How and Why Data Syncing Matters to Your Online Community Setup

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This post originally appeared on Online Community Results. We partner on many online community strategy and implementation projects – contact us if you need help with yours.


The connection between your back office CRM or AMS and your online community is the most critical part of any community implementation. This post covers the need-to-know details about the data sync, the most important part of the implementation process.

First, let’s define some terms:

  • Data syncing usually means pushing data from your association management system (AMS) or your customer relationship management (CRM) database to your community platform. This basically ensures that when a member logs into the community, their profile information (whatever fields you have decided should sync) is already there pre-populated in their community profile.
  • One-way and two-way data sync: Most community platforms I’ve worked with accept data from the AMS in a one-way data transfer. However, it is also possible for the data to flow two ways, so new data added by the member into their community profile fields are written back to the AMS, either immediately or in a periodic batch sync (usually overnight).
  • Single sign-on. This functionality connects the AMS database to the platform database so that when a member is logged in to the organization’s website, they are automatically also logged in to the platform and don’t need a separate login.  (Not to be confused with… “social sign on”, which is when a member can use their social media credentials (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to log in to the community.)

Why data syncing is so important

  1. Usability: Single sign on is good for the member’s user experience – you know what a pain it is for a user to have to log in in the first place, and if they had to log in more than once, you’d probably lose them. Another usability example is a member updating their address and only having to do it in one place.
  2. Permissions: Data synching ensures that the correct permissions for what groups or discussions the member has access to are automatically in place.  For example, a member who is not a board member, does not have access to the board of directors’ group.  But if a member was to become a board member, that change in status would be recorded in the AMS, and automatically populate to give her access to the director’s group at that point. Another example is if you have a group of volunteers who are not full members, but DO have access to the main discussion forums – you want them to see enough content to entice them into full membership – but once someone joins as a member of the organization, you update their membership status in the AMS, and you want the platform to know that they now have access to member-only areas.
  3. Social CRM: Social CRM (social customer relationship management) means tying social and community data to membership management.  In this context, the more robust data integrations allow you to, for example, “score” a member based on their activity in the community PLUS their purchases and other AMS transactions, and reward them for being engaged. Or the opposite side of this coin would be to be able to notice if someone new was not engaging, not connecting with other members, not joining groups, and help “nudge” them into more participation – which leads to retention.  Without good data syncing, you can still figure some of this stuff out manually, but you wouldn’t be able to segment member types as easily or connect the messages you want to send out to your email marketing as smoothly. There are a zillion more examples related to this, but I’ll save them for a deeper dive post into social CRM, automation, and related areas. For now, let’s get back to the data syncing issue.

How to plan data sync right

The data sync is either the largest or second largest project in a community implementation (graphic design being the other big one). Here are some tips to make this easier on yourself and your team:
  1. Do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to implement the data sync. With every single vendor we’ve ever worked with — and we’ve worked with dozens — we’ve seen data sync projects drag on for 6 months or more, especially if the organization has a complex or customized database.
  2. Give preference to vendors who have a “standard integration” with your AMS product. More than anything else, this will shorten the project timeline.
  3. Shorten the implementation timeline by forcing members to update their information in your AMS’s member portal, not within the community. A two way data sync is more complicated than a one way push of data from the AMS or CRM to the community.
  4. Allow three months for the integration project, no matter what the vendor says. If they complete it early, consider it a pleasant surprise.
  5. Think hard about how many fields “need” to be synced back and forth.  Some fields (like specific address fields (anything other than “city” and “state”, phone number fields, transactions) may not need to be synced.  The litmus test from a usability perspective is what fields should be searchable so that members can connect to each other, and to create a more personalized user experience? The litmus test from an admin perspective is usually permissions-based – what do we need to know from the database in order to ensure a user has access to the things they should have access to – no more, no less.
  6. If your AMS or CRM has a baked-in community platform, give it serious consideration before contracting with a vendor that will need to sync with your back office database. These platforms tend to be simple solutions compared to others in the market, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But… what if your AMS is a giant ball of wax and it’s just too hard to do much syncing? Then you may need to just house a lot of new data in your community platform. If there’s information you want to know about your members and just don’t have – you can create new fields in your community platform profile and collect new data by asking members for it directly.

Be aware of how data syncing and integration should be done right, but don’t let a potential hill to climb stop you from getting what you need out of your community platform.