A Conversation about Salesforce for Associations

CEO Mark Patterson sat down recently with Dr. Jon Aleckson (CEO) and Matt Harpold (Client Engagement Manager) at Web Courseworks to talk about CRM and AMS solutions for the association market.

Episode Description

Non-profits and national associations are moving to the Salesforce ecosystem in large numbers to satisfy customer relationship management and other operational database requirements. The association management system is a non-profits system of record. Matt Harpold and Jon Aleckson interview Mark Patterson of Fionta to get his perspective on choosing branded systems like Nimble and Fonteva (association management systems built on top of Salesforce) compared to tricking out a native Salesforce instance.

Listen online to The Salesforce Decision for Associations with Mark Patterson of Fionta

Episode Transcript

Matt Harpold:
This is Managing eLearning with Dr. Jon Aleckson and Matt Harpold. Welcome to Managing eLearning. Jon, how are you doing today?

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
I’m doing great. We’ve got a super interesting guest today.

Matt Harpold:
We have today, Mark Patterson, CEO of Fíonta, a company specializing in integrations with Salesforce within the association tech stack. Mark, thanks for joining us.

Mark Patterson:
Oh, it’s great to be here. Thank you.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
Mark, did we get that name right?

Mark Patterson:
Fíonta.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
How the heck did you come up with that name?

Mark Patterson:
Well, up until four years ago, this company had a different name. It was actually Confluence. And the leaders at the time decided they want to change it because there was some confusion with Confluence, the product from a company called Atlassian. So they wanted to come up with a unique, a different, and a name that wasn’t used by anybody else. So they came up with Fíonta, which has a root in the Gaelic word for wine, which is fíon.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
Neat. Neat. Well-

Mark Patterson:
So being big wine lovers, we felt that that was a good name.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
Yeah. You’re going to have to show me your cellar next time I visit. So give us your 30-second elevator speech on the company.

Mark Patterson:
Sure. Well, Fíonta is a Salesforce SI partner. We provide implementation support services for clients who are either using or migrating to Salesforce. And we primarily cater to-

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
Mark, SI, what? System integrators? Is that what that stands for?

Mark Patterson:
System integrator. That’s right. And we primarily cater to associations and non-profits, and we’ve been doing this now for 20 years. So for associations in particular, we provide a wide range of services, including Fonteva implementation and support, fundraising, and grantmaking. For those org as foundations, marketing automation with Pardot and marketing cloud, and even native Salesforce for membership.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
You personally have a deep background in association technology, don’t you?

Mark Patterson:
I do. I spent about 10 years at a company called Aptify, which was subsequently purchased by Community Brands. And so, yeah, I’m very much embedded in the association community.

Matt Harpold:
So moving on to… We have a lot of focus, obviously, in the association space as well. Why is Salesforce important to the association community?

Mark Patterson:
So if you look at history, for many years, most associations have run their organizations on proprietary AMSs, association management solution, meaning that the product vendor developed all parts of the solution, including the runtime platform, the application on top. You are essentially at the mercy of the vendor to stay in business, to fix bugs, to provide upgrades, to continue to innovate, to ensure acceptable performance, the whole nine yards. So, really, the choice of service partners to help with ongoing support, new functionality, et cetera, was generally pretty limited. So over the past five years or so, we’ve seen a wave of M&A activity across the vast majority of the software vendors that serve the association space, not just AMSs, and it’s further constrained choice as a result. So right now, we’re seeing, as an example, many of the legacy non-platform-based vendors, particularly in the enterprise end of the market, struggle to stay relevant.

Mark Patterson:
So to answer your question, Salesforce has emerged as the dominant CRM on the market. And more importantly, it’s become pretty much a ubiquitous platform upon which associations can base most, if not all, of their IP footprint, if they choose. So the advantages are a single database, a really sophisticated platform-wide model for extensibility that enables you to basically integrate or build anything you want, a common reporting platform, a common set of analytics tools, and a vast network of Salesforce product and services partners like us. That’s really compelling. There are other platforms out there, but nothing like the scale and capability of Salesforce.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
Can you elaborate on what you’re seeing specifically in the association market as it relates to interest in Nimble and Fonteva?

