For years, we’ve been talking about disruptions caused by Web 2.0 or whatever version of the Web we’re on now. However, it’s not LinkedIn or Facebook you need to worry about. Check out Part 1 of this series for an introduction to the new, for-profit, online communities like Doximity and ResearchGate that are changing the way their members work.

An alternative source for information and education

These new communities focus first on providing indispensable tools to their members – tools that save time, money and, in the case of doctors, lives. They also give their members a platform to enhance their reputations and move their careers forward.

Like traditional associations, these communities are a source of news, information and education. Doximity partners with medical institutions to offer online courses so members can earn and track continuing medical education credits. Members have access to specialty forums and receive Google-like alerts for new academic articles as well as personalized reading and research recommendations.

Other communities like Spiceworks, uTest and GrabCAD offer online courses, webinars, videos, tutorials, best practices, product reviews, vendor ratings and other resources. At ResearchGate, because members upload their own data and publications, members can connect with authors to ask questions.

Collaborating to solve problems

“The big problem GitHub solves is about collaboration, not software,” said software developer Vijith Assar. Collaboration is built into the DNA of these new communities – it’s their reason for existence.

ResearchGate was born because its founder, Ijad Madisch, had trouble finding someone to help him solve a research issue. The company’s mission is “to connect researchers and make it easy for them to share, discover, use and distribute findings.” Now, scientists around the world use ResearchGate to connect to others doing similar research, share data and learn from each other.

Doximity members use it to reconnect with former colleagues and find specialists for referrals. All of these communities have forums where members connect, have discussions, ask and answer questions, and, most importantly, collaborate.

Mission to move the industry forward

None of these communities appear to lobby, establish standards or grant certification like traditional associations, but in other ways they behave like mission-oriented organizations.

ResearchGate is helping to “make breakthroughs much faster and debunk research that’s wrong” with its Open Review feature — an open discussion of scientific research that recently helped debunk a major stem cell study. It’s “harnessing the power of the academic masses to further scientific discovery.”

Founder Madisch says ResearchGate is “becoming a platform where others can develop applications in order to increase productivity among scientists on a worldwide scale.” He believes ResearchGate could win the Nobel Prize one day because “if we’re changing the whole way scientists communicate and getting more transparency into the scientific world, we will accelerate and change how scientific breakthrough is happening.”

Founder and CEO of Doximity, Jeff Tangney says, “We believe we can further the wisdom of medicine, both collectively (new treatments) and collaboratively (patient-level).” These communities can afford to set high goals for themselves thanks to the millions invested in them — more than $100 million each for GitHub and Spiceworks.

Mission to also make a big profit for investors

The funding is generous because investors expect a hefty return. “They’re big money generators because they deliver a targeted audience up to advertisers looking to market their wares,” says reporter Carmel DeAmicis.

They’re monetizing in other ways besides advertising.

  • Job search and recruitment. ResearchGate, the largest scientific job board in the world, charges for its premium level. Hospitals and recruiters pay Doximity an average of $24,000 to $36,000 in fees per year.
  • Member services. Doximity members pay a fee for sending extremely large patient files. Most members use the premium level of GrabCAD’s popular platform, Workbench.
  • Marketplace middleman. ResearchGate provides a marketplace for scientific products and scientific services. Doximity takes a cut for honoraria or consultations they arrange for members, and Spiceworks takes a cut when members beta test products for IT companies. GrabCAD has a revenue-sharing arrangement with companies that develop tools for Workbench. It also charges companies who want to offer crowdsourced challenges.

Like associations, these communities are carefully navigating the revenue side of their business so members don’t feel spammed or exploited.

Considering the inroads these communities have made into traditional association territory, do associations need to reinvent themselves, or just make adjustments?

Technology entrepreneur, Vivek Wadhwa said, “Companies under pressure from technological change need for their CEOs to be visionaries who can see the big picture and cause change, company wide.” CEO Marc Benioff added, “You have to be the leader, you have to take responsibility for all the operational and visionary aspects.”

But in the association world, CEOs can’t do this work alone. Volunteer leaders must also be visionary and strategic thinkers who take a more creative approach to revenue. If that happens, associations will be positioned to create communities that are indispensable to members, just like their for-profit competitors.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer and copywriter who hopes associations will be inspired, not threatened, by their for-profit competition.