The Membership Management Software Showdown: Who Will Win?

Sep 05, 2017

Membership management ain’t no slice.

It’s time consuming, for one. And far more complicated than it needs to be. Thankfully, the days of spreadsheets and paper filing are (mostly) behind us, which means—at least technically—membership management should be a breeze, right?

Unfortunately, when it comes to finding the right Software-as-a-Service (Saas) membership management system, it can get a little complicated. And confusing.

Simply finding the best system isn’t enough. You need to find the best system for you. A tool that will help you address your association’s unique objectives and provide all of your members—from tech-savvy millennials to professionally established boomers—with value.

So, you’re probably wondering: Well, what is the best system for me?

At Arke, we get this all the time. Seriously. Unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. When you’re considering which platform to use, here are some essential things to remember.

  1. Does it reduce the time and effort it will take your volunteers and stakeholders to complete operational tasks?
  2. Will it be easy for your members to use?
  3. What additional tools does it provide that will add value to your membership?
  4. Will it increase and clarify inter- and intra-organizational communications?
  5. Is it scalable and affordable?

There are several other considerations to mull over, but these are among the most important we’ve noticed from the associations we work with. Yes, they’re general—but they’re a pretty good place to start.

To save you some time, we’ve put together a definitive list featuring four of the best association membership tools in the biz. Since you’re a stakeholder in your association, we’ll only be looking at SaaS tools built specifically for associations.

The tools we’ve chosen range from feature-heavy offerings like ClubExpress to easy-to-use tools like StarChapter. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re a tech maven or a smaller association on a shoestring budget.

The Anatomy of Association Membership Systems

Before we press any further, let’s break down what all of these tools have in common. When it comes to functionality, there are a few similarities that are worth exploring. At the very least, if none of the systems here strike your fancy, you’ll know exactly what you should expect from these products.

All systems, no matter which ones you’re looking at, can be broken down into four functionalities: website, people, communication, and money.

Website, simply put, refers to your content management system (CMS), the tool you’ll use to create and manage your association’s digital content. Think: WordPress, just as an example. Pretty much all association management systems (AMSs) have a module devoted exclusively to modifying and adding content to your site.

AMSs offer a certain degree of customization for your web-based assets. ClubExpress, for example, lets you customize everything—from your general web template down to the size and color of the copy you’ll be using. StarChapter, too. NationBuilder gets some flak because it doesn’t offer the same customization options, but that’s not exactly true. With a NationBuilder-certified agency, you can make a one-of-a-kind website, and it’s easy. More on this later.

All of these services provide web hosting, and they’re mobile friendly. Having a responsive website is absolutely necessary nowadays. Increasingly, your members will be visiting you from their phones so it’s important that you provide them with a fantastic user experience.

People refers to the databases your AMS will give you access to. They’ll include one devoted to your members and another to non-members. Each person’s profile will contain some information about them: their payment and volunteer history, contact details, etc. But not all databases are built equally and some AMSs, take NationBuilder for example, offer extremely granular data.

Your communication tab, or module, depending on the lingo an AMS uses, is your email blasting tool. In every case, this tool will integrate with your people. With it, you can shoot off emails to members and non-members, whether you’re reminding them about dues payments, important events, or simply disseminating a newsletter.

Last, but certainly not least, money. Not all AMSs have a tab devoted exclusively to your money concerns, but they do let you collect funds: dues, event fees, donations, and so on.

Head to Head

comparisonchart.png

The List

ClubExpress

Gembrook Systems, LLC has been developing software for thirty years. ClubExpress is their SaaS platform built specifically for clubs and associations. In other words, you.

The Sales Pitch

ClubExpress is definitely one of the industry top dogs. PCMag gave them an Editors’ Choice Award—and with good reason. This AMS has everything, plus a bunch of add-ons, making for a truly feature-rich experience. Examples of some of the additional modules you can add, include: forums, classifieds, insights, and so on. There are nearly twenty of them in total.

As mentioned earlier, ClubExpress also gives you the option to create a totally customizable website with public-, members-, and administrative-facing pages. This is a useful way of defining who sees what, and it also adds an element of exclusivity to your association. With exclusivity comes value. As one of the most secure services out there, you can rest assured that your content will also be safe.

All AMSs provide client support and the ones on this list are exceptional in that respect. ClubExpress sets itself apart by offering your association members full phone support. This is a huge time saver. No more fielding troubleshooting calls!

One unique ClubExpress feature that can’t be ignored is its built-in instant messaging tool. This gives your members an opportunity to chat with each other in real time, and enhances the networking opportunities available to them. It’s also a great way for you to encourage greater engagement in your association.

ClubExpress’ real strength is membership management. It makes the entire process very convenient. You can categorize the people in your databases, classify member types and follow each member, renewing memberships or signing up new members.

Pricing

ClubExpress has a basic startup fee of $150 USD for those who can build and configure their own websites. It’s worth noting that you don’t need programming experience to setup the service. Pricing is month-to-month, and it’s contingent upon your active membership volume, so you’re only paying for members who actually use the tool. To find out more, they’ve set up a monthly hosting fee calculator, where you can get a quick estimate of costs.

The Dirt

If you’re new to membership management software, ClubExpress can be a little overwhelming. Its broad functionality, while good, is likely to exceed the needs of most associations. Though the platform surpasses expectations in terms of what it offers in membership management, it doesn’t empower associations to grow their numbers. In fact, this is a slight against most AMSs, and it represents a serious problem with this category of products since membership growth is one of the key issues facing today’s professional organizations.

