Here’s a newsflash for your IT department:
Technology that is built for purpose (registration, expo sales, speaker management, etc.) does not need to integrate with your legacy association management system (AMS) in order to be implemented.
Read that again! It’s true and something you need to understand before your AMS kills your conference.
Your Customer Versus The AMS
Your association has invested a ton of capital in your AMS, the enterprise application for managing your business. When it was implemented, you customized the heck out of it. Making changes to that system and getting data into or out of it is cumbersome and expensive. And it takes time.
Your IT department thinks everything in the world needs to be tightly integrated. As a result, you’ve lost the ability to be nimble and adapt. Your IT department is prioritizing efficiency and data capture ahead of serving the needs of your conference attendees.
That’s not good! It’s your customers who suffer.
The Alternative: Humans First, Data Second
I’m not recommending that you scratch what you have and invest six figures in a new enterprise system. Just don’t allow past technology decisions to affect your future attendee- and exhibitor-facing solutions. The inability to integrate is usually due to limitations of your AMS, not the built-for-purpose applications available today.
If real-time data and system integration is not easily done via web services (that’s geek speak for what most legacy systems can’t do), explore a one-time import and export.
The IT department of the future will consider your customers’ and potential customers’ needs first. They’ll be able to quickly deploy customer-facing software and connect the dots on the backend to help drive the business. They’ll embrace SaaS (Software as a Service) applications that continuously improve and evolve.
Go Mobile or Go Home!
Every customer-facing technology must be able to be consumed and fulfilled via mobile browser in 2012. At least 25 percent of your traffic is (or should be) via mobile (tablet, phone, etc). That number will grow exponentially over the next 24 months. If you think your members aren’t tech savvy enough, think of your future members. They are.
Fast 2012 Conference Technology Fixes
In addition to mobile accessibility, here are the four technology solutions that every major conference should have:
1. Sales CRM
Your sales database is gold! Most AMS programs are built for membership management. Exposition, advertising and sponsorship sales rarely fit that model. Savvy associations will implement a cloud-based customer-relationship management (CRM) software program that is shared among the sales team. Salesforce.com — the leading application — is affordable, easy to implement, and has tremendous capability to import and export data.
If your system doesn’t pre-populate member data, you’re making it difficult to buy. Look into one of the SaaS-based registration software providers or outsource this function. Nearly every solution has the ability to verify membership and provide a good data export after the conference.
3. Itinerary Planner
Today’s attendee wants to be able to pre-plan their conference and expo experience. They should be able to select each session and exhibitor that they wish to see. Ideally, you should have this capability for both web and mobile. You should assume that attendees will want to access these preferences from their work computer and from their mobile devices. Preferences should sync across devices/platforms.
4. Real-Time Floor Plan
For exhibit sales, every major conference should have an online floor plan that is dynamically updated with every booth sold or placed on hold. These solutions are now a commodity and can be implemented at a very low cost. Provide this and key the data into your AMS on the backend, if necessary.
I Don’t Hate IT
This column may come across as a rant. It is!
The truth is I love a good IT department. Not too long ago, several very large IT departments reported to me.
My recent experience with several associations, however, has made me realize how hamstrung they are by their own silos. We’re at the mercy of our IT co-workers.
When hardware or software doesn’t function the way it’s supposed to, the IT department pulls a rabbit out of a hat and saves the day. Many have a break/fix mentality and are great at putting out fires.
Few are strategic enough to drive improvement that is noticed and benefits those outside of your four walls. It’s a turf war that needs to be fought and won in favor of your customers.
Adapted from Dave’s People & Processes column in PCMA’s January edition of Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. © 2012.
Why have associations allowed data management priority over customer needs? What are some technologies that you wish more conferences used?
Sig VanDamme says
Great post. Integration is the holy grail but if the legacy AMS cannot meet the desired customer experience the organization needs to err on the side of its constituents. What use is an integrated registration experience if constituents are not registering because of a faulty/hard to use registration process?
I work for NimbleUser and your point #1 about Salesforce.com really resonated. We developed NimbleAMS on the Salesforce platform for that reason. As an alternative we also have been integrating Salesforce with legacy AMS systems as a hybrid approach.
Also in agreement regarding Mobile. At the last two ASAE events I attended I left all of the hardcopy in my room and loved that I could navigate the conference, my session schedule and session social media monitoring all from my iPad.
Dave Lutz says
Thanks for adding to the conversation Sig! Even our little company of three people is on Salesforce. We’re using the most basic version and bought it on sale for $2/user per month. After the first year, it’s going to jump to $5/month. Associations could equip their expo sales team with a very robust system for $25/user month. All they need to do is sell one more 10 x 10 and the license more than pays for itself. The decision is really a no brainer. The potential benefits for revenue, customer relationships and efficiency can be computed in 30 seconds on the back of a bar napkin.