Mark Patterson:
Yeah. I mean, there is a lot of excitement around Fonteva and Nimble these days, because again, if you look at history, associations have always been accustomed acquiring association management solutions and then tailoring them. Right? That’s always been the way it is. And outside of really large complex organizations that build it from scratch model, it never really was needed because you’ve always had these products that do most of what you need. So despite the fact that Salesforce has been around for 20 years, applications that specifically address the needs of associations have only really been around for 10 years and really only viable against the more established products for maybe the last five years. And I’m talking about Fonteva and Nimble. So those two, in particular, are the only two that are available. And they’re now pretty mature, highly capable AMS packages built directly on Salesforce, and they address most of the needs of most associations.

Mark Patterson:
And there’s a not so funny joke in the association industry that associations are like snowflakes. They all look the same until you dig in, and then you realize that they all do different things differently for reasons that nobody can really explain, and they can’t explain. So with Fonteva and Nimble being on the Salesforce platform, they leverage all the tools and capabilities of Salesforce, plus they add their own tooling on top to allow you to customize them. So the punchline of all this is that why they’re all the rage is because associations now have a highly viable set of options on Salesforce, where only a few years ago, that wasn’t the case. So my expectation is both of them are going to continue to rise in popularity as more associations hit the replacement cycle for the current solution, and they consider Salesforce either again, or maybe, for the first time.

Matt Harpold:
Can you share why the dominance of Salesforce and its partners is a good thing in the association management space?

Mark Patterson:
Yeah. And I’m fully aware of the potential danger of industry dominance. The obvious doomsday risks around Salesforce increasing prices, wiping out competition, limiting choice, all that sort of stuff. I personally don’t believe any of it’s going to happen, at least any time soon. For starters, the last time I looked, Salesforce had something like 20% market share, CRM market, with the next largest vendor being something like 5 or 6%. So while they have a dominant position over the next one, there’s still lots of vendors out there serving the space.

Mark Patterson:
Secondly, Salesforce is ultimately a platform company and they rely on independent software vendors, like Fonteva and Nimble, to build compelling applications, to draw in new paying customers to the platform. So competition, really, is among the software vendors that will continue to drive innovation there. And I believe we’re going to see more and more vendors, that may have non-Salesforce solutions, enter the market with Salesforce solutions.

Mark Patterson:
And lastly, I think a robust partner ecosystem is actually really, really healthy. Competition makes us better. Some associations will prefer to work with a Big Four firm, or others might enjoy working with a boutique firm. So the ability of associations to have multiple firms to choose from is absolutely a good thing.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
This is something like the Big Blue, IBM decision, that you’re going with a tried and true CRM in Salesforce. Can you tell me a little bit about those that make the decision to build their own version of Salesforce?

Mark Patterson:
Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s some obvious choices to be made. And the way that we advise our clients is this, if there’s a packaged application out there for anything that meets the majority of your needs, you ought to really strongly consider using it. Because building it yourself means that you’ve got to not only figure out what you want to build, but you’re going to have to go through the development effort to build it, and then you’re going to have to maintain it yourself going forward. So if there is something out there that has tens of thousands of hours invested in it already, that does pretty much what you want, that’s usually going to be a better choice. But having said that, there are organizations that are either they have unique business models, or they, for some reason, just want the independence from other software vendors. I think it can be a viable choice and we actually have clients right now, who we are implementing on Salesforce, without using one of the established options because of that very reason.

Matt Harpold:
And that makes sense that dives into a lot of the information on the native versus the branded options when using Salesforce for your-

Mark Patterson:
Right.

Matt Harpold:
… platform. And with those options, there’s a lot of choices that groups can make. What do you think the future holds when it comes to legacy systems, the purchases for using those traditional AMS systems…

Mark Patterson:
Well, so Aptify, where I worked before, is was one of those. And having spent nearly a decade there, it does hold a special place in my heart and I still care about many of the people associated with it. I don’t have any information about recent sales activity for those products and others, but we’ve seen a migration off of those systems of late. And my hunch is they’ve suffered new sales declines over the past several years. And I think given the heavy investment in those systems by their existing clients, I think current clients will be slow to migrate off because there’s generally seven-figure investments in the enterprise products that they’ve made. But eventually, it will happen because there is a replacement cycle. It can be 10 years, it can be 15 years, even as much as 20 years. But eventually, it happens because organizations realize that they need to move on to something new and it will be to platform-based solutions at that point.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
So I’ve heard a lot about the Salesforce annual conference in San Francisco, I think it’s called Dreamforce. I guess the number of system integrators is quite large and probably one of the reasons that associations should look at Salesforce. Can you tell me a little bit about what that Dreamforce is like and why you think it’s an event people should attend?

