Innovation, Member/Customer Engagement, Organizational Culture

When Member Community is your Core Business


It struck me as Elizabeth Engel and I were picking cases of successful member engagement for a white paper we are writing! The ones that stood out from others heads over shoulders had a community-based membership model, largely or solely enabled by the Internet. It was the same with the cases of successful membership organizations in my new book, The Demand Perspective: Leading Associations from the Inside-Out to the Outside-In coming out shortly from ASAE’s Association Management Press. Successful and growing membership organizations had switched from one-on-one to one-on-many.

Another case in point! When for-profits adopt and make successful the age-old membership models of associations, they turn them on their heads, converting them into dynamic communities whose strategies and architectures create more value for members than they could achieve on their own. In other words, the greatest source of value is the community itself and not the products or benefits. And this is the difference between a “community” that is an add-on to your regular dues-for-service model and the business of community, in which access to the community is the essence of your membership.  Check out Doximity and the other online platforms in the last 2 blog posts. For that matter, check out Amazon, eBay and Facebook.



Among the cases in my book and the white paper I am co-authoring with Elizabeth Engel for example, are:

  • The Community Round Table (CR), a boutique, for-profit membership community for online community managers, directors of community programs and other stakeholders in the health of the communities, including support and marketing employees as well as executives.

  • The Society for Hospital Medicine (SHM) a relatively young, rapidly growing association “developed specifically to support and enhance the practice of hospital medicine and delivery of patient care in the hospital setting.” Instead of lobbying for the benefit of a profession, the association facilitates and convenes all relationships that contribute to in-hospital patient care into a community that includes hospital administrators, other medical specialists and regulators among others.

  • Founded in 2005, SERMO pioneered the physician social network movement. It is an enormously successful, private social for-profit network for doctors with over 300,000 members. This number, SERMO asserts “represents 40 percent of US MDs and Doctors of Osteopathy.  Sermo also serves corporations that do business in healthcare by providing various tiers of access to the case-based doctors’ conversations.

  • The National Grocers Association (NGA) is a trade association with a $7 million annual budget serving 1,500 member companies, and representing the independent sector of the food distribution industry; as well as affiliated associations, manufacturers, service suppliers and others that have a stake in its mission and the health of the sector.   By bringing together all stakeholders in the economic ecosystem, NGA creates an economy of scale for independent grocers and a value network through which all stakeholders deliver and become the recipients of value /

  • VIN (The Veterinary Information Network) solved the problem of isolation for independent veterinarians and helped them compete against encroaching corporate medicine by creating online the largest veterinary practice in the word, allowing members to access resources from throughout the world, ask and answer questions, access up-to-the-minute research, collaborate, co-create new content, greatly enhance their medical competencies and competitive capabilities at a one-stop shopping.

This is not simply a hot new model or fad but rather a reflection of how people do business and compete in a fluid, networked economy.  In an article called Strategy in a Networked World, Greg Satell talks about “The End Of Scale And The New Age Of Disruption.”

Up until recently, the author says, strategy was more like a game of chess. The boundaries among industries were clear and the markets were far more predictable than today.  You could anticipate players’ moves and develop strategies for moving your pieces ahead of your rival “to create important efficiencies in crucial areas and attain dominance.”  Yet the world is no longer stable and “the board is no longer set out in orderly lines” giving rise to different forms of service delivery and competitiveness.

“Yet today,” Satell points out, “we live in a world of  accelerating returns, where cost efficiencies can improve exponentially, nullifying scale advantages. Further,  technology cycles have begun to outpace planning cycles.”

He cites Amazon as an example.  Initially an online bookstore, Amazon evolved into an enormous online retailer. “Yet today, Amazon is much more than a retailer,” Satell adds, even though it can compete with major global chains.  “Amazon is not a conglomerate, it is a platform.”

And this is what I think is highly relevant to associations and industries across the board. Satell believes that:

What’s changed is that competitive advantage is no longer the sum of all efficiencies, but the sum of all connections.  Strategy, therefore, must be focused on deepening and widening networks of information, talent, partners and consumers.  Brands, in effect, have become more than mere assets to be leveraged, but platforms for collaboration.

The associations and businesses cited above did not simply change their mix of benefits or shifted to virtual models. Their new source of value is a platform for connections, driven by an architecture and management framework that enables them and helps drive them to results.

Below are lessons learned from our research that you could apply to your organization:

  1.  Customers today are engaged the most through dynamic relationships rather than purchases or activities—collaborating, partnering, getting or giving advice, fighting for a common cause, etc. For the most engaging organizations in our study, relationships are not peripheral to the “real” business of the association (budget preparation, governance concerns, operational management, event production and management, etc.) They ARE the real business of their organization.  Consider making interaction itself, rather than just programs and services, your primary value proposition.

  2. Successful communities convene around shared purpose rather than type of transaction. We have seen many types of communities in the cases and the examples we cite—communities of practice, economic benefit, social impact, shared interest and identity, practice or sector transformation.

  3. Yet, to go beyond social communities and create customer and business value it is not enough to simply bring people together on an online platform or membership group. In the most engaging and successful communities the organizations:

      • were oriented toward customers and their challenges rather than toward their own products and interests

      • assumed the role of architect and coach rather than event producer or product manufacturer:  staff took on roles of strategic architects, coaches and choreographers, putting in place the right architectures and creating conducive environments

      • were constantly focused on and engaged with the communities

      • were constantly active and in motion in recognizing new opportunities, bringing together people and organizations with shared objectives, leveraging content and relationships in new ways, helping members apply “lessons learned” to new situations and markets, etc.

      • took time to understand and target the motivations and criteria of value of each stakeholder group along different tracks

      • in the most successful, high-growth cases, engaged networks within networks in ways that leveraged access to or extracted value from one group to benefit another

The implications go beyond membership model change. They have to do with shifting your premise for how value is created and delivered today and re-thinking your own value within an ecosystem of relationships as well as the very business you are in. Are you still looking for competitive advantage in products and “the sum of all efficiencies” or in enabling the right sum of connections toward a shared purpose?