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A guide to choosing a new CRM for your Association

choosing an association CRM can be complicated

Currently many associations and member organisations are contemplating their next big digital upgrade. If you are reading this you may well be one of them.

Many associations struggle with unconnected, out of date administrative systems that can no longer cope with the demands of a modern membership. A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, or more accurately an Association Management System is the answer.

There are two broad paths you can take which have very different price tags: Software as a Service (SaaS) or custom development. In reality most solutions will involve a combination of both. The difference is the level of customisation.

A bespoke system tailored exactly to your association’s needs could sound attractive; allowing you to replicate your current administrative and business systems. Equally a ready-made solution that avoids the pain and expense of a complex development process can be just as compelling.  It’s cheaper and quicker to implement but you’d be fitting around someone else’s view of how your systems should be structured.

So, how do you work out which is right for you? Here are some points to guide the decision-making process.

What’s your budget?

When it comes to working out which system to go with, budget is the logical starting point. Whichever way you go it’s a big investment, but the amount that you can commit to both up-front development and on-going management will instantly narrow down your choices. It will also dictate how many compromises you’ll need to think about making.

How important is it to replicate your existing way of doing things?

Some associations are reluctant to change the way things are done. Legacy administrative systems generally grow over time, often seeing new parts bolted on but never properly integrated. But sometimes the way things have always been done is no longer the best way.

So, the first question to ask is: given what is now available, do you want to replicate some  parts of your existing system? Sometimes the answer will be yes as it is still relevant and appropriate; it just needs to be made more efficient.

Usually, the best course of action will be to challenge all current practices (and tackle head on any reluctance from colleagues who are reluctant to change how things have always been done.

Can you adjust your system to fit an off-the-shelf solution?

If someone has done most of the heavy lifting in designing a ready-made system for associations like yours it makes sense to look at this option first.  Figure out if and where you can adapt to fit a standard mould.

How many of your requirements are mission critical?

There is a cost involved in setting up each and every function you want your system to perform. When looking at a new system ask yourself whether what you want is essential to the running of the business or just ‘nice to have’. The idea is to cut out functions that don’t provide a big enough benefit or return for the amount it will cost you to develop them. It’s easy to spend a large amount on fixing what is actually a small or infrequently encountered problem.

Do you have the right staff resources to run the new system?

Association management systems are great. They can automate, integrate and streamline your association beyond what you thought possible. But they require a different skill set to maintain them and use them to their full potential.

A general administrator with solid computer skills can easily handle a traditional manual system. They can also adapt to a software as a service system with after training. All updates, security requirements and on-going development is handled by the software company and would be included in the licensing cost.

A custom system that’s been developed just for your organisation is a very different proposition. Not only will staff need training but you will also need either an in-house IT manager to maintain it or you’ll need to pay the developers or another external person to keep it up to date and secure.

The other type of staff resource you’ll likely need is a person or team that can set up and run a digital content and engagement strategy. This is someone who knows how to plan and generate content and activity to make the best use of your new system.

Done right, a new CRM or association management system is not just an administrative tool; it opens up a whole host of new possibilities for engaging with and providing value to members.


Implementing a new CRM is complicated and it’s easy to overlook certain details that if not addressed, can prove costly once a project is underway. It’s also a difficult maze of developers and software companies to navigate.

Our best advice would be to get some impartial guidance. You need to get a clear picture of how best to set up your new system and which software to consider based on your budget, how your association needs to be shaped for the future.

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