While I’m bullish on Salesforce, there’s a ton of other great CRM solutions out there. Associations are businesses. Sales, marketing and customer service best practices of fast growing corporations make sense in the association space too. Any intelligent IT executive would select a cloud based SaaS system today. The benefits for speed of implementation, continuous improvement, less infrastructure, accessibility and integration are compelling today and will be critical moving forward.
@bkmcae Ben Martin, CAE | Avectra says
Generally I agree, but any time I hear someone say “just set up another database,” a zillion red flags go up. Maintaining multiple databases creates data silos. And if you’re spending time reconciling databases, you’re not spending it creating value for your members, which is just as bad as a poor user experience.
An obvious example of what can go wrong when you maintain multiple databases is that you run the risk of continuing to advertise the meeting to people who have already registered. Nothing says “we don’t have a clue” like continuing to sell me something I’ve already bought.
Clearly, using an integrated or extendable SaaS based solution is best, but if you choose to use an outside registration vendor that doesn’t integrate, here’s an important tip: Make sure that the vendor returns your database’s user ID for each registration record so that you can import the data back into your database. You may have to hound them for this bit of info, and you should definitely test your import early and often to ensure you’re getting this field before you get to the end of the annual meeting and find that the vendor didn’t append your database’s user ID to the registration record.
Lindy Dreyer says
To Sig’s comment–integration with the AMS system isn’t the holy grail. (I’m reading the comment as meaning tight integration, or even tying everything back to the AMS.) We think of integration as the holy grain because, once upon a time, that was the only way for us to even conceive of getting the kind of data we thought we needed to improve our businesses.
But in practice,
JeffDave is right on here. You can’t sacrifice your business and customer requirements in order to tie together data that you realistically won’t even use. Conferences have very specialized requirements. And I could argue the same thing about learning management, email marketing, social media management, and lots of other systems, too.
The real holy grail is a flexible infrastructure that makes it easy to tie together just the data points you need for decision making, no matter which system or platform they’re coming from. We’re all catching on to that. And I don’t think we’ve come up with the perfect solution–if there is one. It reminds me of Indiana Jones–everyone’s reaching for the gold chalice, when really it’s the simple wood mug that’s the answer.
Dave Lutz says
@Ben, thanks for the great advice of not marketing to those that have already purchased and for keying in on the member ID field as the common thread for connecting the dots. Two very critical points for using a built for purpose solution and tying it back to the main data warehouse!
@Lindy, your specialized requirements point is right on! Many associations make a boat load of money on one major conference. Because it occurs one week out of 52, its a an outlier…but one that requires reasonable investment to deliver the attendee and exhibitor experience that protects and grows that revenue. It’s really a matter of setting priorities that serve members/exhibitors first and then leveraging the data for the long term.
Associations that focus on data before experience, will have less data to worry about as their competition steals share. They’re bringing a knife to a gun fight.
David Frick says
The world would a lot easier to navigate if all the choices we had were absolute in nature, unfortunately that isn’t the case. When Dave says external systems don’t need to integrate with an AMS system he is right – they don’t have to and trying to force a marriage between two highly incompatible systems is an exercise in futility and a waste of resources.
There is a large BUT coming and that is: BUT when systems are compatible, integration need not be cumbersome, expensive or an impediment to the overall customer experience. To the contrary when systems are integrated there are benefits to the entire organization as well as to exhibitors and most importantly to members/attendees. Never has BI or business analytics been more important. This is particularly true with the advances in technology and the ability to integrate systems. Consider the possibilities when you’re able to import data into a central repository for reporting and analytics which enable an association (or any organization) to develop a deeper understanding of their constituents and the various segmentations they represent.
Imagine taking registration information, integrating it with your AMS and matching registrants with their colleagues who have not registered and sending a personalized note from the organization saying: ‘Hey your good friend and colleague Dave Lutz is attending (or speaking) at our annual conference and we noticed you haven’t yet registered. Just sayin.’ Or imagine if Dave himself were engaged and sent the email? Now that is power in the hands of the expo folks and that is technology at its best and yes, that exists today.
Dave Lutz says
@David Frick, thanks for adding your insight! I know you’re working on the firing line and have deep knowledge of both AMS and built for purpose conference and tradeshow tech. I think associations that are able to choose the best conference or tradeshow solutions; provide and prove the value in year one, then work on integration makes sense for a potential path.
The holy grail truly is in the BI and leveraging that for mass customization. Thanks for adding the use case!