Mark Patterson:
Well, if you haven’t been, you need to put it on the calendar and go the next time they have it. It’s 175,000 people descending on about, you know, 8 or 10-square block area of downtown San Francisco. Just the sheer logistics of it, of getting people moved from place to place, feeding them all, and having really knowledgeable events for them to go to, it’s really a thing to behold. It really is the one event of the year that brings it all together for Salesforce. People come from all over the world, all the vendors show up, there’s a lot of training, a lot of end users, all of us partners show up, we speak, we meet with people. It is a who’s who, so you can get meetings with the people at Salesforce. It’s just a really great opportunity to see what’s going on, what other people are doing, and feel like you’re part of a very vibrant community.

Matt Harpold:
Jon, can we get that cleared for the marketing budget? I can take one for the team and attend that if need be. I think that’ll work out. So, Mark, I work closely with our clients on our LMS platform, CourseStage. Can you give us a description of some of the projects for integrating Salesforce with a learning management system like ours, for example?

Mark Patterson:
Yeah, sure. So LMSs are interesting in that they all seem to cater to different types of needs. I mean, some are really full content authoring environments, and others focus on the delivery and assessment piece. And also, many cater to different industries, like CourseStage does with medical societies and trades. So we’ve integrated, specifically, with CourseStage a couple of times now. We’re just finishing up an integration with CourseStage to Fonteva. And I can tell you a little bit about the integration points that we’ve integrated with. One is… And this is pretty typical as you have single sign-on. So a member logs into the member community, and then they can click directly from that into CourseStage without having to re-log in. So that single sign-on provides a very seamless transition, just from a user-interface perspective.

Mark Patterson:
And then for this particular client, what we’re doing is when that member does make that transition and they end up in CourseStage, CourseStage calls back to Fonteva and pulls all the member and membership information into CourseStage so we can use it to understand what to present to them in terms of what they’ve purchased or whatever. And then finally, when the member is credited with completing a course or he gets credit for it, that information is then pushed back into Fonteva so that could be associated with the member record. And that may change their member status, or it may change the badges they get. There’s a number of different rules that can happen when that event occurs.

Matt Harpold:
A smooth sharing of information, keeping it really simple for the end users and admins all to come together from what I’ve experienced.

Mark Patterson:
Yes. And it’s a very typical integration scenario where we have bi-directional delivery of data back and forth, so you’re sharing information.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
Really interesting stuff. Help me out here now. Our CourseStage LMS is sending educational data, maybe completion data, to Salesforce. Where is that data residing?

Mark Patterson:
Well, the typical flow for a Fonteva integration would be to store that transcript data, that’s flowing back, into a custom Fonteva Object, so it can be reported within Fonteva. And again, since there are other things that could be happening based upon that flow of information, for example, like changing the membership status or putting a badge up on the website, there could be other… Fonteva could be triggering other activities based upon that data flow. So typically, it will end up in the Fonteva application, in the Fonteva part of the database, after that data flow is complete. But it could as easily go straight into a Salesforce Object as well.

Matt Harpold:
So can you explain a little bit of the difference between the Nimbles and the Fontevas, and just going with out-of-the-box Salesforce install?

Mark Patterson:
Sure. So we touched on this a little bit, but Salesforce is a CRM, which essentially tracks companies and people. Right? But it does not fully anticipate the data model and business processes behind membership organizations, specifically the concept of subscriptions, and revenue accounting, including deferred revenue, the idea of committees. There’s a number of other things that are very specific to associations and membership organizations that a basic CRM really doesn’t account for.

Mark Patterson:
So Fonteva and Nimble are… think of them as purpose-built for membership. And they extend those concepts of accounts and context to the members and memberships, the appropriate accounting rules, member communities, e-commerce, around purchasing all those things, event management, in some cases, and everything else. I mean, a lot of which you may not need or use, actually. So if you start with a Fonteva or a Nimble, you’re going to get all that as a starting point, and then you tailor the system from there to round out the edges. If you start from scratch, you need to build that system up by configuring and customizing what you need and installing AppExchange apps when you can. That’s the whole model behind Salesforce. And obviously, for each organization, there’s going to be a cost-benefit calculation that you have to go through to determine which is the best option, which is the most cost-effective option, and which is going to get you there the fastest.

Matt Harpold:
Do you have those conversations early on, in helping to select the qualifying conversation? Or is that typically determined before it starts?

Mark Patterson:
I would say it’s typically determined before. And particularly, when an association is coming off one of the legacy or traditional AMSs, they know they want to go to another one, right?

Matt Harpold:
Yeah.

