Membership is not Community

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Gated Communuty

Community in Business and Organizations: Part 1 of a 4

I’ve been enjoying the Community Roundtable report State of Community Management; best practices by practitioners. You don’t want to miss this report if you’re interested in community management and how social/digital, online communities are transforming business and organizational life.

As I’ve reviewed the study I’ve found myself thinking outside of the ‘online community’ box to what I’ll refer to as ‘community’ leadership. A way of being, seeing, leading and organizing that I believe is the key to growing movements, tribes and teams.

Membership is not Community.

Memberships are exclusive, often based on status. The act of becoming ‘a member’ itself does not guarantee community. In the old days, we had to make a financial commitment before we could engage, be a part of, learn or have access to the ‘community.’ With the advent of online communities and open source technology, access has forever changed. Now at a mere click of a mouse I have access to unlimited knowledge, resources and real invitations to communities.

Think about gated communities, country clubs and small elite colleges. These are bastions of exclusivity and models of the old school membership mindset; pay, climb the fence, prove yourself and then access MAY be granted. If you can scale the SAT, write the check or navigate the network you might just earn ACCESS.

Social/digital/internet and open source technology have transformed the definition of access, membership and community.

Game on.

You get it- right?

Staying with an old school, limit access, deny benefits until after someone cuts off their right arm , scales the membership walls or better yet pays dues is so 20th century. It doesn’t sync up with the new COMMUNITY paradigm. And don’t by any means assume I am saying community is engagement. And I’m not saying that joining or belonging is un-community like. I contend that membership alone is not proof of community. Community is much more complex, rich and valuable than mere membership!

Communities are open, not just transparent and they’re flexible and dynamic. Certainly they have boundaries; formed around a common idea, basic beliefs, a cause, like, dislike, purpose, vision and passions they define their selves by what they believe.

Community includes. Community expands.

Community invites participation and engagement and allows for value transactions to be navigated and chosen along the individuals engagement process by the individual not by the organization or group.

Did you know you can watch the world’s greatest minds anytime of the day over at Ted talks and that Youtube- education now has over 300 colleges online? Access is creating and building communities.

Today people are choosing which communities to align with and disqualifying THEMSELVES from memberships and affiliations that aren’t congruent with who they are and what they believe in. Online communities swell as individuals ‘opt in’ And opting in , joining is just the beginning- it is the first step of engagement and participation.

Look around; is your team, organization, business open? Is it easy to engage and participate with you? Are their few if any barriers to entry for those who want to be a part of what you’re doing? Are there value added transactions available after I opt in, is the community experience entirely customizable for me? Can I design and customize my participation and engagement in the community to fit my needs and wants? Can I purchase, engage with value added products and services within the community? Is the community designed for engagement? Does it add so much value I can’t help but coming back for more and more and enriching the community with my investments of time, money and resources?

Membership it’s not Community and for that matter Community…it’s not what it use to be.

Pam Hoelzle.

425 218 5864

Phot credit: Uploaded to Flickr on June 9, 2005
by Dean Terry

No Responses to “Membership is not Community”

  1. Peter Chee

    Community certainly means different things to people. While joining various communities that are open and free to participate might drive a lot of people there initially, I wonder what the churn rate is for those that join something free. How long do they stick around and continue to participate versus those various communities where you have to pay to be a part of?

    • Pam Hoelzle


      Great question. Recently I’ve found some membership based businesses and organizations making assumptions that I believe might lead to their irrelevancy. Membership alone is not community. Joining does not assure engagement, participation, value ….Community is much more complex than membership; the act of joining and becoming a part of. That said, I absolutely believe sustainable communities will provide products and services that they charge for. In no way am I saying community is a ‘freebie.’ Nor am I saying if you charge for something it’s membership and if it’s free its a community. Sustainability will be based on the value given and received. Clay Shirky at this years SXSW conference had a great quote, “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.” In some ways I see membership as a scarcity model and communities as an abundance model as it is richer with greater opportunities for innovative value to be both given and received. You have an incredible community in the making I look forward to your thoughts on the Community Roundtable Managment report. Onward light one!

  2. Ethan Yarbrough

    I think this is a very important point about community: “Community invites participation and engagement and allows for value transactions to be navigated and chosen along the individuals engagement process by the individual not by the organization or group”

    “Participation” and “engagement” and the definition of “value” will be different for every member of the community. Studies I’ve seen show that most people who join online communities listen more than they speak. They get value out of the coming together of people, but they don’t offer a lot to the conversation. Is that adequate participation? If you’re building a community, you may be doing it to try to deliver value to those who join. But what should your expectation be for their level of participation and contribution?

  3. Rachel Happe

    Hi Pam –

    Because of some bad filtering I’m just seeing this – thanks for pointing to the report and sharing your thoughts on how it’s changing your thinking.

    I actually think that communities can be open or closed but I think you are right that membership is not sufficient for a collection of people to be a community. Open and closed communities serve different needs to me and in some cases, having a hurdle to entrance can be a good thing – the members of the community are likely to be more committed. It doesn’t follow that the hurdle has to be a monetary or test-based hurdle but a hurdle will cause only those really interested/committed to self-selecting. Of course on the other end, open communities have the potential to grow and scale much more quickly so – all depends on what the community creator is looking to achieve.

  4. Pam Hoelzle

    Rachel and Ethan thanks for joining the converssation. Rachel your report and findings are so powerful and there is so much information! Congratulations. I’d love to connect with you and learn more about the Community Roundtable and how I might further spread the word! Ethan – I love how you see the heart of the matter and that is that the individual tribe, team, movement, community member is looking to have their wants and needs fulfilled and to achieve the end in mind we must design communities on and off line for individuals and the end users should be intimately involved in design and continual and never ending innovation.