capabilities of an AMS won’t compare to tools that specialize in a given area. An email module in an AMS will never be as good as using a best-in-class email marketing platform. If any of your staff branch off and switch to best-in-class software, you’ll end up with data silos because AMS solutions often don’t integrate easily with external tools. 

Benefits of a CRM solution 

While your AMS would have some data analysis tools, the capabilities to really use your data will pale in comparison to what a CRM can do. With a CRM, you can track your member’s behaviour and use it to improve your conferences, marketing efforts and overall member experience. 

There are a lot of CRMs on the market, and competition has increased the overall quality of products available. When compared to an AMS, CRMs will have a markedly better user experience. 

Drawbacks of a CRM solution

Because CRMs are not designed explicitly with associations in mind, you’ll run into a few problems. Many of the tasks that are specific to associations, such as tracking member applications, managing conferences, renewals and volunteers won’t be supported out of the box. You may need to hire a developer to customize the product to meet your needs, and this can become a very costly process. 

The other downside of CRMs is that part of their strategy in maintaining you as a client is to lock your data into their system. Many CRMs, especially the largest providers, will lock down the data customers upload. Data sharing is often limited to the tools owned by the CRM. This doesn’t give associations the flexibility to use the tools that best suit their needs. 

Benefits of an MDP solution 

MDPs are specifically designed for associations, and because they’re more modern, they focus on ensuring an efficient and intuitive user experience. You can pair your MDP with any best-in-class software and keep everything connected with two-way data synchronization. Both staff and members will enjoy the efficiencies that polished, intuitive software can bring. 

With MDPs, you never have to compromise on your member experience or data. When using other software, your members’ interactions are synced back into your MDP so that you can maintain a single source of truth. Members can also enjoy a seamless experience with SSO and profile synchronization. They’ll only ever need to remember one username and password to log in to all of the experiences you offer. If they update their profile data in one tool, your MDP will ensure that the update is synched to the rest of your ecosystem of software as well.

Drawbacks of an MDP solution

With an MDP, you’ll need to maintain several software subscriptions. MDPs specialize in member management, so you’ll need supporting software. Email marketing, event management, online learning, etc., needs to be done using the best-in-class software that specializes in those areas. This means that your team will have to learn how to use a few different tools. It also means that you’ll need to choose an ecosystem of software that works well together to cover all of your needs. 

How do you know which solution is right for your association?

Before you start looking at software, you need to create a comprehensive list of your requirements. The success of your implementation of a new member management system hinges on your ability to thoroughly identify your needs upfront.

Here are a few of our tips for getting your requirements list started:

  1. Think about costs. Create a detailed budget that includes the software price, expenses for any staff overtime to get your new solution off the ground, and any added costs for customization work.
  2. Think about your team. What will make your team most efficient? How do they like to work? Does your team want to use the best tools for their specific needs? If so, a CRM or MDP approach is probably the right choice. On the other hand, smaller teams might find it easier to learn one platform instead of several tools and an AMS solution might be right for you if that’s the case.
  3. Think about your members. Consider how your members could benefit from different solutions. AMS and MDP solutions will offer a completely unified user experience. With a CRM solution, you may not be able to achieve something completely unified. On the other hand, with CRMs and MDPs you’ll be able to offer your members a more modern user experience. 

When you know precisely what your requirements are, you can drive the conversations with potential vendors. Having a crystal clear vision for what you need will help prevent you from being swept away by exciting features during a sales pitch. When you can ask how a solution maps to your requirements, you’re much more likely to end up with the perfect solution for your organization. 

Jeff is the Co-Founder & CEO of Wicket, and a passionate advocate and change agent for software solutions available to member-driven organizations. Jeff speaks regularly on the power of modern technology for associations and nonprofits and how it can be leveraged to better engage with members, increase member acquisition and create operational efficiencies. Jeff has been working with digital technologies for associations for over 20 years through his work with Industrial, the digital agency he founded in 2000.

Follow on Twitter: @Wicket_io | @jeffhorne

Connect on LinkedIn: Wicket | Jeff Horne

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