Mark Patterson:
Because the previous one, for some period of time, has worked for them and maybe it stopped working for them, but it has most of what they need. That said, we do have clients that come to us and say, “Hey, what about just Salesforce? I really don’t want to be beholden to an AMS company anymore. I really want to just build this from scratch and be able to change it there.” And we’ll have a conversation. And sometimes, the answer is, “Yeah, this is possible, and it’ll be cost-effective,” and all that. And sometimes, it’s like, “You could. You probably shouldn’t.”

Matt Harpold:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Always helpful to provide the guidance. So good to hear.

Dr. Jon Aleckson:
So I know we talked about this a little bit, but I’m really interested in some more examples of when an association would just use Salesforce and then hire somebody like your company to customize it. Can you give me any examples? And what is the rationale for that?

Mark Patterson:
Yeah. So, again, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. We have one client we’re working with right now who evaluated the packaged options and then decided that for what they needed, they were purchasing a lot more than they… They would have been purchasing a lot more than what they needed. So they came to us and said, “Look, we would like to build a Salesforce solution that does this kind of membership, it’s got a community portal, and it’s got an e-store, and it handles whatever else.” And it was a relatively minor set of requirements. So we evaluated it, we looked at the pieces we would need to pull up from the AppExchange, what we’d need to build. And ultimately, we were able to come up with a solution for that client that was way more cost-effective than if they purchased an app and configured it, and then not used two-thirds of the functionality that they would’ve gotten with it.

Mark Patterson:
So that’s an example of those kinds of discussions and that particular outcome. I would say that there’s a narrow set of organizations that that really makes sense for. I think it happens on the lower end, maybe a small-staffed organization with 10 or less people, and they really want Salesforce, maybe 15 or less. And then a really, really, really complex organization where one of the packaged applications just has no chance of meeting all their needs so they would customize it so much, that it would make sense to in the first place. So from the very get go, they decide to go full-native, customized Salesforce.

Matt Harpold:
So at Managing eLearning, we’re particularly interested in the online learning options and really interested in hearing your experience with the famed Trailhead Salesforce learning center. We’ve heard a lot of good things. Do you mind sharing a little bit, maybe explaining how it started and how it’s grown?

Mark Patterson:
Yeah, happy to. So Trailhead is the ultimate LMS. Although, I think they prefer to describe it as a learning experience platform. So it was originally created as a way to grow a network of Salesforce administrators by offering free training that people could take to prepare themselves for certification. I mean, they had a purpose, right? They wanted to grow the number of people that could work on Salesforce and, therefore, help Salesforce grow. It’s really comprehensive. And it’s organized around modules and trails, which are learning paths, and you can earn badges, it’s gamified, you complete modules. You could even create custom Trailmixes, which is a really popular way to create a custom trail with just the modules that you want your staff to consume.

Mark Patterson:
It’s since exploded into this massive library of content targeted at all sorts of things, all the Salesforce roles that are out there, including the developers, sales managers, technical architects, business analysts. So it’s really brilliant, I think, and how Salesforce has grown the talent base of the platform by providing all of this free training material. And therefore, people interested in a Salesforce career can get started really easily for free and see if it’s right for them. So very self-serving on Salesforce’s part because they did it very intentionally, but it’s also a fantastic learning platform that they’ve created, and it’s created quite a few jobs.

Mark Patterson:
The last thing I’ll mention about it is a couple of years ago, they rolled out… they opened up the platform, I should say, for organizations to create their own branded content for their staff. So it used to just be Salesforce would post their own content and use it as a Salesforce training tool. Now, they have this thing called myTrailhead that companies and organizations can actually create their own content to offer to their staffs. And I believe the use of it is attached to Salesforce licenses, so you couldn’t, for example, use it for your business. It really is focused on businesses that already license Salesforce to use internally.

Matt Harpold:
That’s actually great. It’s something I hear more and more is as people’s knowledge and intelligence, when it comes to working online, grows, everybody’s looking for that self-service possibility. So having your own training program on your own platform so people can engage for free, is brilliant, in my mind. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I hope it was painless.

Mark Patterson:
It didn’t hurt as far as I can tell.

Matt Harpold:
That’s good. I really enjoyed having you on. Thank you, everybody, for listening in today. Again, that was Mark Patterson, CEO of Fíonta. Please go on the website and take a look at all of their offerings. There’s a lot we didn’t dive into today when it comes to the backpacks, the AI, all of the other tools that are available. So I really encourage you to go online and reach out to Mark and his team. Thank you so much, Mark