Community, Innovation, Member/Customer Engagement

How to Create and Leverage Online Communities and Why

New Criteria for Value

Worrying about the costs and technical requirements of an online community or about coming up with a perfect “social media strategy” are not great starting points. Let’s start with the why: why should you build communities at all? To what purpose? After all, there is little point in using social media without understanding and leveraging the unprecedented new capabilities they offer. An article in the Harvard Business Review points to four key capabilities that online communities afford you, namely to:

  • Promote deep relationships

  • Allow fast organization

  • Improve the creation and synthesis of knowledge, and

  • Permit better filtering of information


What exactly does this mean for your organization? It means that you will be able to provide some of the highest sources of value for today’s consumers: speed, interaction, collaboration, co-creation and customization (including information filtering, aggregation and curation). The opportunity is to make such capabilities central to the way you engage and deliver value to your members, rather than a side activity; to connect with customers on terms that they, and not your association, value and operate in.

Despite the claim made by many association executives that “today people just don’t care to join,” successful and transformative market leaders have thrived by using dynamic, online membership communities as the basis of their entire businesses model.

By joining Amazon, e-bay or LinkedIn, for example, we buy into a community rather than purchase individual products and benefits. On entering these community platforms, we can make informed choices by consulting customer reviews; give and get advice in real time; buy and sell in a different way– in a global marketplace where we can also set up our own shops; avoid hassles or get to a destination faster than our competitors. We don’t just purchase products or get discounts. We are helped to find solutions.

Most of us value being doers far more than being passive users and recipients. We want to do things ourselves like put together our customized menus; test a new application; pick the right people to ask and answer questions; map individual paths for arriving at outcomes. And we like doing all these things with others rather than simply use products or information designed by others—collaborate to solve a problem; contribute to a shared knowledge pool; exchange ideas and opinions; build our own reputation or customer base.

It is difficult to truly engage and become essential to customers today with only transactional, linear, top down models of service delivery.

Yet this is what the conventional association model is geared to do:  deliver value top-down – from the association to members rather than also among members and between members and others in their value network who contribute to their success.

There is a serious disconnect between the pace, perspective and assumptions of conventional, product driven organizations and those of their customers. Adopting collaborative, membership community models will help you bridge this gap, but only if they are leveraged to change the way you engage, create and deliver value rather than as mere add-ons and enhancements.

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Think Differently

A few caveats for making online communities successful and pivots of growth:

  • Change the way you think and do business.  “Remember,” a social media strategist writes; “an online community or social media destination is not just another web site. Engaging with members of your community online may result in new product or service lines, or entirely new approaches to conducting current activities.”

  • Go beyond social interaction to create communities of shared purpose in which participants find solutions and experience concrete outcomes, and benefit flows to both host and members.

  • Think beyond technology features to determine the value you want to deliver and the kind of difference it will make to what matters the most for your members/customers. What kind of outcomes will you deliver to engage and retain them?  And how can you deploy technology to achieve these goals?

Determine your Goals


In determining which technologies to deploy, look for private platforms and tools that enable you to:

  1. Allow members to engage in meaningful relationships—interact, collaborate, share, learn– and solve their top-of-mind problems.

  2. Create flexible configurations of sub communities and build relationship networks and networks within networks that can go beyond your membership

  3. Structure interactions so that they constantly create new value for their members, for example by employing community managers or moderators to facilitate problem-solving; vet and manage content creation and sharing so that insights and solutions discussed by members are stored and made searchable; and new solutions and improvements are added, constantly updating content. Unlike products with short shelve lives, enabling continuous feedback and value loops are continuous and have no expiration date.

  4. Allow members to “do” rather than just consume, for example, generate content, give or solicit advice, participate in problem-solving, take leadership roles as content leaders, discussion moderators, community managers, co-product developers etc.

  5. Make speed an important part of your value proposition.  A huge value gap is the enormous disconnect between the slow, elaborate, hierarchical processes for decision-making in conventional organizations and a fast-paced, constantly changing world. Look for tools that allow you to reinvent and fast track processes; quickly mobilize support and get reactions to a new product concept; deliver in time information etc.

  6. Tap and leverage member-generated capital—your most important asset: relationships, insightful conversations among them, collaborative research or solutions, ideas or expertise. Look for tools that allow you to aggregate, reconfigure and convert this capital into new knowledge products, relationships and other sources of value.  Use technology to include members in new product design and pilot test through feedback and/or small online, demonstration member communities.

  7. Provide customization: For example, allowing members to access research data and information on multiple levels, depending on individual needs—from brief overviews to detailed analysis from multiple sources

The future of membership is in facilitating relationships with and among members and enabling strategic solutions to customer problems rather than only delivering programs and benefits. The new role of associations is to create and facilitate communities that enable this form of collaborative value creation, rather than come up with the perfect product.

Read more about the future of membership; and making member communities the core of your business model