Wild Apricot

Wild Apricot was ranked the “#1 Membership Software” by Capterra. In other words, it’s no slouch. It’s built specifically for associations, though it offers some flexibility in terms of its application. The service provides an all-in-one solution to all of your membership management needs.

The Sales Pitch

If you’ve looked into the different association management systems on the market, you’ve probably come across Wild Apricot. It’s definitely popular. That’s because, related to some of the more robust offerings, Wild Apricot provides really good value. Its big selling point, in our opinion, is that it offers associations unlimited email blasting. Depending on how many emails your organization sends, and its size, this platform might be the perfect choice.

Wild Apricot certainly doesn’t boast the same features you’d expect from a platform like ClubExpress, but it does offer a modest range of website and email templates, giving you the option to individualize your association’s brand. It’s also extremely easy to use, another reason why it rates really well.

Pricing

If you’re an organization with less than fifty contacts, Wild Apricot is absolutely free! The Group tier includes 250 contacts with five admins at $40 USD per month. Packages scale up to the Enterprise tier: 15,000 contacts and unlimited admins at $270 per month.

The Dirt

Here’s the thing, Wild Apricot will definitely save you time, but it won’t build you the best looking site. Feel free to check out some of their example websites and see for yourself. Its interface is a bit dated, even clunky, and it doesn’t provide the same robust functionality as other tools in the category.

StarChapter

StarChapter focuses on making association management easy, which is why they consistently rate highly on user experience. Their ideal user is someone who’s a volunteer or a leader of a local chapter of a professional association. So, if you’re an association on the smaller side, StarChapter might just be the thing for you.

The Sales Pitch

StarChapter prioritizes user experience, and it shows. It has a user-friendly interface and it offers modest functionality for its price. If you’re a smaller association and you’re time-poor or you rely on volunteers to run your day-to-day operations, it’s definitely a convenient option and your volunteers will thank you for implementing it. Furthermore, its customer support is truly impressive and the service offers plenty of instructive assets to help you along, should you have any issues using it.

Pricing

StarChapter comes with a one-time setup fee of $399 USD, entitling you to up to three hours of project time with a specialist. This includes assistance configuring the platform, data conversions for member and non-member lists, content conversion, as well as one hour of training. The whole operation, at max, should take you three weeks.

Since StarChapter’s bread and butter is smaller professional organizations, they’ve put plenty of limitations on their services at each tier. Their starter tier, the Lite Plan, costs $49 per month—but it caps you at 100 members and 400 non-members, and it only lets you send 1500 emails per month. Plans are scalable, for those operating larger associations.

The Dirt

StarChapter definitely makes you pay to play if you’re looking to scale up, and it doesn’t offer the same access to data of, say, ClubExpress or NationBuilder. That’s why, if your association has 150+ people, it might benefit you to look at some of the other options on this list. Also, it doesn’t offer integrations with social media, meaning you’ll have to continue operating your social channels independently of the platform.

NationBuilder

Chances are you’ve already heard about NationBuilder (after all, it’s our platform of choice!). NationBuilder has made the headlines as a powerful campaign tool for politicians, allowing them to mobilize voters and donors.

The Sales Pitch

We deliberated long and hard when it came to choosing our proprietary AMS. One of the reasons why NationBuilder wins, at least as far as we’re concerned, is its powerful path workflow tool. No other AMS addresses the problem of membership growth. But the path workflow tool does more than that, too. Whatever your organizational goals, it’ll help you get there.

That NationBuilder integrates so seamlessly with social media is another get, one that’ll save you plenty of time should you choose to take advantage of it. Beyond that, NationBuilder’s people database is extremely detailed, giving you crucial insights into your members and prospects alike. You can also tag your people and classify them into groupings for email blasting.

Pricing

Like ClubExpress, NationBuilder bills monthly, starting with their Leader tier at $29 USD per month ($24 if billed annually). This caps your “nation” at 5000 people, of which 1000 are emailable. It also lets you access NationBuilder’s People database, including social media account matching, email blasting, two websites, a Goals dashboard where you can organize path workflows for users, and a fundraising or events module. Finally, you’re entitled to a basic onboarding program, including technical support seven days a week. The platform scales all the way up to their massive Network tier.

The Dirt

What dirt? Honestly, the biggest slight against NationBuilder is that its finances aren’t as robust as other platforms in the category. Also, it can be a bit of a hassle converting legacy assets, like an old WordPress site, for example, onto the platform.

Now What?

Be sure, no matter what option you choose, that it fits your organizational needs to a tee. Thankfully, all of these SaaS tools offer free trial periods and have exceptional customer support. If you’re unsure which to pick but keen to experiment, give them all a try or ask for a free demo.

If you’re not sure where to start, you’re also welcome to give us a shout. Seriously, we’d be happy to help. We’re only one of about 10 NationBuilder-certified agencies in the world, which means: if you think NationBuilder’s your jam, let us know. 

We have developers on hand who can customize your website as much (or little) as you’d like, copywriters just itching to write you emails that’ll drive conversions, and community managers whose passion for social media can only be matched by their curiosity to learn more about what makes your members tick.

Anything to add? Feel free to comment. We enjoy lively debate.