While catching up on my reading last week, I spotted this opening sentence in a Pando Daily article:

“In the fourth part of our totally unofficial, accidental series on how vertical professional social networks are changing the way industries work, we bring you…healthcare.”

After going down that rabbit hole, I saw this headline from the Washington Post:

“Large companies need to disrupt themselves or be disrupted.”

Message received. Loud and clear. I pulled up an old file with random notes about online communities and started researching.

Something big is happening in the world of professional communities – the world that associations are used to dominating – and I can’t ignore it. And neither can you.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Association consultant Anna Caraveli has written about the online, for-profit Veterinary Information Network (VIN) here and here. Unlike VIN, the communities I’m going to discuss here are free, bigger and well-funded.

Meet the cast of new community players.

These online communities started as social networks, but have morphed into platforms that not only offer networking, education and information, but also indispensable tools that help their members do their jobs more easily and effectively than ever before.

Did I mention they’re free? And why not be free when venture capitalists are knocking on your door.

  • ResearchGate, a community of four million scientists and researchers, received $35 million in its latest round of funding.
  • Doximity, with $82 million in funding, has more members than the American Medical Association. A third of the nation’s doctors are members now, and the company says half of U.S. physicians will be members by this summer.
  • Spiceworks, a community of five million IT professionals, has $111 million in funding.
  • uTest has 100,000 app tester members and $81 million in funding.
  • GrabCAD, a community of 1.25 million mechanical engineers, has $14 million in funding.

These professional communities offer many of the same benefits that have long been part of the association experience – networking, education and information. But investors like Ben Boyer, Managing Director of Tenaya Capital, are flocking to them for another reason. “With each of these businesses, the commonality that we found was the successful ones created a ton of utility upfront,” he says.

Provide indispensable tools that help members at work.

First, you have to identify what that time-saving or, in the case of Doximity, life-saving utility will be. Doximity founder and CEO, Jeff Tangney, said, “Some of our best ideas have come from just listening to doctors talk over dinner.” That feedback combined with split testing led them to design a HIPAA-compatible secure email and e-fax system. Member doctors receive emails and faxes of medical records, referrals and information on their mobile device.

Another benefit is the “Login with Doximity” button that makes it easier for members to verify and credential themselves with 75 health service websites and apps.

Spiceworks provides a network management tool that helps their members not only manage and monitor their IT network, but also help desk requests, mobile devices, cloud services and more. GitHub’s gigantic code repository allows developers to get helpful code contributions, track changes and collaborate on projects.

Instead of having to rely on costly proprietary CAD software, the members of GrabCAD have access to Workbench, a collaborative product development tool that makes it easy for them to manage and share files, upload and download models from a free library, and collaborate with others on projects.

One of the biggest problems in science, according to ResearchGate founder Ijad Madisch, is research redundancy – scientists waste time doing the same experiments over and over because the results of failed experiments are not published. ResearchGate members are encouraged to upload all data sets – those that succeed and fail – so others can learn from their work.

Highlight and boost careers.

By giving members a platform to enhance their reputation, earn money on the side and move their career forward, these new communities are building loyalty and numbers.

On ResearchGate, members make their research visible by uploading their data sets and publications. They get stats about views, downloads and citations of their research. The company is working on a reputation system similar to Klout that will rank members based on their project reviews and community activity.

Doximity’s recruiting tool, Talent Finder, outperforms LinkedIn by forcing recruiters to provide more comprehensive information about jobs, including salary ranges. Members have access to compensation trends in their area and specialty and hospital ranking surveys.

At Spiceworks, members create portfolios to showcase their IT projects. Spiceworks and uTest members have opportunities to earn money by testing and providing feedback on IT products and apps. At GrabCAD, companies like GE offer prizes to winners of members-only crowdsourced challenges.

That’s not all. Next week, I’ll show how these new communities are also providing traditional association benefits, like education, information and networking, taking on the mission to move their industries forward, and making some nice revenue in the process.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who wishes ‘disruption’ wasn’t such a dirty word.