The Golden Horseshoe Virtual Assistants Group was established in 2008 to facilitate face-to-face networking in an industry that works primarily online. As Founder and Director, my goal is to promote the group both to potential members and to businesses who may need to hire a virtual assistant.
In 2013, we signed up for a membership management system called Wild Apricot. It seemed ideal, because it offered all of the following features:
- Member database, with automated process for sending out renewal notices and changing a member’s status to Lapsed if they didn’t renew before their membership expired
- Online payments for membership applications, renewals, and events
- Automated emails to let members and potential members know about upcoming events, including appropriate reminders for those who have or haven’t registered
- Ability to send email newsletters and other communications to members and/or potential members, including specific segments of the list
- Discussion forums
It was more expensive than our previous system, which used various spreadsheets, but because it streamlined so many processes, it seemed like a worthwhile investment. Time is money, right?
After several price increases, it became clear that this was no longer a viable solution for such a small group, and it was time to find an alternative.
I looked at other membership management software, but quickly discovered that any cost savings would be eaten up by the time required to learn and migrate to a new system.
Next, I started looking at WordPress plugins that could handle member management and allow us to display a member directory with profiles for individual members. We also needed a new way to promote and manage registration for our meetings and other events as well as a system for emailing members and potential members.
I reviewed a number of options and even tested a few, but again the time involved to make the transition would outweigh most of the cost savings, especially since most of the premium plugins I looked required yearly license renewals.
Finally I had a brainwave, that I could achieve what was needed using developer tools that I already own. Because Wild Apricot has a lot of limitations I won’t go into here, we already had a WordPress site as our public face, so it was just a matter of adding the new features and functions to our existing site.
I’ve listed the tools I used for this project below. If you’re not technically inclined, feel free to skip to the next section!
- Beaver Builder theme with Themer Add-on and Page Builder Plugin – for flexibility in terms of page layouts and customization
- Gravity Forms plugin with MailChimp, PayPal Standard and User Registration Add-ons – for membership registrations, event registrations, and mailing list subscriptions
- Gravity View plugin – to display member directory and profiles to the public and RFPs to members
- Advanced Access Manager plugin – to restrict access to certain pages to members only
- WP Engine – for fast, reliable and secure WordPress hosting
- Mailchimp – for email marketing and communication
We’re using the free versions of Advanced Access Manager and Mailchimp, and I was able to use the remaining tools at no additional cost since I owned unlimited licenses for some and wasn’t using my account to full capacity for the rest. It would be more costly for someone who doesn’t already have access to these tools.
Having one website instead of two just makes sense! Easier for everyone to understand, and less work for me to manage. And because I’m working exclusively in the WordPress site, I’m more on top of things that need to be updated or improved than when my time was divided.
Better Branding and SEO
Not only are the event pages more appealing visually and the links less confusing, they work better when sharing on social media sites as well, because it’s WordPress!
Easier to Register for Events
On the Wild Apricot system, you have to go through several screens to register for an event. As a result, people often thought they’d signed up when they hadn’t actually got to the final confirmation screen, so our expected headcount wasn’t always accurate.
On Wild Apricot, event registrations are tied to the contact records. That’s a great feature because you can easily see how many events someone has attended or how long it’s been since they came out. However, many people use multiple email addresses, and if they happened to register for an event using a different one (which happened more often than you might think), it would create a new record. Maybe not a big deal in the big scheme of things, but when your account is limited to a certain number of contacts, you want to make sure this doesn’t bump you up to a more expensive plan. And if the person in question was a member, it meant that their participation wouldn’t be accurately reflected in their member profile. As a result, I’d have to check periodically and merge records where needed. Now it’s not an issue.
Simpler Membership Management Process
Membership management is where Wild Apricot excels. It sends out automatic renewal notices and reminders, and changes a member’s status to Lapsed if they don’t renew by their expiry date.
We had occasional hiccups when a member chose to pay by e-transfer or cheque because I’d have to manually mark them as paid and renewed (two separate steps in two different screens). We’ve eliminated this step altogether by changing our membership fee to a yearly subscription through PayPal – a feature Wild Apricot only offers to organizations paying $90 or more per month.
Instead of automated series of emails every month, subscribers now receive one message listing upcoming events and new resources on the website, which takes minimal time to put together. And Mailchimp’s tagging feature allows me to send targeted emails to members, lapsed members, or non-members when appropriate.
Instead of a Discussion Forum on the website, which really wasn’t used very often, online conversations now take place in the more active Facebook group.
Do you run a small association?
And if you’ve already got a great system for your group, please tell us about it in the comments!
Photo by Prudkov / Depositphotos