Making member, subscriber databases work

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Priceless. That sums up how most associations view each member, especially professional and trade groups. Organizations offer member benefits ranging from lobbying to conferences to career services. Another typical benefit is a periodical. This is such a mainstay that there is even a publication serving them (from The Society of National Association Publications).

Here is where it gets tricky. The publisher, whose mission is usually to sell ads, build circulation beyond membership and run the publication for profit for a nonprofit group, wants cost-efficient systems in place, typical fulfillment services and user-friendly, accurate reporting tools for marketing and perhaps even auditing purposes.

Typical publishing and subscription policies may be at odds with an association database with calendar year renewals, corporate versus individual memberships and so on. The membership system may lack capabilities such as audit report generation or source tracking.

But all involved share one goal: excellent customer service to their constituents. When the publisher decides to outsource fulfillment for the magazine, questions arise:

• Will members still get quality customer service?

• How will the databases communicate?

• What is the best way to handle address changes, etc.?

• How will be money be applied?

• How can we protect members from being solicited by third parties?

Concerns are sometimes so strong that the proposal is shelved. Yet for every unique association there is a unique solution to help the publication grow while meeting members' needs.

Customer service, privacy protection and audit compliance should be a given at any fulfillment firm with a strong reputation in these areas. The challenge is to map out the best way to maintain the two databases (assuming they will stay separate) so that both parties have the latest data and can access this data for marketing and other needs.

Of utmost importance is an understanding of whether the publication has a stated value and is included with the membership dues without a chance to deduct the subscription cost. If it is non-deductible, it is counted as a paid member-benefit for audits.

If it is deductible and the member opts for a subscription, it can be counted as a paid requested order. A third possibility is a "complimentary" subscription with no stated value. It is then considered a controlled (non-paid) member-benefit.

Equally vital is the ability of the association and fulfillment supplier to maintain both a publication account number and membership number for each record for easy matching. Here are scenarios for maintaining the databases:

• The association sends adds/kills/changes of members to the fulfillment company as they happen, usually in an e-mail.

• The association sends these changes periodically as an electronic file.

• The association periodically sends the entire database of members who should receive the magazine for the fulfillment vendor to upload before the next issue closing. The vendor must be careful to maintain continuity with these member records so as to not overstate adds and kills. Records would simply be updated for "continuous" service.

• The vendor likewise sends the association a file of any changes and non-deliverables received on members.

• The association can use the vendor's online management tools to periodically pull down member records for updating.

• The fulfillment company can send the entire file periodically so that the association can solicit non-members.

Resolve upfront whether each of these activities is part of the fulfillment bureau's bundled services.

Who should have access to the databases with read-only versus data input capability? Most will agree an association does not want outsiders viewing membership lists but the publisher may want the membership department to have access to the subscriber database to answer customer service questions. Hopefully, they can answer questions like "Can you change my address for the magazine?" A subscriber who is not a member should be referred to the fulfillment house for more serious concerns.

Vendor customer service reps should be able to answer basic questions about membership or refer the caller to the association's Web site or membership line.

Applying the proper payment to the subscription should cause no headaches. If the membership department takes the dues and a specific portion is allocated to the subscription cost, the association banks the money and notifies the fulfillment house, which books it as a "client deposit" and reflects the records as a paid subscription.

When new members are not considered paid, the publisher often will have a program to solicit these members to upgrade to request status on audit statements.

Then there is the concern over misuse of the membership list. That's why it is crucial to maintain the opt-in/opt-out designations and ensure that the association has the right to go after non-member subscribers, that the publisher can solicit for requests or the publisher has the right to rent members' names if they are also subscribers. Maintaining separate privacy fields for internal solicitation versus third party will keep everyone out of trouble.

Having a separate database for subscription fulfillment does add complexity for an association, just as having a membership affiliation adds complexity for any true periodical. But using the appropriate systems, membership or fulfillment, actually creates a more foolproof, efficient environment and a win-win situation for the association, publisher, members and independent subscribers. n

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