Community, Innovation

Online Communities of Purpose

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Build them and they’ll come! 

For decades now, this has been the underlying belief in the institutions that employed me or contracted my services, especially early in my career. Iconic brands such as the Smithsonian or Brookings and prestigious universities were just not used to “hassling” for their business, as they saw it. It was beneath then. Their reputation and history should be enough to bring the world to their doorstep. 

While fiercer competition has changed this attitude, vestiges of this passive relationship model—“we make; you use”–are still rooted in cultures, especially in the case of product-driven, hierarchical organizations. Online communities are not exempt. Many organizations believe that investing in and acquiring new technology tools and platforms should automatically bring results, such as younger members, loyalty and engagement.

The problem is that we live in an interactive, always changing world, demanding constantly fresh and relevant value.  Syncing with these rapidly changing needs is like following a moving target.  It requires being on your toes, poised to re-configure and adapt in a flash.

In his article, “When an Online Community No Longer Works,”  Ernie Smith describes the demise of a hugely popular community, The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), due to such “syncing failure.”  Owned by Amazon, this popular service had been a hub for movie trivia and boasted 250 million users per month.  So why has IMDb just announced that it is shutting down the message boards?  Apparently, numbers alone – even if they are in the millions—cannot shield you from obsolescence.  Smith’s assessment points to the failure to keep up and the lack of foresight lo use moderators to keep the content focused and purposeful:

…it likely had failed to invest in the comment platform, neither updating it to modern standards (it looks like a message board you might have used in 2003) nor investing in the level of moderation necessary to keep a board like this running.

Smith also suggests the need for enabling users to get specific outcomes:

If you don’t pay people to moderate and lead the community, or create technical solutions that help users self-moderate, it’s going to eventually look like a dumpster fire in the wrong light, even if there’s plenty of signal there that’s worth saving.

Tools for solving the problems that most matter to you and deliberate paths to outcomes have superior value to the simple delivery of information or aggregation of users.  It is in part what differentiates a personal social network from a business or professional community that someone is willing to pay to participate in.

The Community Roundtable (TheCR)  is a membership organization whose members are community, social media and social business leaders.  Instead of simply bringing these members together on the same platform, TheCR has succeeded in converting them into a purpose-driven community of partners who collaborate on solutions to problems, critical to their success.  And it has done this by stretching “moderation” beyond facilitation of online conversation to the facilitation of solutions and targeted community and relationship-building.

TheCR’s greatest source of sustainable value and engagement is its ability to identify shared challenges with its members and partner with them on solutions that benefit both parties.   This requires a deep level of understanding of each member and the kind of connections among these members that would enable innovation and problem-solving.

TheCR actively facilitates relationships conducive to results by introducing members with shared problems or goals to each other, by creating provocative dialogues between member groups and thought leaders, and by engaging members in solution-oriented collaborations and conversations in which they constantly learn from each other and apply what they’re learning.


According to TheCR Community Manager Hillary Boucher: 

 “We are constantly helping members collide from different functions and industries. It is this collision that brings some of the best ideas. The most valuable way to engage is by building relationships between members of organizations and between members and the association or service provider.”

 Because TheCR’s membership includes people from different industries and those with different roles within the same organization who rarely, if ever, have opportunities to talk to each other, TheCR often enables peer-to-peer, cross-industry problem solving. For this and other cases on member engagement, click here.

TheCR also cultivates, develops, and engages members in leadership roles and invites them to be co-creators. For example, instead of delegating research to a separate function or entity, it uses its members’ practices, experiences, and knowledge, gleaned from targeted discussions, regular roundtable talks, and formal research projects, as key sources of insight into the profession.

In short, it is not enough to congregate people on a shared online platform. The more you help them use the platform and the relationships and ideas it engenders to bring about results that they could not create outside the community, the more value you generate for them.