Looking Beyond the Membership Numbers

The rise of a third-party online community for doctors could be viewed as a cautionary tale for associations—or, instead, a reminder that a membership count isn't the only measure of success.

Last week here at Associations Now, we shared the story of Doxmity, an online community for healthcare professionals, which now has more than 250,000 members. That’s more members than the American Medical Association, with about 225,000.

It’s a headline if there ever was one, both for the association community and the venture capital audience, where the story first popped up. Several association professionals shared their thoughts, in the comments here at AN, on ASAE’s Collaborate discussion forum [login required], and at last week’s “Association of the Future” event hosted by National Association of Manufacturers’ Council of Manufacturing Associations. The core point of debate seems to be “Should associations be afraid of being surpassed by competing online communities?”

If a separate organization builds a product or service that improves your industry, isn’t that still a step toward your mission?

Let’s step back, though, to ask a different question: Do free online community members count the same as paid association members? The answer depends on what exactly an organization is doing with those members and what those members are doing. In other words, it depends on your mission.

If connecting your members to each other for knowledge sharing and networking fulfills at least one part of your association’s mission, then you probably ought to be building or facilitating some sort of online community or be worried that someone else will. Surely, for a great number of associations this applies. But for some associations, online community is outside their core mission and may be best left to others to build.

This seems to be the case for AMA. It has a rather tightly focused strategy, and I don’t see where building an online community directly fits in. In fact, Doximity is not even the first large online community to arise in the healthcare industry. Sermo has been at it for a while, too, and counts more than 200,000 members. Both of these networks have become successful by mostly keeping a narrow focus on peer-to-peer connection; neither, however, has branched out into advocacy, research, or public-health initiatives. So, are they truly competition for AMA?

Competition is a funny word for associations, anyway. It’s easy to misread competition if you’re focused on membership numbers alone. Think of it this way: If a separate organization builds a product or service that improves your industry, isn’t that still a step toward your mission? Does it matter if your association didn’t build it? In AMA’s case, if Doxmity and Sermo both prove to advance the quality of healthcare in the United States, shouldn’t AMA be happy about that? And rather than seeing Doximity and Sermo as competition, couldn’t they both be viewed as potential partners? (In that regard, AMA may be perhaps lucky that its profession is large enough to give rise to robust, well-funded, and well-organized community platforms. Associations in other industries may instead be faced with the choice of either trying to coordinate many smaller, dispersed, self-organizing groups or building community platforms themselves.)

This is all to say that the number of members in any group—association or online community—is less important than what that number enables, because mission comes first. That can be easy to forget when looking at an example like this. The growth of Doxmity shows what’s possible in the business of connecting people with each other around a shared interest or profession, but it’s not undeniable proof that every association should be building its own online community. Instead, I see it as a reminder that there are multiple paths for an association to pursue its mission. Sometimes that path will involve building out a new benefit to attract members. And sometimes it’s wiser to let someone else take the lead.

Where does online community fit into your association’s mission? Have you built your own or worked with communities that have grown elsewhere? How does the AMA/Doximity example compare to the landscape in your industry? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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