by Robert Walters | December 01, 2003

The advent of virtual trade shows has spurred research into why people join organizations and attend meetings. Findings indicate that while the choice between two similar organizations might be based on geographical or educational factors, the underlying reason for joining is the desire to have personal contact with others who have similar interests.
   The more successful organizations have found a balance between personal and electronic communication and use the Internet as a vehicle to deliver additional services and convenience for their members. Here’s how they do it.

The initial association management systems, or AMS, deployed on the Internet were largely new forms or views of records in existing databases. They provided an interface where data could be viewed and changed but, for the most part, could not be directly modified in the main database. Each vendor developed its own proprietary system.
   Then came XML (extensible markup language), which was supposed to provide a common interface so data could be shared between diverse systems. What started as a common goal of a standard data structure and naming devolved into a Tower of Babel built by the same tool.
   With the consolidation of AMS providers over the past few years, it became important for the surviving companies to develop a common tool set to access data in the diverse systems they had acquired or inherited.
   Most providers now have some level of an initiative or new product based on the latest development platform from Microsoft, called .Net.   These tool sets are being designed to work across vendors and systems to access
the data.
   The good news is many of these systems are being designed from the perspective of the member or end-user, rather than for database requirements.

Today’s systems do much more than enable associations to publish membership directories. They allow members to update their information, sign up for meetings or online sessions, facilitate communication between members and provide a forum for discussion of issues affecting the organization.
   While chat rooms and listservs have been around for years, newer systems provide a real-time forum for members to engage in meaningful conversations, contribute content, and share experiences with the organization and other members. In addition to keeping their personal information up-to-date, members also can “attend” classes and take certification tests online.
   These interactive systems allow association staff, who formerly spent their time entering and managing data, to monitor site activity, respond to questions, conduct research and provide expanded member services.
   A sign that these systems are more member-oriented is that many AMS providers now market their products to the corporate world as CRM (customer relationship management) systems, based on their successful use as community relationship management systems.

The next evolution in AMS systems will provide integrated website design and creation tools, content management, online e-commerce (renewals and registrations), and e-communications. Now, members’ history files show their use of the organization’s website.
   As providers move away from proprietary database systems to a more standard platform, like .Net or XML, organizations also will have a broader selection of providers for the online aspects of their membership management systems.