Community, Innovation, Member/Customer Engagement

The Future of Membership: Collaborative Community

Competing for Members in the Age of Limitless Consumer Choices

 can I beat competition, grow, identify the right direction for the future, engage, keep and grow members?  These are the pressing challenges association executives shared with me in interviews. Yet they all boil down to one central question: how to get and keep customers. You can’t have a business without customers, right? And you can’t sustain it unless these customers keep returning to you. So the real question is how you provide the kind of value that makes you indispensable to knowledge age consumers.

One answer, according to an article in HBR, is the strategic deployment of social media to form online communities.  The authors of the article cite four, unprecedented new capabilities that social media provides to organizations, namely, they:

      • Promote deep relationships
  • Allow fast organization
  • Improve the creation and synthesis of knowledge, and
      • Permit better filtering of information

All true, but social media is a means rather than a destination. Yet many association leaders treat it as an end unto itself, delegating it to community and IT specialists.  What they fail to notice is the larger truths virtual communities reveal: how members want to be engaged today; and where and how value resides in the knowledge age.

What membership organizations need to compete today is not simply a social media strategy but a completely new basis for creating value for both members and the organization. Social media, particularly its capabilities for bringing people together as interactive, collaborative communities that constantly create new value for their members, provides such basis.

The problem is that for most associations, membership is a designation rather than true participation in a collaborative community. Community-based membership models solve this problem.  In conventional organizations, member value is delivered top-down through stand-alone products.


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The Future of Membership

he future of membership is in facilitating relationships with and among members rather than relying only on products. For this, organizations need community-based rather than product-based capabilities such as the 4 listed in this article.

Deep Relationships: Sermo and VIN (Veterinary Information Network) are virtual networks for physicians and veterinarians respectively. Their success is based on the realization that should be noted by association leaders, namely that their greatest source of value for their members is the community itself, rather than their products or information.

The member community approach means that, instead of figuring everything out by yourself and taking to market your finished products and plans, you create a shared community platform and set in motion, develop, leverage and monitor strategic relationships that generate value. Once a successful model that facilitates and develops deep relationships is set in motion, it constantly expands the relationship network and uncovers new sources of value.

As an example of a relationship-based model this article cites a site called, PatientsLikeMe. This is “an advanced online social network for patients with particular chronic diseases. Patients volunteer details about their diseases and the treatments they’ve pursued—including those not prescribed by their doctors. Charts and progress curves on the website help people to visualize their own complex treatment histories, allow comparisons among peer groups, and prompt members to provide feedback and advice on one another’s progress.

“The implications for health care,” the authors write, “are profound. Indeed, online communities are changing the way doctors provide care.”

Think of your members as a series of communities of interest and/or practice rather than as individual users of your products.

Make speed an important part of your value proposition.  Speed is one of the new intangible sources of value today.  Imagine how quickly you can mobilize support, get reactions to a new product concept, galvanize sub-groups around a shared interest, deliver in time information etc. As an example, the article cites Sermo’s ability to quickly “galvanize doctors against proposed health care reform, even when the American Medical Association formally supported it.”

Knowledge creation and synthesis.  Tap and leverage member-generated capital. Are you constantly wracking your brain to figure out what new products or products will improve your retention?  If so, you are missing one of the most striking capabilities that successful, modern practice and learning communities provide: tapping and leveraging intellectual capital across the community—from members, staff, thought leaders, research; aggregating, reconfiguring and transforming it into new knowledge products and sources of value.

The Potential

PatientsLikeMe , for example,
“…has taken information synthesis to a new level. For its growing ALS population (some 10% of newly diagnosed ALS patients are members), the site has aggregated patient-reported data heretofore inaccessible to the general public.

Within months—rather than the years that formal studies can take—members had collected and shared data submitted by hundreds of lithium-taking ALS patients. The community’s findings have thus far not substantiated the earlier study, perhaps saving other sufferers from pinning false hopes on a single report whose results have not been replicated.”

The mind shift you must make is in considering members co-creators rather than only consumers and identifying value in sources beyond products, programs, services and benefits.

Information filtering. For content to be of value there must be a mechanism for vetting it and extracting the best out of a whole. VIN, for example, assigns a specialist manager/content experts in each of the specialty member sub communities whose job is to moderate, research, edit and vet content. Sermo has a powerful filtering system:

Sermo has one of the most robust filtering mechanisms we’ve ever seen. Doctors who write a new post on Sermo, often about a puzzling case, can append a poll question seeking input from other doctors. Members can filter contributions by time, author name, quality rating, specialty, or keywords relating to conditions, symptoms, treatments, and so forth. Thus doctors prospecting for interesting cases can readily find ones that match their expertise, and those seeking advice can quickly attract the most relevant contributors. Physicians have even used Sermo in the ER to gather input from a quorum of experts to decide on the spot how to treat acute cases.”

Instead of being the sole producer of products and services your role now is to aggregate, facilitate, filter and constantly convert one type of value into another.
Creating and facilitating value-generating, purposeful communities is the basis for the next phase of membership. Your members value being doers far more than being recipients. They want to do things themselves to arrive at an outcome; solve a problem collaboratively, ask and answer questions, achieve a shared goal together with peers, discover and test a new application, contribute to shared intellectual capital.  

The new role of associations and knowledge service organizations is to create and facilitate communities that enable this form of collaborative value creation, rather than come up with the perfect product.