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Are Chambers of Commerce well-served by third-party services?

By DEREK NEUTS, MS

Membership management is critical to the growth and survival of many types of mainstream nonprofits and membership-based nonprofits, 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(6), respectively. It’s a significant source of yearly revenue for some, while for others, it supplements activities such as paid events, donations, and program engagement to justify continued grant funding. This article will focus on membership-based nonprofits, specifically Chambers of Commerce, as they find themselves in a unique situation with their legal classification. Many are still wondering what 2021 will bring for ongoing community engagement and revenue through memberships, member-based advertising, and paid events.

These organizations are dissimilar in scope to traditional nonprofits and must be handled within a different context. The business structure must be aligned with web technologies to support alternative and “lite” versions of e-commerce activities, such as sponsored events, enhanced advertising opportunities for members, and the management of the membership levels themselves as a renewable subscription service. This e-commerce structure isn’t the same as setting up a payment gateway for the processing of donations, as revenue must be attributed to an organizational enhancement where members can derive value from it. Due to the unique needs of Chambers as membership-driven organizations, third-party software services have been established such as Wild Apricot, ChamberMaster, and MemberClicks, to provide an all-in-one approach to unifying membership management, customer relationship management, email lists, e-commerce functions, billing and invoicing, and members-only content or discounts.

An all-in-one solution, with a catch.

Chambers of Commerce are expected to assist members and the businesses within their community, not be concerned with website management and IT infrastructure. These canned solutions, which can have fixed monthly or yearly pricing, offer a unique one-stop-shop for most Chambers and their members to provide essential services to enhance membership value while offloading most IT burdens. These management services are attractive to Chamber leadership due to providing the most mainstream features within a predictable budget. However, many of these third-party service providers fall short of integration, implementation, and performance. Chambers would need to have the third-party management service host and maintain its website at an additional cost to receive the integrated services’ full array of benefits. When the management service maintains and hosts the website, they perform as a quasi web development agency and can implement a broad array of membership features. When the Chamber maintains those services, such features are limited to basic implementations, forcing the Chamber to manage most web development and hosting aspects. With limited budgets, this can be difficult for smaller organizations to maintain.

Integrations aren’t really integrated.

Unless a Chamber wants to spend $5k to $10k per year with third-party providers on fully integrated (and hands-off) services, they’ll have to pay for partial services instead (as most do). This involves a reduced monthly or yearly rate with additional web development costs, leaving most sites feeling incomplete due to a lack of budget for complete follow-through. Additionally, financial restrictions open Chambers up to exploitation by low-cost “developers” who are seeking quick gains, promising to “integrate” all third-party features and building WordPress sites using multipurpose themes like Divi or Beaver Builder. However, WordPress isn’t the only option, as a static HTML or dynamic PHP site without WordPress can also be budget and mobile-friendly. For any Chamber site to have a chance at even a successful partial integration, these membership sites must be coded correctly without using shortcuts. Proper integrations are managed using JavaScript, JSON, and PHP, however many third-party dynamic data widgets are sloppily installed on sites using iframe windows that never look quite right. More advanced integrations can be handled using an application programming interface (API). Still, these third-party providers will pressure Chambers to build and maintain the website for them, eliminating most integration issues. The development costs for this are higher through the third-party provider; however, these are merely templated websites and not true development solutions. Membership management providers will charge Chambers for the use of templates and consider these development services. In contrast, other service providers can provide repeatable solutions for Chamber websites, reusable blocks of code, and consider this custom work.

Those Chambers who went the way of “fast and cheap” may have a working system for the short-term, but the technology stack isn’t sustainable and will only lead to frustration.

Are these real solutions or a shortcut as a means to an end?

Third-party membership management software (MMS) and customer relationship management (CRM) providers are a good alternative for smaller Chambers that don’t have the financial resources to outsource their niche development needs. These needs are particular due to the Chamber’s organizational and legal requirements and the array of must-have management tools included in the service tier. Most Chambers may not realize that these are mainstream administrative tools and aren’t exclusively available only to third-party service providers. The solutions provided by such agencies are not unique but are instead a proprietary suite of packaged software tools, developed in-house, specifically to cross-communicate and parse membership data and display it on the front-end of the site. The labor costs to produce the software are what Chambers pay for with their monthly or yearly subscription fees, as the infrastructure has been built by the “one size fits all” standard as part of the third-party’s business model. A homogenized software approach is the only way to maintain sustainability and service scalability for some third-party membership management companies.

Going cheap can rapidly compound problems.

When third-party service providers offer custom development services, they are building the site using a coded approach—this aids in decreasing problems while enhancing compatibility with their systems. Alternatively, any competent web development firm that understands this niche business and how to construct complementary systems that align business goals with technology could create a custom-tailored solution. As stated earlier, this solution won’t be a canned software approach as only a programmed solution will overcome the majority of integration barriers. Those Chambers who went the way of “fast and cheap” may have a working system for the short-term, but the technology stack isn’t sustainable and will only lead to frustration. The integrations provided for sites using pre-built themes, visual builders, and similar systems ultimately won’t work for the long-term, forcing Chambers to hire additional development know-how to fix increasing amounts of issues over time.

Website bugs can vary in scope and severity, such as integrations not functioning to widget code being mistakenly seen by users. Often, mobile versions of the website may not render correctly as developers using visual builders implement an adaptive approach instead of a responsive (fluid) approach. Membership areas, shopping carts, checkout pages, and other critical areas can be left unsecured. To prevent such things from happening, the incoming development firm would either have to patch the site or rip it out entirely in favor of the solution that would have been considered “best practice” from the beginning. This compounds costs that have already been outlaid over multiple years, making the preferred solution much more painful to implement if a Chamber only relies on its membership as a revenue generator. For those depending upon lite e-commerce, Chamber leaders may be facing legal action if transactional member data becomes breached or credit card numbers are compromised.

The importance of owning your solution.

Since COVID-19, consumers and businesses alike have surged their engagement with e-commerce and have developed expectations based on their best experiences to date. A heavier online presence for products and services has placed the bar high for many companies trying to meet those consumer expectations and demands. The pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of websites and storefronts as a strong representation of an organization’s brand. Analytics software has become much more robust to help website managers understand consumer behavior and site engagement levels beyond a simple Google Tags implementation. First-party (1P) data has also been identified as critical to online success moving into the future; however, this type of data can only be effectively collected by those who own their infrastructure. Leased and third-party systems, such as those discussed in this article, are far less effective. Those proprietary systems are designed for the third-party service provider to understand how Chambers engage with their members, not for Chambers to know how its members engage with the Chamber’s website. The Chamber becomes the commodity for the service provider and helps them collect critical 1P data.

Chambers of Commerce should own their websites, host their web services independently of anyone else, and control their MMS/CRM infrastructure and treat this as an IT investment in their future. With a strategic development partner, Chambers can break free from third-party services that use them as a data-collection tool and can start collecting their own 1P data to understand members better, what they consume, how they engage, and why. Data collection becomes important with mobile users, as many mobile devices are becoming increasingly resistant to scripts and tracking cookies. Therefore, while logged into a membership site, user behavior becomes essential information to make data-driven decisions. Wouldn’t it be nice to discuss website redesigns, landing page strategies, and user interface modifications based on actual data collected by users rather than a list of “best practices” provided by your third-party provider? This is how reputable development firms operate, and our agency is no different, as we want to review behaviorally-based data before making big decisions that impact business goals. It’s important to map out a member’s experience journey within an organization’s ecosystem to understand better what’s important to them and how to engage them effectively.

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