Why Online Community is About More Than Community for Associations

There’s been a flurry of attention over a recent Associations Now story about how Doximity, a private online community for physicians, is outpacing the AMA in terms of membership. I started to reply to one of the comments in the original story, but then my response got so long I figured I should just write a blog post about it. Then, today, Associations Now ran another story about how membership is more than just about numbers--which it is--and how online communities for associations only make sense if networking and exchanging knowledge with others in the same profession/industry is part of the association’s mission. The thing is, online community is about much more than networking, as Doxmity and other similar professional communities illustrate.

While obviously Doximity won't replace the AMA, it does showcase a vulnerability that's real for associations: online community is big business these days. Really big business for Doximity, whose current estimated value is $80 million. Still think online community is just about conversations?

I think the Doximity discussion is about much more than online community; it’s about how start-ups are recognizing that associations are falling behind in ways that are leaving a lot of potential revenue on the table and it’s pretty easy to build a business based just on gathering that low-hanging fruit. In his article today, Joe Rominiecki says “sometimes it’s wiser to let someone else take the lead,” referring to online community. But is it really wiser to let someone else own your members’ attention by doing online community right, then watch them erode your other sources of revenue as well? Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper and smarter to recognize that connecting to each other in an online community that is well managed and accessible anywhere, anytime is something that professionals across basically all industries probably want, rather than pretending it’s not and letting someone else own that?

The issue is larger than just online community; what starts as an online community can grow to encompass more and more traditional association territory. Just looking at Doximity, for instance, you can see it’s about more than just online community. They offer CME. They have partners, and job board and a service called Expert finder. All of these things are revenue sources, and if Doximity offers a larger, more engaged online audience than AMA does, doesn’t that represent at least potential lost revenue to AMA beyond just member dollars? If physicians can get free CME from Doximity, isn’t that lost revenue for AMA? Ditto the job board, advertising and other revenue opportunities in which now AMA has to compete with Doximity?

And not just Doximity--remember the $10,000 online community I wrote about a few years ago? They offer face-to-face events, member calls, discussion groups and “concierge level member care.” All included in the membership cost. And their marketing specifically showcases what they offer that traditional associations don’t:

You’ve already got research, trade associations, vendors, and agencies — but what you’re missing is the been-there, done-that experience from peers. People like you. With real answers. All without ever trying to sell you anything.

And, by the way, they also have four community management positions open right now. How many associations have one community manager, let alone four?

Rather than stand by and let for-profits own the online community part of an association's membership, why aren't more associations recognizing this low-hanging fruit and being more proactive about their own online communities? If AMA had a really robust, well-managed online community for members, maybe Doximity wouldn't have been so successful at attracting physicians. Yet even in the face of case after case of for-profit online communities popping up and offering traditional association members something better when it comes to online community and networking 24/7/365 instead of just face-to-face at annual meeting, associations for the most part don't see online community as something worth investing in. The difference in resources and attention given to online community in the for-profit and start-up world and in the association world is night and day. Where most associations have no dedicated staff running their online communities, start-ups often have several community managers and many companies have whole community teams.

Associations are so resistant to the idea of online community being a valuable member benefit, even in the face of stories like Doximity. Maybe it’s time they realized that online community is about much more than just conversations; it’s also, for companies like Doximity and others, about money--something that precious few associations can probably afford to ignore.