If you work in the association sector, you’ve probably heard the buzz about the consolidation of three major players in the AMS (for those not in association-world that’s Association Management Software…basically CRM for associations) space: YourMembership (YM), Abila and Aptify “joining forces” under a new “family of brands”: Community Brands. I’m using all the quotes to avoid saying what seems to be what this really is: a merger, because, at least according to press releases and subsequent online conversations, it’s not a merger. People in the association space have been blogging/talking about this non-merger, mostly from the POV of tech consultants and/or JP Guilbault, the CEO of Community Brands/YM. Ben Martin has written a really good analysis of the financial aspects of the deal (part 1, 2, 3, 4 coming). But what I haven’t seen anyone writing about yet is what this deal means for the people it impacts the most: association staff, especially small staff association staff…not to mention just associations, period.
Let me back this up and say that I’ve been working in the association sector for more than 20 years, and have used many AMSs–including YM and Abila (formerly Avectra NetFORUM). I’ve worked for large associations that had dedicated IT teams and big technology budgets and also for a super small staff association that had neither. I also know a ton of association people, almost all of whom have had pretty crappy experiences with AMS platforms/vendors. What’s ironic to me about this whole new glut of interest in/wave of private equity investment in association tech is that the whole reason the space is of interest to private equity investors is associations…yet the ones who are getting the short end of the stick are…associations.
Let’s be honest: the ones benefiting from these deals are association technology vendors. Higher Logic: $55 million. Rumored sales price of YM when Ministry Brands acquired them a few months ago: $250-300 million. Aptify‘s rumored purchase price: $75 million. Abila‘s: $150-$200 million. Associations who have spent anywhere between tens of thousands to millions of dollars and six months or a year or multiple years implementing new AMSs and who are now freaking out: $0…and potentially a whole lot of headaches.
The PR-speak about this deal is that it’s going to be great for associations and that the AMS as we know it needs to be overhauled anyway so it’s great that this space is being blown up. The reality for associations is that, for the past several decades, the AMS has been sold as the must-have association technology jack-knife and most associations have structured around that model, investing tens of thousands–even millions–into AMSs being sold as the one-stop shop for running an association. Take YM, for example–it’s a member database, an e-commerce portal, a payment processing gateway and has a CMS…plus, in recent years YM acquired Job Target (job board), an LMS, built integration with Informz for email marketing and now built out a community offering. All of which they–and all the other AMS vendors, as well–actively sell to new customers and upsell to existing customers. To now have technology consultants and JP Guilbault talk about how, actually, that model isn’t right, after all, and now associations should actually be looking to NOT have the AMS as their core technology platform and NOT put all their eggs into that basket…really?
While tech companies and software developers may be agile and able to pivot quickly–especially when hundreds of millions of dollars are on offer–associations–the very organizations these platforms exist to serve, ostensibly–are, by nature, NOT agile or able to pivot quickly. For many associations, their AMS implementation costs are/were a capital expense and the software itself costs anywhere from $10,000-millions of dollars. Platform selection, in many cases, is something the board is either actively involved in and/or the ultimate decision-maker on. The selection process alone–from RFP through demos through getting board buy-in through getting budget approval–can take a year or even multiple years. So, while totally changing things up may sound awesome and exciting to investors, tech company execs and tech consultants, its striking fear and dread in the stomachs of many an association exec right about now.
And that’s just the start of the nightmare that is AMS changes for association staff. If you’ve never had to migrate to a new AMS, let me tell you, it is not fun. In my last job, I was part of such a migration–luckily my part was “only” manually migrating the entire website–page by page–from the existing CMS into YourMembership’s CMS. I still have PTSD almost two years later. AND I at least had the benefit of being pretty tech-savvy…something multitasking small staff association professionals more often than not aren’t. The thing about AMS changes/migrations, it’s not like you get to just clear your plate for the six months to a year…or multiple years…a new implementation or changes to an existing platform take. You still have your regular job and the association still has to operate in business-as-usual mode. Pubs, events, volunteer management, budgets, member management and service, etc…all of that has to go on even as staff time is divided or totally gutted dealing with technology changes. And if doing double-duty wasn’t enough, you also have the third ball called explaining change to members…the fun basically never stops.
I’ll digress but I guess my point is this, if I even have a point beyond empathy for small staff association people already losing sleep over this announcement: AMS and other association tech vendors, while it’s awesome you’re all millionaires now, please, PLEASE do more than pay lip-service to helping the associations who helped get you there.
Don’t just say you want to listen and be responsive–I’ve been there, done that and it is beyond frustrating to be told “we welcome feedback” only to then totally ignore that feedback. Either say it and mean it or just don’t bother saying it. Also, how about investing some of this venture capital back into associations to help ease the inevitable transition this and future deals will mean for already tapped-out staff? For instance, setting up a fund for clients who will be impacted by the changes to help hire temps or consultants to ease the burden of consolidation or migration or other work that will inevitably be caused by this “exciting” period of growth. Giving scholarships to association clients to attend your next user conference, rather than not only charging them registration to learn your new product but also having them shoulder the travel costs, often for multiple staff. Hire some actual association people to build out this next level, future AMS so that the people who have experience using the platforms have a hand in feature development and functionality. Investing in support and training staff, not just sales staff. Updating your documentation so that the same people already having to do double work learning and implementing changes don’t have to do triple work by also creating how-to documentation for members. For instance–JobTarget was acquired by YM three years ago; the documentation is still branded Job Target and has never been updated…I know because just a few weeks ago I had to spend a bunch of my time Googling answers to wrong information presented in that very documentation.
On the exciting development side, these things probably sound petty; on the association staff side, where people are already doing double or triple duty and budgets are already worn thin, these are the things that keep us–aka current and future customers–awake at night.