Skip to content

Is an online community really the brass ring you are seeking?

February 14, 2015

We’re flipping the #hccmty panel. All 4 panelists will be presenting their ideas and sparking conversations on this blog so that the on-stage event at the February 25 #hccmty meetup will be but one more link in the chain, not the start or end point. This is the first in the series of 4 posts. Read more about the panel topic.

By Colin Hung (@Colin_Hung)

headshot Colin HungBack in 2010 as I was debating whether or not to take the plunge into Twitter. So I did what millions of other people had done before, I Googled “social media” and started reading about it. Amongst the many articles that I found, I remember seeing quite a few on how it was important for individuals and organizations to build “online communities”.

At the time, many of the articles mentioned how social media platforms made building an online community easier than ever. Taken as a whole, these articles and blog posts helped to bolster the allure of communities and for many it became the sole reason for “doing something” with social media. Companies especially rushed to hire community managers to help them join Twitter, Facebook and other such platforms in an effort to build a loyal following fans – presumably so that they could then sell more products to.

Online communities had become a “brass ring” for organizations and individuals. Although building a community is laudable, should it really be the crowning achievement of your online efforts? Is it truly the online marker of success? I say phooey (yep, dating myself with that statement). There are many ways to be successful through social media – building a community is just one of them. Don’t get caught up reaching for this brass ring just because it seems like the thing to do.

As co-founder and moderator for #hcldr – an online community centered around healthcare leadership – I often get asked to share tips on how we have managed to achieve success. I always answer these requests the same way: “I’m happy to share, but before we get there, can you help me understand why you want to create a community in the first place?” About 50% of the time I get a blank stare as a response. To break the awkward silence I offer the following clarification:

“Building an online community sounds great, but is it actually aligned with YOUR goals? Also, what would a member of this potential community get out of being involved?”

At this point I usually get asked if I have time for a quick coffee to discuss this further. What ensues is a deep exploration into the motivations, intended audience and expectations of the would-be-community-builder.

For me, understanding (a) the motivation to build an online community and (b) what’s in it for the intended community audience is the key to deciding whether or not a community is the right goal.

Are you thinking about building a community because you want to:

  • Motivate people to take a specific action?
  • Bring attention to a topic?
  • Educate/share information?
  • Engage people in regular meaningful discourse?
  • Crowdsource ideas?
  • Sell stuff?

Equally important, put yourself in the shoes of a member of the community you want to build and think about what they would get out of being an active member. Basically what’s in it for them?

  • Prestige?
  • More Business?
  • Education?
  • Networking?
  • Enjoyment/Entertainment?

If the answer to either of these questions is unclear in the mind of the person I’m having coffee with, I politely encourage them to spend more time thinking it through. If the person has clear responses to both questions then I spend time brainstorming ten other ways to achieve the same thing that don’t involve building a community.

In one such conversation, I learned that a gentleman wanted to start an online community was because he felt there wasn’t enough attention being paid to a particular area of medical research in his home country. He felt that by creating a Facebook community he could highlight the inadequacy and potentially attract research funding. His goal was clear. However, when I asked him what a member of this potential community would get out of being involved, he couldn’t answer.

After more conversation (and some gentle nudging) we arrived at the conclusion that perhaps a blog on LinkedIn or on a private site would be an easier and more effective way to achieve his goal. We also did a quick search on Twitter and found an existing online community (centered on a particular hashtag) where people interested in that area of medical research where sharing ideas, insights and testing methodologies.

So if creating a community doesn’t turn out to be a viable end-state, what are some alternatives? Here are some to consider:

  • An in-person seminar
  • A webinar
  • A special breakout session or social event at conference
  • A blog of your own
  • Guest posts on other blog sites
  • Being a guest moderator/host on an established online community
  • An eBook

So, is an online community really the brass ring you are seeking? When did you opt for something other than community?

Panelist blogs

11 Comments leave one →
  1. primath permalink
    February 23, 2015 10:52 am

    Reblogged this on Social Media Lab and commented:
    Also, check out our paper on this topic at

    § Gruzd, A. & Haythornthwaite, C. (2013). Enabling community through social media. Journal of Medical Internet Research 15(10):e248. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2796. PubMed PMID: 24176835.


  2. Shirley Williams permalink
    February 23, 2015 4:07 pm

    In addition to the reason for building a community, I wonder how community managers and founders measure community success.


    • February 23, 2015 10:08 pm

      I think the metrics vary depending on the type of community. For #hcldr we look at the # of new contributors to the weekly tweetchats, the # of participants each week and the # of times the hashtag is used outside of the regular weekly chat time. This gives us an indication of whether the community is growing and how active the members are.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Christina Lizaso permalink
    February 25, 2015 10:56 am

    After the first two key questions posed in this blog and then as mentioned thinking about the ways other than community you could meet those needs, I’d say the next vital question is something along the lines of “To sustain the community, do you have 1) on-going resources and 2) a commitment from all levels.” Involving members of “the community” – i.e. people – in your work can yield great benefits but it does take time and energy. You have to be realistic about your resources and how much you value having a community before you jump in.



  1. Five key components to building an online community for physicians | Colleen Young
  2. Don’t Knock the Nudge: Moving from online community engagement to real-life behaviour change in health | Colleen Young
  3. Building Online Community in Health: Blockbuster #hcsmca-#hcldr-#eRounds Toronto Meetup | Colleen Young
  4. The Nature of Online Communities | hcldr
  5. “Is anyone there?” – Is your online community a ghost town? | Colleen Young
  6. #hccmty Event – Program Details and Livestream Wed Feb 25th, 2015 – Toronto | Colleen Young
  7. Healthcare Leader #HCLDR Colin Hung - Get Social Health

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: