John Sheehy

How to Choose a Membership Platform

Last year, Dan walked you through an important buying guide for publishers going to market for a subscription platform. In addition to subscription models, AdvantageCS has clients employing membership models—either as a supplement to their subscription business or as the central tenant of their organization. So, are Dan’s 7 tips applicable to membership platforms? Absolutely! However, I think there are a few additional tips that are critical to a membership platform selection.

Just as we are seeing more “subscription” platforms on the market, there are more “membership” ones as well. Navigating between all the options and “top N” lists can be confusing and frustrating. Let’s look at a few tips that can help make sense of that process.

1. Clear on Purpose 

Perhaps my biggest issue with platform selection is the re-packaging of features to fit a different purpose or market segment. A recurring billing platform that describes itself as a subscription platform that also describes itself as a membership platform… is just a recurring billing platform! Be sure the vendor understands what a membership entails and how it is different than a subscription and can communicate that effectively in the marketing materials. If you suspect someone just did a search-and-replace of “recurring billing” -> “subscription” -> “membership”, then move on in the selection process. If you are not set on a single, do-all-platform, then I would strongly argue as well that if a vendor is upfront about what its membership platform does not handle (e.g., committee assignment), then that is a good sign that they know the market. You want to be sure you select a vendor that knows the membership market.

2. Scale 

Typically, as the size of your membership increases, so does the complexity and requirements. Can the membership platform handle the scale you need or is it primarily designed for smaller organizations? You may find that a great-looking membership platform starts to degrade very quickly once you start envisioning a larger data set—not only in performance, but in UI/UX, reporting, etc. This is true the opposite way as well (i.e., not overbuying for a sophisticated platform when a simpler one is better suited), but this is mostly avoided once costs are examined. It can be tempting for a large membership organization to attempt a “simple” membership platform, but the long-term costs are probably not in your favor with this approach.

3. Revenue Diversification 

All our clients with a membership model also have other revenue models—subscription, one-off sales, advertising, etc. These other revenue opportunities are often closely related to the membership revenue in terms of customer crossover, accounting, reporting, etc. You want to make sure that the membership platform allows for this type of diversification to avoid a costly multi-system approach and to take advantage of consolidated revenue, sales, and marketing opportunities. Make sure to investigate the non-membership revenue models offered by the platform to ensure all your needs are covered—avoid tunnel vision!

4. Features 

This one may seem obvious, but we’ve seen this become an issue since some features are often assumed to be available. This also fits in with the introduction of this guide in that it is a good chance to see if the vendor understands a membership.

Are renewals handled? Group memberships? What about the benefits of membership? Sophisticated customer discounting structures? Membership fees and dues allocated correctly? Upgrading/downgrading a membership? Revenue recognition? Membership application process?

There may be dozens of scenarios your membership organization needs to support, so make sure to enumerate those and ensure they are covered. Anything can be “figured out later”, but that phrase always leads to increased costs and soured relationships later.

5. Open

It is highly likely that you will need to integrate your membership platform with at least one other system. We’ve seen upwards of 50 in some cases! This is not too surprising given the scope of systems organizations deploy to support their business whether it is an internal system (e.g., general ledger) or an external system (e.g., serving content). In today’s environment, an open membership platform is essential. What does open mean? At a minimum, it needs built-in tools to allow you access to that data. Ideally, it provides a variety of techniques you can implement to suit varying types of integrations—direct integrations via a REST API, batch data feeds for a reporting repository, real-time data messaging for content access, etc. Membership platforms need to be flexible in their integration options so they can fit seamlessly into the rest of your technical ecosystem.

I want to reiterate what Dan said in his previous post about subscription platforms. So, let me do a bit of find-and-replace…

Beyond these key considerations, you’ll want to beware of start-ups with big claims. Talk with their clients and find out where the hidden costs are. Most membership organizations are better off with a tech company that knows the membership industry.

In short, membership organizations are best served by looking at membership-specific solutions to meet their membership-specific requirements. Generic, recurring billing platforms do not handle the complexities of renewals, benefits of membership, multi-product revenue models, upgrades and downgrades, and many other capabilities which membership organizations should demand.

Let the buyer beware!

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